Friday, January 22, 2010

DRACULA THE UNDEAD by Freda Warrington

DRACULA THE UNDEAD by Freda Warrington is a true rarity - a sequel to a literary classic that doesn't pale in comparison. Warrington is a respected British fantasy and horror author with a loyal following in the UK. Her prose is worthy of greater acclaim. DRACULA THE UNDEAD was first published as a paperback original in the UK in 1997 to coincide with the centennial of Stoker's classic. The book gained some decent reviews but never made it across the Atlantic and seemed doomed to fade into obscurity.

Flash forward to October 2009 and the publication of Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's "authorized" sequel, DRACULA THE UN-DEAD. Their book received a great deal of media attention and was displayed prominently in retail bookstores. It was the sequel I wanted to love as a Stoker fan, but I'm afraid I am far too much of a purist to embrace it. However, I did note that Severn House (a British publisher that started out in the mid-seventies recycling titles from another British bargain-priced reprint specialty press, Tom Stacey) was bringing the Freda Warrington book back in a hardcover edition to capitalize on the attention granted the nearly identically-titled Stoker/Holt sequel. I was aware of the Warrington book and since my book shelf already contained a few Severn House titles from decades past, I was happy to see they had now acquired US distribution so I made a point of picking the book up.

For one of the very few times in my life, I read someone else's DRACULA book and didn't come away disappointed. Warrington strives to match Stoker's voice and her book reads as if it is Stoker's own work - particularly in the first half. Warrington picks up on the tantalizing ending of the original novel and takes the protagonists back to Transylvania seven years on and lets the story unravel in a natural fashion that never seems like a half-baked rewrite of the original. Her handling of Stoker's characters and the new characters she created for the book are consistently excellent. Warrington's novel is epistolary, like Stoker's, and this adds to the authentic flavor tremendously.

Where the book disappoints - slightly, is in the decision to soften Dracula into a Byronic tragic anti-hero. This approach is one vampire stories have suffered from since the modification was first deemed essential to suit DARK SHADOWS' soap opera conventions in the sixties and it has spread plague-like into a full-fledged outbreak with the creepy pubescent phenomenon that is the TWILIGHT series and its many imitations. While Lugosi's Valentino-esque profile and evening wear may have laid the groundwork, each decade has seen the vampire watered down to the point that the disgusting old man with the foul breath that Stoker envisioned or the nightmarish, ratlike figure of Murnau's NOSFERATU now seem impossible to reconcile with the sexy, seductive vampire of today.

That said, Warrington has a valid reason for softening her vampire and that is her brilliant decision to explore the Scholomance in greater detail. A vampire is a great devil substitute until the real thing is introduced. Stoker dropped a couple of cryptic references to this Gnostic institution and while he may have only wished to convince the reader he knew of what he spoke, Warrington dives in head first and takes us inside the Scholomance not once, but twice for extended visits. She does Stoker proud in her deft handling of horror and suspense. Her vision of the Devil's school of necromancy where one pupil from each class is sacrificed in payment for what the others have learned has more in common with Clive Barker's tortured Dantean visions of Hell than it does with Hogwarts, happily.

While no one is likely to hail DRACULA THE UNDEAD a horror classic equal in impact to the original and it may not match Warrington at her very best with her wholly original fantasy books, it does stand out among the multitude of pastiches (Joe Gores' recent MALTESE FALCON prequel, SPADE & ARCHER comes to mind as an immediate example in another genre) in that it accomplishes what readers of the original most desire - a chance to re-visit characters they love and find their likeness painted in loving detail by another hand. In this, Warrington succeeds admirably and all Stoker fans should seek out her newly-reprinted book for a rare DRACULA sequel that rings true. Freda Warrington's book now rests alongside Sister Fidelma creator, Peter Tremayne's trilogy as the only two DRACULA authors whose work is good enough to place alongside the original on my shelf.

I give this subject of the second SETI SAYS Four out of a possible Five Mummies.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

DRACULA by Bram Stoker is the subject of the first Seti Says blog. I follow several book review blogs, but had mixed feelings about starting my own. Blogs serve no useful purpose save providing a few minutes of distraction from the mundane. As a result, they are fairly inconsequential in the Grand Scheme of Life, but infinitely more useful than a politician.

DRACULA is slowly gaining acceptance in literary circles as more than just a genre classic and deservedly so. Of course, mass acceptance for a novel that has never been out of print in its 113 years on the planet means that there are literally hundreds of public domain copies to choose from for the unwary consumer. The focus of this review is on DRACULA: THE DEFINITIVE EDITION available exclusively at Barnes and Noble through their fine imprint, Fall River Press. This edition is recommended not only for Edward Gorey's fine illustrations and Marvin Kaye's impressive essays and notes on the text, but it is also affordably priced.

This gets my nod over the many annotated editions out there for the simple fact that Mr. Kaye gives the modern reader all they need to know to enjoy the novel in the context it was written without getting bogged down endlessly in railway timetables and notes on Transylvanian culture, cuisine, superstition, or topography. Nor does he become sidetracked in speculation on Stoker's marriage, sex life, or physical and mental health. Mr. Kaye provides the salient biographical details and expounds on details that are relevant to better appreciating the text and nothing more. His essays are a model of efficiency and stand on the strength of their factual accuracy above the more verbose and salacious theories one comes to expect with literary classics.

THE DEFINITIVE EDITION is also commended for including the text of "Dracula's Guest" as a Prologue. This posthumously published story has recently become the focus of much debate as to whether it is worthy of being considered authoritative due to minor quibbles with it's continuity to the novel. Of course, there are also many Stoker fans who will argue when the novel is actually set because of similar inconsistencies. It provides no small amusement that people will argue over these points while reading a book about a vampire in Nineteenth Century London. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the story and in it's proper place before the novel sets this edition apart from nearly every other version that pairs the two together.

[Honorable mention must be made for the highly collectible versions with Greg Hildebrandt's stunningly realistic color illustrations. But for the absence of "Dracula's Guest," the Hilldebrandt editons would doubtless stand as the finest ever printed.]

The story itself is one that is familiar thanks to the countless inferior adaptations and parodies that reproduce at an alarming rate each year. That said, it is a novel I re-visit regularly and one that (unique among Stoker's work) never loses its power to chill or entertain. Much of the informed opinion of literary critics of the past four decades has been centered on the novel as a story of Victorian repression. This interpretation and any other post-Freudian view will always have its proponents, but for me, the novel's greatest strength lies with the power and conviction with which Stoker weaves a tale of modern, rational man confronted with the seemingly-inexplicable supernatural.

The conflict resulting from the Old World crossing into the New and the inevitable need for the English protagonists to embrace the Old World's traditions and superstitions to combat a dangerous unknown threat that modern science fails to recognize is what makes the story timeless. Sadly, adaptations and critical assessments too often fail to highlight this and we are left with a classic that remains criminally underappreciated not only because it is Gothic horror, but because it's moral is one that runs against the ever-hastening pace of progress.

From the viewpoint of the 21st Century, Stoker's DRACULA (like Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN before it) is a novel that succeeded in saturating and influencing popular culture since it's publication and yet inexplicably failed to have it's cautionary message appreciated. An ironic fate for a novel that presents immortality as a curse. I give this first Seti Says the highest rating of five Mummies.