Any book that claims to share in Dracula’s legacy is going to have a difficult task ahead of it and, as the reader, one cannot help but compare one against the other.
Positioned on the front cover as a prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracul purports to tell the true story of the origins of the original book and its creator. However, Dracul’s co-authors – Dacre Stoker (Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew) and J. D. Barker, an American author of suspense thrillers – feel that the appropriate way of doing this is to construct a fictional narrative in which Bram Stoker, his family and acquaintances, are wrapped up in a real world of vampires.
The story follows a young Bram, plagued by an unknown illness that sees him confined to his bed for most of his childhood, seemingly cured by the Stoker family’s mysterious nanny who, as quickly becomes apparent, is not all who she seems. We then trace Bram’s quest alongside his sister Matilda and brother Thornley, now in their 20s, trying to track down the disappeared nanny and uncover the vampiric mysteries that have befallen their family.
I can just about get past the fact that Bram Stoker’s life has been re-written so that he is now the main character in the story he invented – just about – but what I can’t get past is how anachronistic the book is and how unoriginal is its treatment of the vampire legend.
Dracula was a seminal book and the idea of the vampire in fiction has come a long way, as you would expect of any trope that has been passed down through the hands of different writers and artists. But Dracul puts you straight back to the late 19th century, clearly trying to pull on your nostalgia strings, which it sometimes succeeds at doing with its Victorian gothic atmosphere and its constant nodding to classic vampire stories.
It is, however, not as good as those classic stories and, therefore, fails.
Even putting aside the outdated tropes and the intensely silly notion that this is based on a true story, there were enough other instances to make me wish to put the book down. Take the Stoker siblings at the beginning of the book; whilst discussing an overheard conversation regarding Dublin’s suicide graves, they speak to one another with the eloquence of adults, not as they 7 and 8-year-olds they are. The only element of their behaviour that seems appropriate for their age is their inquisitiveness, sticking their noses in where they don’t belong.
And there are moments of cartoonish horror, such as when the Stoker siblings are ascending the staircase of a crumbling castle, lit by magical blue candles, and see giant bats who “glowered with beady red eyes, long white teeth dripping with saliva”. The book’s supernatural elements are presented as if we were reading a fantasy novel, with no trace of the uncanny.
The story of the Stoker siblings on their vampire hunting quest is interspersed with shorter glimpses of the present, in which an older Bram is kept, effectively, as a prisoner in a chamber by the same un-godly forces that have plagued his family throughout the rest of book. This chamber is described as being covered with mirrors of all shapes and sizes, with crosses nailed in the gaps between them, the door sealed with a paste made from communion wafers. That room in which Bram is trapped – surrounded by every possible trope of classic vampire fiction – seems to encapsulate what is wrong with this book.
The ideas are tired. There are still interesting vampire stories to be told but they need to move forward, not try and relive the past. I resisted the urge to begin this review with “Bram Stoker would turn in his coffin” – it was too cheap a shot – but nevertheless, Dracul is not the tribute that Dracula deserves.
Dracul written by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker is published by Bantam Press. Buy the book on Amazon.