Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Dracula in Love by Karen Essex
Hey, kittens. I'm pleased as punch to be part of the blog tour for Karen Essex's Dracula in Love! You can catch my review today, and tomorrow, I have a fabulous interview with Karen, as well as 5 copies of Dracula in Love to give away!
Dracula in Love
From the shadowy banks of the River Thames to the wild and windswept coast of Yorkshire, the quintessential Victorian virgin Mina Murray vividly recounts in the pages of her private diary the intimate details of what transpired between her and Count Dracula—the joys and terrors of a passionate affair and her rebellion against a force of evil that has pursued her through time.
Mina’s version of this timeless gothic vampire tale is a visceral journey into the dimly lit bedrooms, mist-filled cemeteries, and locked asylum chambers where she led a secret life, far from the chaste and polite lifestyle the defenders of her purity, and even her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, expected of her.
Bram Stoker’s classic novel was only one side of the story. Now, for the first time, Dracula’s eternal muse reveals all. What she has to say is more sensual, more devious, and more enthralling than ever imagined. The result is a scintillating gothic novel that reinvents the tragic heroine Mina as a modern woman tortured by desire.
Dracula in Love isn't just a fill-in-the-gaps retelling of Dracula, fleshing out the story from Mina's point of view. No, it is a sort of feminist retelling in which Mina asserts that the story that everyone knows, the story that's been told by men, is false. True to their Victorian beliefs and morés, the men have cast the women of the story as either saints of harridans, relegating them to sidelines to seethe or swoon as they may. But thinking, feeling, intelligent Mina isn't having it. There is so much more to Mina's story, things her husband and the doctors and lovers who have spun the story so far have no idea about. Because for Mina, the story begins long before Jonathan travels to the continent to do business with a Count...
It's been a long, long while since I read Dracula. I was thirteen, and I devoured it, but in some ways, it left me unsatisfied. I think that same dissatisfaction may have been the impetus for Essex's reimagining of the tale, at least in part. I mean, the story is so wrought with Victorian fear of female sexuality and human passions in general, so to have it told by a female character who is neither sinner nor saint but just human and humanly flawed, with human cravings - it fills the tale out and makes it more authentic and powerful to me. I really, really liked the idea of getting Mina's side of the story, and of having Mina be lass passive and perfect and more passionate and strong. In that respect, I got what I wanted out of the story.
But what I wasn't expecting, and what I found most fascinating, was her interactions with the men of the story, human and inhuman alike. Dracula's role in this is not the demonic, power-mad, lustful creep of a villain. Or at least, not for the most part. There is certainly a fair amount of lust and a good deal of power and submission. But he bears no resemblance to this guy in looks or manner. Though he is somewhat...unnatural, I guess you'd say, he's not really the villain of the piece. Dracula doesn't appear to be all-encompassing evil. He was terrifying to the Victorians for what he made them confront (lust, mortality), but a thinking, passionate woman need not necessarily fear, so Mina's reaction to him, slowly evolving, intrigued, is appropriate and enjoyable.
All of the domineering men, Drs. Seward and Von Helsinger, Arthur Holmwood/Godalming, even sometimes Mina's husband Jonathan, they're the ones you have to watch out for. And they're the perfect types of villains to creep the bejeezus out of me, because they are overzealous fools given unchecked power they shouldn't have, over people who have no real defense against them. Reasons this makes my skin crawl more than monsters under my bed: a) they feel completely justified in the awful things they do, b) their victims have no real recourse, because in the eyes of the law, they are justified, c) just by virtue of being men, they win control, and anything one could try to take control back would further cement their authority and add to their claims that everything they're doing is justified, and d) they are 100% real. I mean, not these particular characters, of course. But men like them, Victorian psychiatrists and the like, really did exist and practice horrific things on people whom we would consider completely sane. It's this horrible vicious circle that meant that any woman in the Victorian era who had the audacity to express a lustful thought was fair game for their experimentation and "curing" and if she dared stand up for herself and fight, it was further proof that she was insane and needed curing.
I think this is where Essex's book shines. Her human characters can be pretty monstrous, and her portrait of Victorian life and what it meant to be a woman, especially a passionate woman, is very well realized. You can tell she has done a lot of research and a lot of work to bring Mina's world to life. Mina herself straddles the line between proper Victorian woman and fully-realized, passionate woman. She has friends in her life who aren't afraid to express their passions and break the mold, and they are presented in realistic ways, as forward-thinking suffragettes, etc, lending more authenticity to the tale. Because of them, Mina doesn't feel out of place, and the story doesn't feel false or as unrealistic as it could have, given the setting. It was reminiscent of the original, but modern and feminist and womanly enough to be believable. I'm sure Mina would have struggled with some of the things she struggled with, and the feelings and dreams and ordinary experience of sexual awakening and how startling that is for her. From this aspect, it is very well done.
There were some minor setbacks for me. There were times, especially in the beginning, when I just wanted the story to move on. I am not a big fan of excessive description; I am all for setting a scene, and for showing, not telling, but I get more than a little antsy when I feel like useless description has brought the action to a halt. This is a style preference, and I know there are plenty of readers out there who love to have all the minutia described so that they can really see everything in detail. But for me, there were times when I wanted to skim or set the book aside because it wasn't getting on with it at a quick enough pace for me. This was less a problem for me as the story moved along and got into the meat of it, especially once they reached the asylum.
I think there are also those who will be put off by the sexualization of the story. I never found it to be pornographic per se, but it certainly leans toward the erotic at some points. I think this is in keeping with the original in a weird way, since it was so very much about repression and forbidden sexuality (ie, everything that screams Victorian...). While it's never what I would really call explicit, it will most certainly make some people blush; I wouldn't suggest reading it to your grandma. (Well, I may have read this to my grandma. She would have cracked up.) There were times when everything was a little over the top for me, or a little timed ("It's been X pages, time for some writhing..."). But overall, I found it an interesting way to modernly explore what was actually a sexualized tale à la Victorian morés.
I don't remember Dracula enough to really compare specifics, but I think it's certainly an interesting riff on the story. Especially to have Mina telling the tale, firmly and with conviction, because Mina was always the focal point for me anyway. The added gothic elements, like Mina's lifelong bouts with supernatural and Essex's take on the vampire mythology, as well as the very creepy, very gothic and very authentic use of early psychiatry, really brought the book to another level, and made it creepy in a new, modern way. (That sounds like a contradiction, that the use of the Victorian beliefs made it creepy in a modern way. But I think you know what I mean. I hope.) It didn't completely sweep me off my feet, but for the most part, I was pretty pleased with Essex's take and the Mina she presents. If you're not adverse to a little lovin', and you enjoy the gothic ambiance, I'd recommend this one.
Don't forget to stop by tomorrow for my interview with Karen and my giveaway of 5 copies of Dracula in Love!