Bloodsucking Drudgery aka The Gunk, Junk, and Clunk of the Pulmonary Trunk: A review of Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker
Here are two scary parts of the near 500 page novel Dracul, a genre novel of “horror” — I use scare quotes because something here has to frighten you.
Matilda Screamed. Shrill and sharp, her voice cut through the morgue with the precision of a scalpel.
I turned from the bag’s contents to find her hovering over the jars containing O’Cuiv’s organs, pointing at one of the containers. I crossed over and placed my hands on her shoulders. “What is it?”
She shook her finger, pointing at the jar holding his heart.
“It just beat.”
“She can block you,” Vambéry explained. “The fact that you no longer feel the connection does not mean that she cannot.”
In the first example, once we swallow the stereotypical analogy, and once we accept the character finding himself doing things (I’ll revisit this later), and once we wonder why someone in a morgue would place his hands on his sister’s shoulders to ask a question, we perceive the horrific news: ‘The jar is beating!’ The vague or misdirected referent is terrifying.
In the second example, we are reading right along and then, wait a minute, whoa whoa whoa, back right up a minute, this is not a single, not even a double, this…this is this a sort of triple negative? Let’s see, double negative means positive and triple reverts back to negative? Again, terrifying.
Still not convinced? Draw upon this vintage of blood:
“Matilda sat beside me, my hand in hers as she attempted to comfort me. My transgressions of earlier finally forgotten with the frightful moment. Until moments ago, I shook furiously, but that had finally calmed.”
Oh me oh my oh me oh my oh moment and moments. And, don’t you enjoy how “earlier” rises from its comparative adjectival form and attempts to walk the dead of night as a noun?
Yes, dear stouthearted reader, continue onward but be forewarned that frightfully clumsy is the order of the night. I suspect Bram Stoker would be less than proud.
We meet Bram who is young and sickly, and who, with his sister and brother, mature and follow the trail of their Nanna Ellen around Dublin and eventually to the Don of Vampires, I guess.
Vampire hunters who wish to get through this genre horror must bring an indefatigable attitude because Dracul will easily suck the life out of you with it’s cumbersome writing combined with an engineless plot. Stylistically this is writing common to nearly every newer author, the sort who asks for feedback about that one specific thing that they can fix to get their work singing. Unfortunately the problem is everything, although with new writers we’re not willing to tell them the bad news.
I couldn’t quite contextualize the writing, I use this cliched phrase purposively to set the tone, and then it hit me. Dracul reads like R.L. Stine and his Goosebumps series. Here’s an example from Stine’s Werewolf of Fever Swamp:
I leaned down closer to bet a better look.
“It’s quicksand!” I heard Emily cry in horror.
And then two hands shoved me hard from behind.
If this quote floats your paper boat toward a drain, then you’ll love the writing in Dracul. I don’t and I didn’t. But then again I’m not eight years old. More literary readers will notice apparent shifts in the style from author to the other, in which one style is a struggle, as though the author is attempting to crack a walnut with a feather. There is a journalistic form to the novel which skips through notes or letters by the various main characters, but since the characters are hardly developed and their voices are about the same in each, we gain no respite.
Prying open the coffin lid, i.e. the cover, we find the following. Approximately 120 pages in we are kneecapped by the painful trope much like “and then I woke up” when a dream occurs of which we were not alerted. Character ticks are frequent. Bram itches, and itches, and itches, and itches some more, and itches even more, and itches again, and itches. Time is a mess as is usual in genre novels. For example, at one point it takes Bram and Matilda five long pages to walk up a flight of stairs. When they get to the top the door is locked, but wait! It still opens. (Goosebumps again). In the room is a coffin and here’s what they observe, in order: lots of dirt; worms in the dirt; maggots crawling all through the dirt; finally they notice the dead flayed cat sprawled on top of everything. Maybe our protagonists are so myopic they can only see at one time a sliver of what normal people see. I also doubt that good old vampire comfort dirt is filled with creepy crawlies. The writers have a number of pernicious habits, again that I believe are common to beginner writers. For example a sound occurs and a few lines later another sound, “louder than the first.” This ramping up with comparative forms is frequent. Things move fast then faster than ever, are loud then louder thanbefore, and so on. Note: “A sudden chill fills the air” then “The temperature in the room drops further still…” and then “The temperature drops further yet…” A second chronic disease is that the characters habitually find themselves doing things as in “we found ourselves standing outside.” They have no agency, no awareness, no choice, evidently.
At various points in the book, Bram is in a room. Outside is a vampire that attempts to break in a door to get him, (the vampire cannot come in the open window because evidently this sort of vampire cannot fly or crawl down the side of a building) yet Bran once invited one vampire, Nanna Ellen, into see him, although it’s clear at other times that a vampire must be invited into a room. Well if a vampire must be invited and is not, and the invitation is not transferrable, then why is the vampire attempting to break down the door? Apparently, vampires reek or they don’t depending on the scene at hand. Quiz time, can you guess the issue: “Another bee stung my neck, feeling as if someone had plunged a knife into it.” Yes, you guessed it, more referent vagueness. In this scene bees fill the room so thickly one can hardly make out the opposite wall of the room but don’t worry, they soon fly away. The narrator suffers half a dozen stings he calls razor hot, but don’t worry, they’re forgotten about two sentences later. Nine pages drag on as the four main characters (the three siblings who more and more act like children and not adults, meet a more adult sage named Vambéry who begins to lead them on their quest) hang around Emily’s bed.
This thing has all the gestures of writing, there are words creeping forward, and it has a scent called hint of horror, but don’t be fooled by the publicity. This book is dead. Dracul the novel does not rise, it fails to stalk the night. Reading it simply made me weary mainly because Dracul contains the worst novelistic horror of all: tedium.
By the time I reached the line quoted at the start of my review, the one about can and cannot what you cannot or can, I couldn’t take any more of the book and I started flipping pages. I was in the middle seat of an airplane and I think the kid next to me thought I was speed reading. I tucked the book into my bag and luckily discovered some reading that in comparison was way more engaging: the airline safety information card.
The authors’ note, non-fiction with a few images about Stoker’s work, however superficial this section is, offers some interest. And this leads me to provide a trailer of a review to come. There are two seriously alarming, nae, terrifying and true things in this book that I will focus on in a second review of Dracul. But to wrap up, the end note saves nothing. I found reading Dracul like shaving a cat. Nobody enjoys it much and the end result is plain ugly. So I offer this plea, can someone please drive a stake through the heart of this horrible (horror-unable) thing to keep it where it should be?