Posted on September 18, 2009 by Monica Valentinelli
Published in 1879, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one of the reasons why I was drawn to the horror genre. Even though it was published in 1879, I felt it was brilliant the way Stoker wove letters and newspaper clippings together to show the now-infamous characters of Jonathan and Mina Harker, Dr. Steward, Arthur Holmwood, Lucy Westerna and (of course) Dracula.
Needless to say, I am not the only one who has enjoyed the book. Reprinted several times in multiple languages, Dracula has been heralded as a literary classic that’s been discussed, dissected and enjoyed. Its story has been made into comics and graphic novels, movies and animated features; its characters have been reused and reinvented so many times that they’ve become iconic.
We have two editions of Dracula sitting on our bookshelves. One is a leather edition and the other is a paperback edition from 2006; acclaimed artist Jae Lee (DARK TOWER, HELLSHOCK) added illustrations to the original text.
So you can imagine my surprise, when “the” sequel to Dracula pops up on our doorstep. As a writer, I can appreciate the amount of pressure that anyone might feel when asked to follow in Dracula’s footsteps. As a reader, my curiosity was definitely aroused. But would I have expected this story from a sequel? One word: “no.”
***Please note: SPOILERS BELOW***
The prologue is a letter from Mina Harker to her son, Quincy; it is also printed artfully on the inside cover. This letter set my expectations for the novel that a) Mina was either dead or was one foot in the grave and b) the novel would focus on their son, Quincy. Within the first seventy-five pages, I was barraged with a series of characters and names from the time period. Jack the Ripper. Elizabeth Bathory. Oscar Wilde. This technique drew me out of the story because, like Dracula, I’ve read, seen and heard about those characters so many times I have a two-dimensional relationship with them. In order for me to get “into” Jack the Ripper’s head, for example, I would need to read a story “just” about Jack and not one what tries to cleverly tie Jack’s murders to Van Helsing. Because of my inability to identify with the characters, their use felt like the writers were “celebrity name-dropping” in order to clue the reader into the time period.
The sheer volume of characters that were introduced (and re-introduced) also distracted me from the story, which is decidedly NOT about Dracula and is focused on an angry lesbian vampiress, Elizabeth Bathory. (Who, as it turns out, was the “real” villainess in Dracula and responsible for his apparent demise.) Before I get to Bathory, let me get back to the other characters. Since DRACULA: THE UN-DEAD takes place twenty-five years after the original, I did expect to read about what has happened to the core characters. BUT (and this is a big “but”) I expected a vastly different narrative. If this story was told from the same letter/newspaper clipping/etc. format, I would have given the book a lot more lee-way. I would have. Because really, writing an entire novel using a series of letters is no small task. This, on the other hand, seemed more speculative than cohesive. It asks a lot of “What if?” questions, based on the assumption that I’m already emotionally attached to these characters.
Remember the Prologue? Imagine my surprise when Mina not only turned up alive but ended up being the protagonist for the book. In DRACULA: the UN-DEAD, Elizabeth Bathory is the true villain to this story and the previous one as well. Hunting down and killing the original members of Dracula’s pursuers, she is brutal and even goes so far as to “rape” Mina. We do see some of her character perspective, which was interesting — but it wasn’t Dracula. The scenes describing horrific acts are written very well, and even though I have a strong dislike for blatant sexual references in horror I can understand why some of the scenes were used. Jonathan Harker’s impotency, the toll on Van Helsing’s body over time, the questions surrounding what had actually happened to Lucy — all of these pieces add up and make sense. However, it is Bathory–not Dracula–who is the true antagonist of this story. Her introduction cheapens the trials the mortal characters have gone through, and the attention to her lesbian nature seemed more “modern” than anything else.
The problem with DRACULA: THE UN-DEAD, is that there are simply way too many new, old and iconic characters to keep track of as you follow the multiple perspectives and plot threads. When Dracula is introduced, he is not re-introduced, he is simply…there. This book had very little focus, and because of that I don’t see this as a “book” persay, but a treatment for a movie that we’ll see in theaters. Sure, it’s a treatment that offers fans a chance to see the characters in action again, to read about things that mean something to them, but this isn’t a sequel to Dracula. If it was–why on earth would you include Bram Stoker as a character in this book?
There is an extensive afterword that explains some of the goals that Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt set out to do. I deeply respect and understand what they were attempting to do and why they were doing it. I am not saying that neither cares about the original work; I’m also not saying that neither has done their research. Also, while I fully acknowledge Dacre’s family relationship to Stoker, I feel that his biology is not a reason to pick up the book.) Yes, I absolutely believe that put together you will never again find two people more well-versed in Stoker’s life and his famous tome. I do believe they care, but in this case — I believe they care too much. I believe that what they wanted was a book that would do all things for all readers, but in this case I feel that their lofty goals fall short. Had they focused their efforts considerably, this would have turned out to be a story that I would have liked because I would have cared about what happens to the characters.
So who would like this book? If you want to pick up DRACULA: THE UN-DEAD, pick it up for an interesting take on the “happily-never-after.” Pick it up because you’re interested in reading a different take on the vampires that aren’t “pretty” but truly monstrous. For on that note, DRACULA: THE UN-DEAD does succeed.
Review by Monica Valentinelli