Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Little, Brown and Co., 2005, Pgs. 720
By Elizabeth Kostova
“Dracula the Un-Dead”
Dutton Penguin, 2009, Pgs. 480
By Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt
“Why do you think vampire stories continue to fascinate people?” I mused aloud to Jock. “Is it the immortality angle, do you think?”
We launched into an odd attempt at armchair psychology about the whys, wherefores and hows of the ever-evolving, ever-expanding, best-selling genre.
Of course, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is the pinnacle of the genre. I remember buying a mass-market paperback from B. Daltons when I was 11 and reading it cover to cover. I was surprised it was a much more involved story than I expected. Both Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” and Dacre Stocker and Ian Holts’ “Dracula the Un-Dead” surprised and captivated me in other ways.
“The Historian” is a book lover’s book. Dracula and vampires are almost secondary to the story, as the research and the process of research is the real passion for the audience. Really, by the time they get around to actually killing the vampire, it is almost a story footnote. The narrator follows notes, letters and diaries from her parents and other sources, as she tries to unravel several mysteries: a mysterious vellum book that seems to have destroyed her father’s life; her mother’s disappearance; her father’s travels; and her own identity. Not only do the letters and diaries describe research in phenomenal detail and at exquisite locales, but her own research process begins to take her across Europe on a journey designed to whet the appetite of bibliophiles. Yes, there are lots of vampire motifs and secret orders woven into the narrative—but it is also filled with descriptions of life behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s: the struggles of scholars to obtain visas to travel, to get access to documents and resources, and even more so, to share their work with colleagues. Kostova traveled in Europe as a child and an adult; her recreation of those events is so compelling I really felt like I was learning the waters to navigate them myself.
I fully admit: I opened “Dracula the Un-Dead” because it was written by Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker. I was stunned the dust jacket listed him as a resident of South Carolina. Yes … he is currently living in South Carolina. He’s practically our neighbor. I’m just tickled.
Stoker and his co-author, Ian Holt, have put together a sequel of sorts (in the vein of “Scarlett” as the sequel to “Gone with the Wind”). They have introduced Countess Bathroy to the storyline, and drawn a line between Jack the Ripper and vampire hunter Van Helsing. There is also an interesting comparison drawn with the addictive process of morphine and alcohol to the impact of the vampire’s bite. More interestingly, they have introduced Bram Stoker, himself, as a character.
For me, their lengthy descriptions of the Lyceum Theatre Bram inherited from actor Henry Irving are fascinating. All the discussion about converting from gas to electric lights and early technology for coloring the lights had me lapping like a puppy with chicken broth. For average reader, this is probably not entirely captivating. However, at the end of the book the authors have reproduced handwritten pages from Bram Stoker’s original notes. It is incredibly interesting. I fall hook, line and sinker for any opportunity to look into a successful author’s creative process. To see the development of one of the most influential novels ever written is incredible—to see what was edited out is too tantalizing to resist. So, like others drawn irresistibly to a vampire’s charisma, I find myself admitting my own addictions: reading, research, creative process, and all those entail.
At its heart “Dracula the Un-Dead” is genre fiction that blends real historical figures with romance and tasty sips of horror. But it will not change the way folks see the Dracula legend—nor, frankly, will “The Historian.” But both take on the idea of the accepted and understood narrative and pull back the veil to look deeper and find answers for based on research for clearer understanding.
They both might change the way some readers think about the power of story to convey meaning and to change lives. Perhaps that is what make vampires so eternally interesting: the idea of submitting to something or someone more powerful than yourself to be reborn invincible and irresistible.