Friday, December 15, 2006

Book: To be read . . . to be truly read . . . that would be magnificent.

A film critic whose name now completely escapes me once opined that the strength of the Aliens film franchise was its willingness to allow every director who helmed an installment of the series the freedom to re-invent the franchise and stamp their unique mark on it.

The same can be said of the Universal Monster novels released by Dark Horse Press: Despite the pulpy concept behind the project – a series of new novels based on the classic Universal monster characters – each entry in the series has been not only enjoyable, but distinctive in its approach, mood, and handling of the film source.

In Dracula: Asylum, critically acclaimed but sadly overlooked fantasy author Paul Witcover builds a moody, Gothic tale around the most famous filmic vampire of all time: Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Written as a genuine sequel to the 1931 film (the Universal franchise spawned several "sequels," but unlike the Frankenstein films, the Dracula sequels blithely ignored continuity and stubbornly refuse resolution into a single grand narrative), the novel is set several years after Dracula's destruction in the ruins of Carfax Abbey, in the final year of the first World War. Seward's asylum, where most of the film took place, is now the Carfax War Hospital. Shell shocked and physically ravaged soldiers fill the rooms once populated by mental patients. However, one recognizable patient still haunts its halls. Renfield, once Dracula's thrall and now an aged mute, works as a janitor in the hospital.

Enter Lisa Watson, an American psychologist who has used powerful family connections to get stationed at Carfax. She's come to treat Captain Faulks, an American soldier who, after being wounded and left for dead in what amounted to a suicide mission, lost his mind and began believing that he was Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson's interest is not solely based on the charming literary coincidence: Faulks is her fiancé.

Watson's efforts to restore her would-be husband's memory soon take a back seat to her struggle to survive. A German bombing raid on Carfax disturbs the vaults of the neighboring abbey and awakes Dracula. With Renfield once again serving as his slave, Dracula begins to prey upon the patients and staff.

Witcover's entry to this series might be the slyest of the bunch. The novels narrative hews very strictly to the details provided in the original. Along with the asylum, the abbey, and Renfield, Mina reappears as well. Its plot is fairly straight forward and the details of trench warfare and early 20th century psychology (including extend scenes of a brutal night raid and the details of shock therapy) are well-researched and finely drawn. Witcover's characters are among the most developed in the series and Witcover manages to give the readers a sense of real depth without detracting from the novels steady forward momentum. However, in many ways, the book is more postmodern than Di Filippo's overtly revisionist Creature from the Black Lagoon novel. Witcover makes allusions to British literature, from overt references to Doyle and Lewis Carroll to lit-scholar in-jokes about Milton. These literary allusions are found side by side with pop culture references, such a re-contextualized lines from the original film and the Holmes/patient and Watson/shrink plot device from the obscure film comedy They Might Be Giants. I especially enjoyed the cameo of a character named Frye, a nod to Dwight Frye, the actor who brilliantly portrayed Renfield in the film. Unlike Petrucha, who spiked his retro style plot with some modern splatter tricks, Witcover saves the gore for the World War I battlefields and cloaks Dracula in a sort of decadent and opulent dread. While it never gets frightening, it is effectively suspenseful and compelling.

I really only have two complaints with the novel. First, Witcover takes his time to allow the menace and suspense to build. Overall the effort works, but occasionally I felt it dragged a bit. Second, and perhaps more seriously, a subplot involving Dracula's origins derails the novel temporarily and introduces a whole bundle of confusing and unresolved questions. Without going into the details of it, Witcover connects Dracula to the Biblical stories of Jesus and Judas. Unfortunately, this whole bit of backstory is so unexpected and, ultimately, so unimportant that it is more confounding that interesting.

So far, my personal favorite of the DHP series is still Di Filippo's quirky take on the Gill-Man. But I suspect that most readers will actually find this the more engrossing and better written novel. Arguably it is the best written, most developed work in the series to date.

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