What happens when the heroes turn out to be the bad guys? It is a question posited by Karen Essex’s take on Bram Stoker’s immortal classic in her rendition entitled Dracula in Love.
The established cadre of vampire hunters are no longer a gentlemanly force of good against evil. Instead, Van Helsing is a masochistic nutcase who derives pleasure from the unreasonable medical practices he inflicts on his patients. His disciple, Dr. John Seward, adheres to this cruel methodology in treating the helpless women left in his care at an insane asylum. Arthur Holmwood is a heartless fortune hunter out to marry and murder for wealth. Morris Quince is nothing but a philandering playboy from America, while Jonathan Harker turns into an orgy obsessed nymphomaniac. And yes, the novel is still set in the repressed, buttoned-up Victorian era.
Stoker’s women fare no better. What happens when a solid, put-together woman turns into a mentally unstable, emotional wreck? That’s exactly what happens to Mina Harker. She goes from being portrayed as a lady of great intellect, self-control and profound courage to a confused, unsure, mystical shadow of her former self. Instead of leading the charge against Count Dracula, she is fighting off the dangerous advances of those who used to be her allies. Viewed as a wily female threat, she turns to Dracula’s blood-thirsty embrace as a source of refuge.
When first coming across the title, it is a logical assumption to believe that Lucy Westerna would be the lead character. In the original, she is the one who is lured to the Whitby graveyard and seduced by Dracula. She is the one who transforms into a vampire after death. She is the one singled out by Dracula as his lover of choice. So it is a surprising turn of events to learn that Dracula’s affections are actually captured by Mina. In fact, she is a supposed reincarnation of his cherished human/fairy lover whose rebirth he repeatedly awaits. He tracks her through the centuries in order for their passion to be reignited and to finally convince her to join him in immortality.
The fantastical, mythical bent of the novel derails the story into fragments instead of uniting it as a cohesive whole. There’s Mina the girls’ school etiquette teacher who traipses about London with her lady journalist friend trying to expose the money-making schemes of paranormal charlatans. There’s Mina the ebony haired, green eyed beauty who longs to become the wife of Jonathan Harker and start a family. There’s Mina the supernatural girl who has been able to talk to animals since childhood while being viewed as a witch by her parents. There’s Mina the victim who must be rescued by her vampire paramour from the mistreatment of a bunch of deluded men. She is so multi-dimensional that the overly detailed characterization severs any believable connection with the reader.
Where Essex finds her groove is in her telling description of a 19th century mental health facility. The insane asylum run by Seward, in conjunction with Van Helsing, is truly a house of horrors. What adds to its inherent repulsion is that for the most part it is an accurate depiction of what happened to overtly sexual women during this time period. The scene of Mina’s water treatment is painful to read. Repeatedly soaked with freezing cold water and then forced to drink excessive amounts of this water certainly qualifies as torture, not medical care. The brutality that mentally competent women were subjected to in order to inhibit their natural sexual desires borders on barbarism.
The majority of the book centers around hormones, and is graphic in nature. This type of explicit sexual imagery is usually found in the erotic romance genre rather than a historical fiction novel. Wanton proclivities run through the blood of all of the central characters. There’s Lucy and Morris carrying on half-naked in a graveyard. There’s Jonathan in bed with three vampire-like women. There’s Seward fondling Mina during a medical examination. There’s Mina and Dracula in an assortment of lurid dream sequences. The list of couplings goes on and on. This unrestrained behavior is unexpected for those seeking a book more in line with the tone of the beloved classic.
Overall, a retelling a bit too far removed from the spirit of the original.
To read my review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, click here.
Dracula in Love by Karen Essex is available for $14.95 at Amazon.com and at KarenEssex.com.
Thank you to Molly for recommending this book. Follow her fantastic book blog and Twitter posts.