Friday, December 18, 2009
Belatedly, Dracula The Un-Dead
Before we start, a caveat. Sequels to classic novels, written long after the fact by new writers, annoy me. It's one thing to be influenced by the classics, it's quite another to co-opt settings, characters and atmosphere (the heavy lifting of writing) to bring life to your own derivative plot. It's worst of all when capped by the hubris to claim something is "THE sequel to..." as opposed to "A sequel to..."
I'm a huge fan of Bram Stoker's original novel Dracula. Not a scholar: I leave that to smarter folk. But I read it at least once a year, usually around Halloween, and when I wrote my own vampire novels (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) I referred to it constantly because it's the gold standard.
Which brings me to Dracula: The Un-Dead, released just before Halloween 2009 and touted as THE official sequel.
It seems to be less a follow-up to Bram Stoker's Dracula than to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Coppolla's 1992 bodice-ripping version of the story. For example, the book accepts the film's connection of Renfield to Jonathan Harker's law firm, something the Stoker novel never mentions. Lucy Westernra's hair is described as red, as in the film but never in Stoker. Some descriptions sound like instructions to the CGI crew: "Their eyes turned black; their fangs elongated." In Stoker, no transformation is so blatantly described, which creates an even more powerful ambiguity. And Mina, who in the novel suffered only one symbolic rape, is depicted--again as in the movie--as having succumbed willingly to Dracula's charms.
Worse is that the authors, perhaps playing into the currently-marketable "dark" trend, have the original heroes who defeated Dracula ruined by the psychological after-effects of their experience. These noble men, who in Stoker always tried to do the right thing even at great risk, are now drunks (Jonathan Harker), drug addicts (Jack Seward), whiners (Arthur Holmwood) and hypocrites (Van Helsing). The authors also manage to throw in random bits of Victoriana and vampiric history; thus Elisabeth Bathory, the "blood countess," is a character, Jack the Ripper is invoked, and even the Loch Ness Monster gets his moment.
Then there's the wink-wink-nudge-nudge series of in-jokes, in which minor characters are named after famous actors who have played the Count: policemen named (Raymond) Huntley, (Louis) Jourdan and (Christopher) Lee, a Dr. (Frank) Langella and so forth. And a final revelation, straight from The Empire Strikes Back, that's so foreshadowed it becomes laughable.
There's a weird "meta" aspect as well. Bram Stoker is a character, and his novel Dracula exists in the story's reality. Quincey Harker, ostensibly our hero, thus reads about his parents' adventures in a book the author (within the sequel to his own book) stresses is a novel. So this book literally can't be a sequel to the original, since the original was not the "true" story. And Dracula, in his guise as the actor Basarab, finagles his way into playing the character Dracula in the stage version of Stoker's novel.
And the thing is, none of this works if you're a true fan of the original book. It becomes a pile of meaningless references, in-jokes and pandering to the current vogue in vampire action and romance. It's a cash-in, packaged and presented as a literary event but, with scenes such as a katana-wielding Mina battling a flying female vampire on the streets of London, plainly more interested in getting that big-bucks movie deal. Hell, it even turns out that Dracula, one of literature's greatest villains, isn't a villain at all but a misunderstood hero. All that remains is for him to start drinking artificial blood and enroll in high school.
So who's behind this? According to the IMDB, co-author/screenwriter Ian Holt has two credits: a 2005 horror film called Dr. Chopper and, "in development"...you guessed it. In the novel's second afterword (the afterafterword?), Holt confirms that the book was originally planned as a screenplay, which explains its film-treatment feel. And Dacre Stoker, great-grand-nephew of Bram, seems to have been involved mainly because of his DNA. Both authors insist this sequel was a labor of love, but the cynic in me doubts that; this smacks of packaging, from the involvement of an erstwhile screenwriter to the overwhelming marketing push (tie-in Visa and MasterCard credit cards, for example).
I don't mean to say this is a badly written book. It's adequately written, if sloppily edited (on page 15, Elisabeth Bathory makes a small cut on a naked young woman's throat who's then hung upside down, yet according to the text Bathory's "otherworldly eyes remaining focused on the single drop of blood now sliding down her victim's chest." On page 185, someone is referred to in the narration as a "pour soul." And so on). No doubt most readers will find it adequate. If it had been presented as just another vampire novel, perhaps I would've found it adequate, too. Because I wanted to like it.
But at a time when I could've used a reminder that occasionally things are done for something other than monetary profit, that maybe someone wrote THE sequel to Dracula because they loved it as much as I do, I was instead reminded that, for many people, profit is the only reason for anything.