Book Review: Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

“Not only influenced by its predecessor, Dracul also shows a knowledge of modern horror and isn’t afraid to show the gorier aspects of the vampire myth.

 

A novel that needs little introduction to horror fans—whether they’ve read it or not—is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. First appearing over 120 years ago in 1897, its popularity only seems to grow as the years pass. It is immensely readable, and has become hugely influential, far beyond anything anyone could imagine considering it wasn’t a massive seller at the time of its release. Yet it has gone on to cast a long shadow over movies, TV shows, music, entire social movements, even children’s cartoons, lunchboxes, cereal etc., and, of course, other books and stories. It’s a novel that continuously draws praise, fascination, and attempts to unravel its fictional elements from the historical parts (much of which is argued wasn’t even intentional on Bram Stoker’s part). And, of course, there have been a number of attempts to expand upon the mythology and characters contained within. Some of these have been successful and/or innovative (Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics by Alan Moore), others less so. One of the more interesting endeavours has been by a relative of Stoker’s, the subject of this review. Not content with penning a direct sequel to the original novel (Dracula: The Un-Dead), Stoker’s great grand-nephew has now written, in collaboration with author J. D. Barker, a sort-of, kind-of fiction meets non-fiction “prequel”; Dracul.

Now, the reason prequel is in italics above, is because this book stars none other than the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker himself. Taking inspiration from Bram Stoker’s childhood and early adulthood, Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker weave in a tale of vampiric threat and creeping horror. Much has been made—by the authors at least—of some intriguing discoveries that led to the creating of this novel. First, there was a diary, purportedly by Bram, which was gathering dust in the drawer of one of the extended family. Translating the handwriting proved illuminating and coupled with in-depth readings of the supposed lost 101 pages, the original preface, and a manuscript with copious notes by the author provide fervent scope for a fresh take on this mythology. So, how do the authors integrate the historical with the fantastic? The novel opens—unlike Dracula—in third person, from the point of view of Bram. He is in a castle tower somewhere, in a room whose walls, floor, and ceiling are covered in mirrors and crosses. Behind a barricaded door something stirs, banging on the door as if to break it down. Bram is clearly in terror of whatever lies on the other side. He uses fresh white roses as some kind of talisman, and is armed with a rifle and a large blade. And while he waits—for what, we don’t yet know—he writes in his journal. This narrative device reoccurs throughout most of the book, and to be honest, though it ties in with later events and provides a skeleton, it is, in the main, un-needed. It’s the diary/letter entries that follow which are the real meat of the book.

Most of these entries are either by Bram, his younger sister Matilda, or his older brother Thornley (the latter two come later when they are adults). The first quarter or so of the book details young Bram’s life when he was a sickly child (from birth till about the age of seven when he made a miraculous recovery). He is alternately looked after by his mother, by Matilda (sometimes a nuisance, but someone he loves deeply), and by their live-in nanny, Ellen Crone. Ellen is a mysterious character, her appearance changing as much as the weather. Yet despite her strangeness, she is beloved by the family, especially Bram and Matilda. And then, one night when Bram’s illness is especially bad, Ellen stays with him through the night and in the morning he appears almost completely recovered. He notes in his journal that he feels the illness not just abated but near-enough gone. This, then, becomes the first of many incidents which set the children on a path of investigation and usher in the plot of the book. Though an attempt has been made to make the writing feel contemporary to the time it is set in, there are many uses of language and words which are far too modern. Yet it is very readable, the prose basic yet compelling. Interactions between young Bram and his little sister, Matilda, are a delight, the dialogue and actions easily visualised. It gives a life and spark to a book that might otherwise feel a little turgid, a little dull. And the authors waste little time in propelling the plot along. The children are the ones who know something is amiss with their nanny. Her strange behaviour, her changing appearance, the inability of Matilda to be able to capture her image in her drawings (Matilda was a budding artist in real life and became somewhat famed in adulthood for her artistic abilities). They sneak into her room one day to discover it covered in dust, seemingly never occupied. That is, until they discover the crate filled with dirt beneath her bed…

Of course, we, as readers, know what Ellen is or might be. There are no surprises there. Yet we don’t know what her intentions are towards the Stoker family, or what her provenance is. This, then, is the power of the book; it manages still to create intrigue, to make us crave more even while we are already armed with information. And it’s a fast-paced romp despite the faux-Victorian style. It rattles along at a great pace, moving from one set-piece to the next, ramping up the terror and dread as it goes. And there are some real grim scenes in the book. Not only influenced by its predecessor, Dracul also shows a knowledge of modern horror and isn’t afraid to show the gorier aspects of the vampire myth. But the influence of Dracula is in no doubt. From the epistolary style to the use of real-life characters as stand-ins for those in Bram Stoker’s original tale (Van Helsing is represented by his real-life counterpart in Arminius Vambéry, arguably the personality he was based on), the shadow of the first book lies heavy. Here, it is Bram not Mina who has a psychic connection to the creature they track. Even the structure is similar; a disparate band of characters come together to fight evil, moving from place to place, country to country. But there is purpose in this. The authors of Dracul are, in part, attempting to suggest that their (largely fictional) version of events was the inspiration for Stoker’s seminal work. Of course, it’s not a match for that book—little could be—but as a rollicking adventure in its own right, it has much to offer.

Dracul might not be destined to light much of a fire in the horror world, but a reader wishing to delve further into the mythology surrounding Dracula, they could do a lot worse. It’s a decent, entertaining work which shines at certain moments and has more than enough atmosphere to carry it through its perceived flaws. Especially now, in these Winter months, when the light goes out of the world and shadows creep closer and closer to our doors and windows. Who knows what’s lurking out there in the dark? Who knows what’s real and what’s purely fictional. Perhaps Bram Stoker did write Dracula as a warning to the world…

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (US), Bantam Press/Penguin Random House (UK).
Hardcover: 512 (pps)
Release Date: 8 October 2018

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