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Dracul by Dacre Stoker & J. D. BarkerUK edition4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI have commented, many times, on the fact that I am not a particular fan of vampire fiction. Much of this, I suppose, has to do with decades of silly movies and of course, urban fantasy and paranormal romance fiction, which have collectively defanged these creatures and turned them into either kinky fetish objects or straight-up jokes. And while I understand the entertainment value some people get out of that, well, call me a boring old traditionalist, but I do like to see the horror in horror monsters. Vampires are kind of supposed to be the living dead, murdering with a callous brutality to sustain themselves — because, you know, they’re evil.

I suppose it’s taken a descendant of Bram Stoker himself to place the legendary Count back on his pedestal of arch-evil. But at the same time, Dacre Stoker and collaborator J.D. Barker have created in Dracul a novel that both honors the legacy and intent of the original while acknowledging Dracula’s subsequent years as a popular culture icon, and especially cinematic icon. Dracul is a breathless exercise that reads like a Hammer Horror movie given a Guillermo del Toro budget. The pace simply never quits, throwing one action-horror set-piece after another at you with bloody glee. Considering I didn’t expect to enjoy this book at all, let alone find it a sheer Halloween funhouse ride, color me impressed, even if the story allows strict plot logic to be thrown to the four winds more often than it should for the sake of maximizing thrills and scares.

Dracul opens with this hook: Bram Stoker, we are told, believed his story to be rooted in truth, and when he delivered the manuscript of Dracula to his publisher, just over 100 pages were redacted for fear that the story would prove too traumatic to Victorians still reeling from the crimes of Jack the Ripper. I’m not quite sure I’m fully buying that, but I can go along with it for the spirit of the thing.

Hints of what Stoker had to remove from his story can be found, it seems, in certain foreign translations of Dracula, particularly the Icelandic translation, Makt Myrkranna. But if you’re thinking that Dracul then goes on to attempt to reconstruct those mythical hundred pages, in fact we get something else entirely. Dracul casts Bram Stoker himself, as well as his siblings Matilda and Thornley, as active vampire hunters in what turns out to be a direct prequel to the original.

It all begins in the Irish village of Clontarf just outside of Dublin, in the early 1850s. Bram Stoker, as a small child, is sickly and bedridden in his attic room, a condition he’s suffered since birth. He is not, in fact, expected to survive his childhood. He is closest to his older sister, Matilda, a gifted artist with a passionate curiosity about the world equal to Bram’s own. Additionally, this is the time of the dreaded Potato Famine, and throughout the countryside, entire families are suffering unfathomable deprivation. As the family patriarch, Abraham, is a civil servant, the Stoker family has a degree of privilege that enables them to weather the blight more comfortably than most. But they can see the ravages of the famine upon others, and they open their home to guests when they can.

Ellen Crone is the family’s governess to the children. Nanna Ellen, they call her affectionately. But there is, of course, something very much off about Ellen. They way she sometimes wanders off without warning, looking haggard, only to return to the home after a few days appearing fully revitalized and flush with beauty and energy. And then there is the moment in young Bram’s life when his sickness finally takes a turn for the worse, and it looks as if the boy is at death’s door at last — and then, after Ellen chases everyone out of the bedroom and tends to him herself, it’s as if a miracle cure has taken place. The ailment that’s afflicted Bram for all these years appears to have vanished completely.

It doesn’t take long for Bram and Matilda to grow more curious about their dear Nanna Ellen, particularly since Bram’s cure has apparently given the boy a kind of psychic link to the woman. Bram can sense when Ellen leaves the house late at night, venturing into the crumbling, ancient ruins of a nearby castle, or wandering over her head into an adjacent bog. After the children follow Ellen for a few nights, they make discoveries that will prove fateful into their adulthoods, leading them towards a confrontation with that icon of evil himself, Count Dracul.

The story follows the Stoker siblings — aided by a vampire-hunting academic, Arminius Vambéry, a real friend of the Stokers who was reportedly Bram’s inspiration for Van Helsing — as they venture from Dublin to England and eventually a forgotten German village in pursuit of Dracul. For readers who like their horror to have a high gross-out factor, your prayers have been answered. The authors absolutely delight in piling on the gore and all manner of icky horrors. Trust me, if you’re not sufficiently nauseated by the scene set in a rat-infested morgue, never fear — something even more disgusting is about to be thrown at you in the very next chapter, when Bram and Matilda think nothing of venturing into an abandoned cemetery in the middle of the night, because why wouldn’t they?

Granted, the novel’s tendency towards cinematic showmanship often requires the characters to act in, shall we say, dubious ways. At least, they show little to no fear of doing things I’d never do. I mean, really, if I were to ask you, “So, you’ve just dug up a coffin in an ancient cemetery and ten thousand cockroaches have poured out if it — what do you do?” and you answered, “I would run all the way from Clontarf to Galway!” then congratulations, I will officially declare you a sensible person. But of course, this means you can’t be a vampire hunter. Because then you’d have stick around to reach into the infested coffin to recover clues and artifacts, and take them with you!

The story’s most appealing character, for me, actually turned out to be Ellen, whom the authors give a fairly modern spin by portraying her as a sympathetic and tragic victim. Her backstory, as it’s revealed, is the stuff of Gothic romance, but also does convey a sense of true pathos. If there was anyone in the tale I hoped would catch a break and find peace at last, it was her. This is largely due to my empathizing with Bram and Matilda as children, and seeing Ellen through their eyes as they remembered her: the caring and pretty young governess who watched over them in hard times. It may be pushing buttons, I suppose. But it is the kind of effective plot construction that results in real emotional investment from the reader. And at the end of the day, that’s what good storytelling does.

I’m still not sure about the resolution, and how it logically follows a climactic scene in a desolate German village, the entire population of which has been turned by Dracul. But that whole sequence is a barn-burner, and reveals Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker as authors with a real flair for the kind of grand spectacle that longtime fans of Dracula, in all of the forms the story has taken over the years, have come to expect. Just to give you an idea of how effectively Dracul knows what it’s doing: when the Count finally appears, I had no trouble picturing him as Christopher Lee in his prime, and it completely fit. Gory, action-packed, and immersive, Dracul is a book that will sink its fangs into you and leave a nice big bloody mark.