Vampires have never gone out of fashion, exactly, but they've certainly been enjoying a higher profile in the past few years--what with Janeite vampires, glittery vampires, and vampires who just want to have fun. Count Dracula himself has cropped up in novels like Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and Barbara Hambly's Renfield, the latter of which also jumps on the vampire romance train. (Or should that be "carriage"?) Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before we got something like Dacre Stoker's and Ian Holt's Dracula the Un-Dead: The Sequel to the Original Classic (2009), set twenty-five years after the end of Dracula. Alas, even though Van Helsing and company did in the Count, all is not well in the twentieth century.
Dracula the Un-Dead is a sort of Clash of the TItans, only with vampires instead of Greek gods and clockwork owls. Our new villain is Countess Elizabeth Bathory, still undead and bloodthirsty after three hundred years. And, killing two birds with one stone (so to speak), she's also Jack the Ripper. Dracula, it turns out, was completely misunderstood: far from being a demonic figure, he is "still doling out God's justice" (357) even as one of the undead. Granted, he admits, "I am unschooled in the ways of this modern age" (357)--although, given that the novel takes place just a couple of years before WWI, he is perhaps not that much out of place--but he is nevertheless a force for good. The Countess, by contrast, plans to "tear down the churches with her bare hands and force her blood down the Pope's throat" (323); when an unfortunate priest calls her the "Antichriste" (346), he's clearly not far off. Not surprisingly, their final battle verges on the apocalyptic, their swords "[ringing] out like the chimes at midnight signaling the end of all things" (369).
While Dracula and the Countess dodge and parry their way through the novel, the protagonists of the original novel find themselves getting offed in a variety of unpleasant ways. Most creatively, Jonathan Harker winds up impaled. In the middle of Piccadilly Circus. By the end of the novel, all of the original characters are either kaput or un-kaput, leaving poor young Quincey--who has had some rather unsettling news about his parentage--to skedaddle off to America on the Titanic. (Oopsie.) Quite a lot of other characters meet their doom by decapitation, disembowelment, or similarly inconvenient methods. For that matter, Bram Stoker, who turns up as himself, discovers that Dracula is none too pleased about Stoker's not-yet-bestselling novel; this turns out to explain one of the strokes heralding Stoker's impending death.
The presence of Dracula in a world where Dracula exists is one of the novel's better ideas. Stoker and Holt also manage to suggest the collapse of Victorian culture's final vestiges, thanks to a combination of telephones, airplanes, and automobiles. The first generation of male characters, meanwhile, have all imploded in one way or the other: Seward is doped up, Harker an alcoholic, Van Helsing a fanatic, and Lord Godalming a man with a death wish. Under the circumstances, such decay looks like the most plausible outcome of the original novel's events; it's hard to imagine having a cheerful home life after going around and driving stakes into various vampiric hearts. However, it's also the novel's thesis that their crusade against Dracula was a mistake, based mostly on Van Helsing's inability to understand the vampire's true nature; in fact, Dracula (the novel) turns out to be Van Helsing's attempt to cover his tracks by inventing the Dracula-as-demonic-monster myth. That's right: Van Helsing is one of the bad guys (or, at least, less-good guys), albeit thanks to error instead of evil.
Unfortunately, Stoker and Holt fail to animate any of these ideas, even with the fragmentary assistance of Bram Stoker's surviving memoranda. This is their first novel, jointly or singly, and they just aren't skilled enough yet to produce a competent work of genre fiction. (I'm apparently being contrarian here, given some of the reviews I've seen; so be it.) To begin with, the Dracula vs. Elizabeth Bathory/Jack the Ripper plot dangerously resembles something like AVP: Alien vs. Predator. Or, depending on where you are in the narrative, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein. The problem is not that Big Scary Popular Monster vs. Big Scary Popular Monster is a mighty old-fangled horror movie plot; it's that it's usually a silly old-fangled horror movie plot, even when Abbott and Costello don't appear. And that's the case here, even before you introduce the Elizabeth-Bathory-as-Jack-the-Ripper twist. Actual human beings turn out to be nothing more than collateral damage in the earth-shattering conflict of Vamp vs. Vamp, sliced and diced like teenagers in a low-rent horror film franchise. The Jack the Ripper angle seems entirely extraneous, despite Dacre Stoker's defense to the contrary--which begins by admitting that "[t]he next question you may ask is, Why drag Jack the Ripper into a sequel to Dracula?" (404) Surely Jack the Ripper's humanity makes his crimes all the more terrifying, not his literal monstrosity?
In fact, their decision to shoehorn Jack the Ripper into a plot already overstuffed with monsters points to a different problem: this simply isn't a particularly original novel. Stoker and Holt claim that "it was our most important goal with this sequel to right the wrongs to Bram's original classic" (413), and yet the only really innovative thing in the book (Jack the Ripper as a woman) has nothing to do with the Count. The Dracula-Ripper connection itself is, of course, not new, since Stoker brought it up himself. Dracula as misunderstood chap has apparently been done. Dracula vs. Whoever novels have also been done (e.g., Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula). The Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller admits in her afterword that identifying Dracula with Vlad the Impaler "is hardly new" (395). Heroic vampires and vampire romance are now absolutely mainstream, and the authors admit that the Dracula-Mina romance is a sop to fans accustomed to it (408). Hambly's Renfield posits that vampires might devote themselves to ridding the world of evil. (In fact, Hambly's short story "Sunrise on Running Water" also features a vampire hanging out on the Titanic.) Arguably, the novel's claim to fame rests on it being a parallel novel, like Peter Carey's Jack Maggs or Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy, and certainly Miller argues that Stoker and Holt "reestablish the 'true' text of Dracula, which in turn forms the basis of this sequel; at the same time, they recognize in that sequel that there is no single Dracula but many Draculas, ranging from Stoker's earliest Notes to the latest Hollywood adaptation, and that the boundaries between them are blurred indeed" (397). But there's no real revision or reappropriation here, because the people who "wronged" Dracula in the first place have also anticipated the novel's attempts to reclaim the character. If you've spent any amount of time with vampire fiction in general or Dracula knock-offs in particular, then you've already read most of what this novel offers. The end result looks more like an attempt to bring Dracula in line with the current fad for sexy vampires than to save the novel from its own spawn.
Speaking of vampire romance, the novel is at its creepiest not when it describes people having parts amputated, or whatever, but when it tries to do sex. You can't separate sex from vampire fiction, of course, but at this point in time, one does expect rather more...self-awareness?...about the tropes. Elizabeth Bathory, the embodiment of all evil, a virtual Antichrist, is also a lesbian who enjoys wearing men's clothing; as a teenager, Elizabeth is seduced by her aunt, who in turn manages to have Elizabeth's One Twoo (Age Appropriate) Wuv executed on a trumped-up charge. Between her incestuous aunt and her brutish husband, Elizabeth turns into a sexual predator on an intergalactic scale, happily raping and murdering her way through the centuries (two undead wives in tow). In one encounter, Mina experiences "almost unbearable pleasure" when she is sexually stimulated by a mist (hey, I'm just writing this review) that she thinks must be Dracula, only to realize that it's Elizabeth Bathory, her "misty rapist" (182). So, let's get this straight: the villain is a man-hating lesbian sexual predator...on steroids. At the same time, one cannot help noting that Dracula turns out to be Heterosexual Superman, the only "real man" in the entire novel. Mina, we discover, coupled with the Count during the original novel, which (together with her infection by vampirism) makes her "insatiable in the bedchamber" (102)--far too much woman for Jonathan, who apparently can't perform. Lord Godalming, although married, has never recovered from Lucy's death, and his marriage is childless; except for Elizabeth's horrible husband and the happily married Sergeant Lee, the other male characters all seem to be virtually asexual. Dracula, though, makes Mina "feel like a woman," thanks to his "gentle" touch and the "avarice and awe" with which he contemplates her "nakedness"; better yet, "[b]y the way he caressed her, the way he entered her, she knew that her pleasure was more important than his own" (361). Besides the whole teeth thing, then, Dracula is every woman's erotic ideal. Let's recap: the novel pits the Ungodly Undead Lesbian Rapist against the Godly Undead Straight Hot Lover. This seems...problematic, somehow. Even the novel's half-hearted attempts to create some kind of moral equivalency quickly fall flat: Mina, while initially sympathizing with Elizabeth's suffering, is soon "disgusted" (understandably) by how Elizabeth murders her husband (224), and realizes that while "Dracula had always had a purpose, a reason," Elizabeth "killed for sport" (227). By contrast, she willingly buys into Dracula's self-defense. (Apparently, some mass murderers are more equal than others.) For that matter, while we're clearly supposed to sneer at Lord Godalming's misogyny, Mina's sole hope after coupling with Dracula once is apparently to couple with him again; only Heterosexual Superman can handle the Heterosexual Superwoman that he himself has created.
Last but not least, the authors still need to spend more time on basic craft and prose style. To begin with, they jettison the original's epistolary/journal structure...which was one of the most interesting things about it. Then again, they have not yet mastered how to differentiate characters through dialogue, so perhaps a shift to third person was for the best. As for the plot, this is the sort of novel in which the story requires characters to behave stupidly. (Quincey, in particular, wins the prize for sheer idiocy.) Villains spend too much time exulting over their victims before attempting to kill them, thereby allowing the would-be victims to escape. And for reasons unclear to me, Stoker and Holt turn Bram Stoker into a plagiarist. (Really. He gets the story from Van Helsing, but doesn't feel the need to mention that it's not his idea.) Etcetera. Meanwhile, cliches run in innocent nakedness through narrative thickets, before they trip and fall over unfortunate moments of bathos. Thus, trying to make Mina blink, Inspector Cotford announces that "[s]omeone took great effort to erect a vast stake in Piccadilly Circus and impale your husband upon it. That is not a spontaneous act; this took planning" (127). I should say so. Similarly, when the "actor" Basarab denounces Bram Stoker's novel, his account of Stoker's crimes against Dracula climaxes in "You are, in fact, guilty of slander!" (208) Um...horrors? The novel hits its stylistic low point in its only moment of attempted gallows humor, with a truly awful pun in the starring role; presumably, the pun is supposed to be like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, but it's so glaringly out of place that I cringed in embarassment instead of smiled. There are ideas here, to borrow a turn of phrase from E. M. Forster, but Stoker and Holt don't have the technique to rework Bram Stoker's Dracula (and I speak as someone who isn't a huge Dracula fan).