Dracula the Un-Dead
Written by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt
Published by Penguin Group, 2009
This is a gothic melodrama with modern trimmings, and it’s a lot of fun if you like your horror with good historical detail, moderate carnage, and intense passions complicating both life and death. It is the sort of book Stephen King refers to in his analysis of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story: “Most gothics are overplotted novels whose success or failure hinges on the author’s ability to make you believe in the characters and partake of the mood. Straub succeeds winningly at this, and the novel’s machinery runs well (although it is extremely loud machinery; as already pointed out, that is also one of the great attractions of the gothicit’s PRETTY GODDAM LOUD!).” Dracula the Un-Dead is indeed pretty loud.
The situation is simple enough in its bare bones. Dracula the Un-Dead takes place in 1912, a quarter-century after the events described in Dracula. Bram Stoker is here as a character along with the Harkers, Seward, Holmwood, and Van Helsing, and we learn that one of the original’s principals provided him with the collection of transcripts that comprises the original book for…quite interesting reasons I won’t spoil. Stoker was misinformed in a few places and took some dramatic liberties in others, giving Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt the narrative maneuvering room to work the changes they wish to the material they’ve inherited.
This sequel does several things just right. First of all, it’s quite good in evoking life in 1912, and life through the turn of the century as a continuing experience of changes big and small, good and bad. Mina and Jonathan Harker’s son Quincey, a college-age boy, has different expectations of the world than his parents, and the clash is laid out well. So are the myriad consequences of technological change to public and private life. There’s a delightful sequence early on with a desperate heavier-than-air plane’s dash across much of the length of France, good use of changing communication standards, and on and on. It felt like a slice of dynamic life, rather than a hazy timeliness, and the specificity serves the story well.
Second, there’s very little plot immunity. The book begins with Dr. Seward, his once promising career as medical pioneer and social pillar in ruins, on the trail of the vampire Elizabeth Bathory…and a few chapters later he’s dead, trampled by Bathory’s carriage horses. Other main characters also meet abrupt ends, ones that nearly all struck me as entirely appropriate given the undead schemers they face. There are some really satisfying cliffhangers. There are a handful that struck me as a bit too much in the vein of the too many “endings” in the film version of Return of the King, but most of them held my attention and resolved honestly. With the level of risk for main characters established early, potential threats take on more weight than is usual for gothic-y adventure.
Third, a particular conceit drives much of the story and delights me no end. One of the characters new to this sequel is a police officer who’d been a junior member of the hunt for the Jack the Ripper, and who’s sure he’s got his man. He’s looking for an outsider to London, someone with substantial insight into the human body, and a willingness to do exotic, terrible things when he deems them necessary. Inspector Cotford is, in short, convinced that Jack the Ripper was Van Helsing, and is out to bring the master murderer and his bloody acolytes to justice.
Three relationships anchor the story: Bathory’s centuries-long struggle to the final death with Dracula, Jonathan and Mina Harker’s difficult relationship with their son Quincey, and a knot of love and desire tangling Mina, Jonathan, and Dracula.
Of these, the Harker family struggle is most thoroughly successful. Quincey is young, talented, smart, privileged more than he realizes, and prone to the sort of hasty leaps of action and judgment to which lots of young men are prone. He’s an interesting character. So are his parents. The treatment of Jonathan is perhaps the most nuanced in the book, in that he’s got some big deep flaws, but also some strengths that tragedy buries.
The Mina/Jonathan/Dracula triangle is interesting, and fairly successful. Having drunk some of Dracula’s blood, Mina is blessed and/or cursed with prolonged youth and vitality. Stoker and Holt follow the path taken by several relatively recent riffs on the story and say that Mina was indeed intimate with Dracula, though precisely how much and what sort of sex was involved we don’t learn. (This is a book with some moments suitable for heavy breathing but is less explicit about its sex than its murders.) Jonathan loves her deeply, but this is the sort of thing that’s hard for anyone to deal with, and is an ongoing strain in their marriage.
One of my favorite themes in horror stories is that contact with the supernatural blights the life of its victims, that there is no safe zone within which you can brush up against things that ought not be and emerge intact. Every surviving member of the original alliance against Dracula is suffering, and trying to deal with it less than wholly successfully. In its best moments Dracula the Un-Dead does arouse pity as well as horror, and most fully in the case of Jonathan Harker, who’d like so much to do the right thing and be the right sort of person, but who has trouble understanding what any of that might even be thanks to the supernatural incursions into his life, let alone actually acting on a good understanding.
The relationship between Bathory and Dracula has some very satisfying aspects, and one big problem. Dracula is portrayed here as a creature utterly convinced of his own righteousness. He was God’s chosen warrior against the Turks in life, and being undead hasn’t made him any less an instrument of God’s justice against all who refuse to submit. Bathory was the victim of men like Dracula in life, and her mission as undead is to bring down them and all their works, and Dracula and his in particular. Their tangled history unfolds in well-paced flashbacks, each with its own “aha” moment up until their final confrontation. Her hunger for revenge rang true to me, as did the extent to which she chooses to be monstrous because of her enmities. Equally satisfying to me is the authors’ suggestion of how deep her own self-deception runs. She tells herself that she’ll be building a world safe for all the other victims of God’s warriors, but it’s clear that in practice she’d end up much like Doctor Dee in an early issue of Sandman, telling Dream that he’d be a just and wise ruler, punishing only those who deserve it, “…or just anyone I don’t like.” Bathory doesn’t have it in her to be anything but a tyrant and a monster, and doesn’t know that. This is classic stuff.
The problem, and this is my biggest problem with the book, comes in the question of just how much righteousness there actually is in Dracula and his actions. It’s not a problem for him to be convinced that the answer is “all of it,” of course. That’s what confident monsters are all about. Nor is it a problem for him to share Bathory’s view of their complete opposition. The problem comes in the reactions of several other characters at different points, and their willingness to treat some of his monstrous actions as more justified than they seem to me. It’s not that the actions themselves are shown in objective terms as good or at least excusable, but that too many of the characters seem to buy readily into the idea that of course God’s champion would be someone much like Dracula, even if he sometimes has his excesses and moments of personal vendetta. At no point does the book put forth anything like a direct claim that, yes, of course the God of this world is someone to whom mercy, prudence, and everything else that isn’t power is irrelevant or worse. But the issue bubbles up at various points, and it’s far from clear to me whether Stoker and Holt intended the ambiguity of it or whether there’s conflicting impulses at work in different parts of the book or what.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed this book. I came at it with few expectations. Sequels by relatives are not reliably delightful, nor are collaborations involving people without visible writing history and screenwriters. This time, however, the results are satisfying.
Bruce Baugh read this book while feeling unusually chilled in Seattle, and has sympathy for the idea that post-mortem chill would make anyone loopy and violent.