Friday, October 23, 2009

Dracula The Undead (Review)

Ahead there be spoilers...

Heralded as the "official" sequel to Dracula by Bram Stoker, the novel Dracula the Undead is supposed to be a labor of love by the author's great-great nephew Dacre Stoker and screenwriter Ion Holt. Methinks that part is more-or-less true. Clearly an enormous amount of effort went into this book, including meticulous research. Also, the authors are clearly fans of the genre and include many tiny tribute to Dracula films and productions past and present. Characters named Lee and Langella are the least of it. Lucy Westenra is described throughout as having red hair--a detail solely found in the Francis Ford Coppola film. Many (ultimately unused) names from Stoker's original notes make an appearance, as do historical figures and events ranging from Jack the Ripper to R.M.S. Titanic.

All well and good, but such details in this case are akin to the garnish in a fine meal. What really counts is the quality of the entree, not the cleverness of the table setting.

So how does that stack up?

First of all, from the very start the novel gives mixed signals--at least in terms of the knowledgeable Dracula reader. Beginning as it does with a letter, one naturally expects another epistolary book like the original. That is soon shown to not the case. More, the letter flatly contradicts the lore established by Stoker by promoting as "fact" stuff invented by show business and totally without basis in vampire legend. Let us be fair--Stoker did the same. Bats were not at all associated with the undead prior to his novel. But it jars when the "official sequel" starts by contradicting the first book on almost the first page--claiming vampires burst into flame when touched by sunlight. I wanted an explanation for this. Again, to be fair, one eventually was given--Stoker was told about events and altered details to suit himself. This almost feels right. But if so, one would expect Stoker (a far from unintelligent man) to have changed peoples' names and not otherwise been rather slavishly faithful to all kinds of tiny details. Hence this attempt at explanation (for no better reason, according to an afterword, than adhering to public sentiment) actually leads to a much greater contradiction.

Which in turn is mostly what is wrong with the book as a whole.

Is it a fun read? Yes. Purporting to be the tale of Quincey Harker (son of Jonathan and Mina) twenty-five years after the events of the original, it tells of the young man finally learning the truth about his family's darkest secrets. Along the way we learn what happened to Dr. Seward (a morphine addict, bereft of wife and child and career), Lord Holmwood (a remarkably stuffy recluse with a death wish), Jonathan Harker (no longer successful and seeking refuge from his jealousy in a bottle), Mina Harker (unaging still, in an unhappy marriage), Professor Van Helsing (still hunting vampires, convinced Dracula is somehow still alive). Some of these ideas are intriguing enough. Along the way, we discover a vicious lesbian vampire is on the loose and eager to wage a war against God--none other than Countess Ezebet Bathori.

Again, this is where history gets muddled. The authors go to great lengths to make sure timetables are correct, but repeat a lot of now-discredited rumors about the so-called "Blood Countess." Likewise, they explicitly link Dracula of the novel with Vlad the Impaler, another notion they know doesn't fit the facts (they say as much in the afterword).

So the book is neither one thing nor the other, at least in terms of accuracy (if using that term regarding fiction makes sense).

Another issue I had--answering questions. Even a little bit of serious thought will reveal the novel Dracula is filled with unanswered questions. Some regard relatively mundane matters--how did Lucy and Mina meet, how did Lucy's three suitors come to be such good friends, etc. Others are more genuinely mysterious--what was the connection between Dracula and Renfield, what happened aboard the Demeter, did Lucy die of blood loss or from a botched blood transfusion (actually, I suspect Lucy had AB negative blood--which explains how she rallied after transfusions from four different donors, and gives some real hint of how much of a geek I really am), etc.

This book tries to answer all of them. And more. For that very reason it feels less like an engrossing story and more like the literary equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers landscape.

Much more damning--many of the key characters remain unreal. Quincey Harker, the semi-hero of the novel, comes across as a stereotypical spoiled brat. He is supposed to feel great passion which motivates much of his actions. Not once did I feel myself in his shoes. Likewise Dracula himself (yes, like in all those movies, he came back) never once feels "alive" no matter how much explanation is given for his actions. Of the original band of hunters, Van Helsing in particular seems without reality (although to be fair at least Seward, Holmwood and the Harkers fare much better). And the villain--Countess Bathori--is such a stereotypical lesbian man-hater one feels that if she'd been black she'd eat fried chicken and watermelon, then chase white women while tap-dancing. I am not so doctrinaire vis-a-vis gay rights that I object to a lesbian villain. What offends me is how she not only embodies every fundamentalist's sapphic nightmare but also how she never once comes alive as a person. She's a formula, not a woman--a character description rather than a character.

More, the novel takes itself too seriously yet at the same time not seriously enough. Were it nothing but a roller-coaster of thrills and chills, then judging it as a poor exploration of its own ideas would be silly. But since it does attempt to portray drama, does seem to want to address issues of guilt and redemption, of identity and personal commitment, then it needs to live up to its potential a bit more than this one comes near doing.

All of the above may seem harsh. Honestly, the novel has some very fun and interesting ideas such as Mina's agelessness, a long-overdue police investigation into the events surrounding Lucy Westenra's death, Lord Holmwood's emotional life over time as he contemplated his actions, etc. Methinks it has the potential to turn into a fun motion picture (rather more akin to Van Helsing that Bram Stoker's Dracula). But frankly there are much better Dracula "sequels" out there. And much better books in general. I cannot recommend people spend money on the thing.

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