Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Tag

Bram Stoker Battles Vampires in “Dracul.”   Leave a comment

 

DraculBy C. Michael Forsyth

Dracul, by J.D. Barker and Dacre Stoker, is an instant classic, the best vampire novel I’ve read since Interview with the Vampire. Its premise is that in his youth, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, actually went toe-to-toe with the fiendish bloodsucker. The novel is genuinely scary, exciting and enriched by meticulous research that vividly recreates the 19th century Ireland of young Bram Stoker.

We first meet Bram as a chronically ill, bedridden lad in Dublin. He and his siblings are cared for by a peculiar young nanny named Ellen Crone, who keeps Bram alive by mysterious late-night ministrations. Bram and his spunky sister Matilda begin to investigate their enigmatic live-in servant, who is prone to dead-of-night outings and unexplained absences, but after a rash of brutal murders takes place nearby, Ellen abruptly vanishes. Years later, when Bram is 21, he, Matilda and their brother Thornley are forced to confront the evil that Ellen brought into their home and do battle with the undead.

 

Bram Stoker

BRAM STOKER, author of Dracula, suffered an unexplained illness as a boy.

 

Dacre Stoker, Bram’s great-grandnephew, has devoted more than a decade to researching his famous forebear. He travels the world giving presentations on the fascinating facts from he has gleaned from family documents, letters, journals and other sources. In Dacre’s research, he stumbled across an obscure Icelandic edition of Dracula that is quite different from the book we know. In its preface, Bram makes the astonishing claim that Dracula is not a work of fiction, but of fact. That intriguing suggestion fired up Dacre’s imagination. What if Dracula was intended as a warning to the world? Later, he and Barker got a rare glimpse at the original typescript of Dracula with markings and notes indicating that 102 pages had been cut from the opening of the manuscript. This material became fodder for their prequel.

Dacre and J.D. Barker

Dacre Stoker with co-author J.D. Barker

I’ve had the pleasure of attending one of Dacre Stoker’s presentations on Bram, so it doesn’t surprise me that Dracul contains rich and accurate descriptions of the Stoker family members, their home and its surroundings. What I didn’t expect was an engaging mystery, which Bram and his siblings unravel, gradually learning Ellen’s true identity and motivations. One of the great delights of the book comes when we finally hear Ellen Crone’s back story, a tale within a tale that has the flavor of an Irish folktale. Plus, at the heart of the novel—and you’ll find this turns out to be literal—there is a grand love story that spans centuries. (And nope, it’s not Drac pining for a reincarnation of his lost love).

The book is faithful to Dracula, even borrowing the epistolary format much of the story told through the interwoven journals and letters of Bram and his siblings. A challenge of this approach is to make each character’s voice distinct. I’m not sure the authors entirely pull that off, but the writing is lovely, in the gothic style of the era in which the novel is set.

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey, on the Yorkshire coast, is a setting for a critical scene in Dracul.

The supernatural rules line up with vampire lore established in popular culture, yet the authors avoid the usual tropes. Startling visuals help the story feel fresh, for example, when Ellen descends deep into a bog under the moonlight or when a heart in a lab jar abruptly starts beating. Often, we’re baffled as to what is going on—in a good way. We have the same sense that we are dealing with the unfamiliar as did the earliest readers of Dracula. (“He’s scuttling down the castle wall like a spider? What the bloody hell?”) The authors also draw upon esoteric vampire lore that rarely shows up in movies. Most notably, the folkloric belief that suicides may return from the grave as vampires is put to good use.

 

Vambery portrait

Arminius Vambery is the “Van Helsing” of Dracul.

Bram and his siblings are aided by a seasoned supernatural sleuth, a worthy predecessor to Dr. Van Helsing yet a quite different type of man. The authors made the inspired choice of recruiting a real-life figure, Arminius Vámbéry, a Hungarian traveler, Turkologist and dabbler in the occult. A far cry from the priestly old Dr. Van Helsing, he is a member of the notorious Hellfire Club, a seeker of sensation and forbidden knowledge, not unlike Dorian Gray in TV’s Penny Dreadful. A man who has seen and done too many things.

 

 

 

 

 

Armin Vambery

World-traveler Vambery dons a Dervish outfit for one of his adventures.

Dacre Stoker’s previously co-authored Dracula: The Un-Dead, a sequel to Dracula. Though a highly entertaining novel, it was not as true to Bram’s creation as the current work. It presented Dracula as he likely saw himself: a romantic, misunderstood Byronic figure not unlike the dreamy hunk Frank Langella played in the 1979 movie.
Langella Dracula

 

In Dracul, this IS your great-granduncle’s Dracula. I believe that if Vlad the Impaler really were vampirized this is what he would be like: monstrously cruel and tyrannical. He is even more of a badass than in the original novel, inflicting a form of torture on one character that can only be described as epic. In Dracula, Bram only vaguely alludes to the historical 15th century Vlad Tepes, and we never learn exactly how Vlad went from warlord to vampire. In Dracul, the authors connect the dots in a plausible way.

Vlad the impaler full

Take-no-prisoners warlord Vlad the Impaler 

Vampire fans will be thrilled by the many Easter eggs, such as scenes set at Whitby Abbey, a locale that featured prominently in Dracula. There is a cameo appearance by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, author of the classic vampire tale Carmilla. The climax of the novel takes place in a “city of the dead” in Germany populated entirely by vampires. Presumably this was inspired by the vampiric ghost town in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 German-language film Vampyr. (That movie, every bit as creepy as the silent film Nosferatu, was based on a story by Le Fanu, by the way.)

All in all, I give Dracul an enthusiastic five-stake rating.

Vampyr

THE final showdown in Dracul takes place in a city of the dead similar to the one in the 1932 film Vampyr.

 

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Take a Dangerous Dive into “The Quarry.”   Leave a comment

The Quarry Cover

By C. Michael Forsyth

I was delighted to recently learn that fellow horror writer Mark Allan Gunnells lives in Greer, South Carolina, a stone’s throw away from my home in Greenville. What’s more, I discovered, one of his novels is set at the very real Limestone College, 1.8 miles from my door! Intrigued, I immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Quarry is a well-crafted, chilling tale, especially impressive because this was the author’s first novel.

The story centers around Lake Limestone, a former quarry and limestone mine near the campus that was flooded decades ago in the 1950s—deliberately, it turns out, by miners who encountered something horrible there. In the present day, the lake is tranquil and idyllic. That’s until a thrill-seeking jock named Dale gets the bright idea of scuba diving to the bottom in the dead of night. He awakens an ancient evil lurking deep beneath the waters and becomes possessed by it. As Dale undergoes a horrific transformation, his best friend and roommate Emilio tries to save him, while trying to unravel the secret of the Quarry.

Though thoroughly modern in its depiction of college life, the story is in the classic horror tradition. In fact, it reminds me of the 1950s flicks my sister and I used watch on TV every Saturday night as kids. Dale’s struggle against his curse is reminiscent of Teenage Werewolf and The Amazing Colossal Man, in which a decent chap becomes monstrous through no fault of his own.

The Amazing Colossal Man

In the 1957 film The Amazing Colossal Man,  exposure to atomic radiation causes a man to grow 60 feet tall.

 

Gunnels has a sophisticated writing style, with lines such as “Like liquid darkness, the lake enveloped him.” When the increasingly sinister Dale laughs, the sound is “like rocks scraping the bottom of a muddy lake bed.” The author milks the inherent creepiness of certain campus locations for all they’re worth, such as the gloomy basement room that houses the laundry machines, dubbed the Dungeon by students. He often creates suspense by withholding information from the readers, leaving them to uneasily ponder what might be coming next. It’s quite far into the story before we find out the exact nature of the menace in the lake—and believe me, it’s far from what you’d expect. Emilio is also nursing a secret of his own.

An enjoyable read and I’m looking forward to checking out the sequel, The Cult of Ocasta.

C. Michael Forsyth is the author of the horror novel Hour of the Beast.

 

In “Changa’s Safari” an African Sinbad Battles Sorcerers and Demons.   1 comment

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By C. Michael Forsyth

Reading Changa’s Safari, a thrilling and original adventure introducing an instantly iconic hero, was one of the most satisfying literary experiences of my life. It’s as if Milton J. Davis reached into my mind, found elements I’ve always loved and expertly assembled them, the way a parent might weave all their child’s favorite things into a bedtime story.

Given that the glory of medieval Africa was its vast and sophisticated trading system, I’ve long thought an African Sinbad would make an interesting character — and here he is: the swashbuckling merchant Changa, who survives on both his cunning and brawn. I grew up on those Ray Harryhausen movies like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and this book recaptures that magic and mystery, as the seafaring Changa ventures onto mysterious islands, slashes his way through jungles and battles monsters, demons and sorcerers. The novel is broken into three grand outings. In the first, he and his intrepid crew set forth on a quest for a powerful talisman called the Jade Obelisk – which, in the wrong hands can destroy the world. In another, to return an emperor to his throne, Changa journeys to the Great Wall of China.

I’m a huge fan of the Conan books and Changa’s Safari — a brilliant example of what’s been dubbed the “sword and soul” genre — has echoes of Robert Howard’s cosmology. The hero finds himself at odds with sinister, ancient entities that lurk on the edges of our world, aching to regain power.

Davis clearly invested many years researching Africa and it pays off in believability. The setting is not some fantasy land cobbled together from a couple of Internet articles and wishful thinking, but real places such as Zimbabwe and the port city of Sofala, reconstructed as they must have been, with loving attention to detail. Medieval African merchants really did do business as far away as East Asia. As a student of African history who is eager to see representations of the continent that do justice to its advanced civilizations, I’m ecstatic to find a book that satisfies that thirst.

Whether on land or sea, the action scenes are vividly described and well-choreographed. The weapons used and the military tactics all are genuine. The supporting cast including Changa’s sorceress aide and love interest Panya, help to round out the story and bring out the hero’s compassionate side. While he hungers for gold, he cares for his friends more.

I have to admit, I’m a bit envious of Davis. My own sword and soul novel The Blood of Titans contains loads of details about African societies culled from stacks of books, but I ended up borrowing from various cultures as needed to create a mythological kingdom. In retrospect, I wish I’d set the story in a specific time and place, as Davis does. My book also includes a wily warrior-merchant, the caravan master Kamau, as a secondary hero — but frankly, I kind of like Changa better!

Trouble is now I’m getting greedy. I want to read the next Changa book and the next. I want to feast my eyes on a graphic novel version and a feature film. And I can see in my head a TV show akin to Xena, Warrior Princess, following the adventures of the hero and his intrepid crew!

 

Blood of Titans cover as printed better_edited-1

The Blood of Titans is a story of love and adventure set in the golden age of Africa.

Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London: A Review   Leave a comment

sherlock-vamp-1

By C. Michael Forsyth

Years ago, in college, I was midway through the book Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula by Loren D. Estleman, when I enthusiastically told my roommate I was reading a novel about the pair butting heads.

“So am I,” he marveled, holding up his dog-eared paperback copy of The Holmes-Dracula Files by Fred Saberhagen. Two books on the same theme, by authors who took the premise in entirely different directions. It turns out the great detective has had multiple literary run-ins with the Lord of Darkness over the years. A clash of the contemporaries was inevitable. They are the two most enduring characters in fiction – one the epitome of Victorian rationality, the other the embodiment of its dark, sensual counterpart.

Purists object to any Holmes tale involving the supernatural, but the possibility of the hero venturing off his usual turf appeals to me. And the more, the merrier. I’d love to see a three-way mashup, where Sherlock and Tarzan team up to battle Dracula in Africa!

Dracula does not make an appearance in the entertaining graphic novel Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London, but the sleuth does face some equally implacable foes, principally the aristocratic vampire Lord Selymes.

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UPPERCRUST VAMPIRE Lord Selymes is the perfect host.

 

The story is set in 1891, during Sherlock’s hiatus after his supposed death fighting Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. A rogue vampire has been viciously murdering prominent Englishman, for reasons unknown. Selymes, with the help of his legion of bloodsucking minions, coerces a reluctant Holmes into tracking the fiend down. The “stakes” are high. If the killing spree doesn’t stop, Queen Victoria – who tolerates vampires in her realm – will have no choice but to order their extermination.

The writer Sylvain Cordurie is faithful to Conan Doyle, when it comes to Holmes’ personality and methods. The detective relies on his powerful intellect to defeat his undead foes. In one clever move, he imbibes holy water to dispatch a vampire who makes the mistake of biting him. The detective’s expertise in chemistry also plays a critical role in the story.

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BOTTOMS UP: Holmes uses his brain to get the better of a bloodsucker.

 

Watson, as yet unaware that Holmes is alive, is not aboard for this adventure. The story is told as a memoir Holmes writes to his friend. The doctor’s absence is sorely felt; now I understand why Conan Doyle gave his cerebral hero a companion to begin with. Holmes, true to form, is emotionally detached throughout, whereas Watson’s reactions – terror, revulsion, disbelief – would have added another dimension to the tale. As it is, the book has a somewhat dispassionate tone. In fact, the writer doesn’t even include a moment in which the logical Holmes is shocked to learn of the existence of vampires. He’s pretty “sanguine” about the blood-drinkers, pardon the pun.

Irene Adler, the woman Sherlock became smitten with in A Scandal in Bohemia, does appear in vampire form – or rather her lookalike appears. You see, the real Irene apparently died two years earlier. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. SPOILER ALERT: The vampire is not Irene. The writer missed a golden opportunity here to offer Holmes an irresistible temptation.

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Sherlock’s only love interest IRENE ADLER is back — or is she?

 

The artist Laci does a crackerjack job depicting fog-enshrouded 19th century London, with attention to details of architecture and costume. Colorist Alex Gonzalbo’s use of a limited palette contributes to the grim atmosphere. I wasn’t crazy about how Holmes was drawn, however. His facial expression rarely changes, and while we know he is coldly logical, we want human reactions at critical points. I was also disappointed that Irene’s double is not more alluring. Irene had sex appeal to spare – shouldn’t a vampire version be more vampy?

I also have a beef with the dimensions. The book was originally published in France at 12.5 x 9 inches, but the  U.S. version put out by Dark Horse is reduced to a stingy 10 ½ x 7 inches. The panels look cramped, and some of the drama and beauty of the art is lost. I would have enjoyed the reading experience more in a larger format.

If you like stories that blend Conan Doyle and the paranormal, you might enjoy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House, by C. Michael Forsyth.

HOUDINI Front Y

Houdini and Conan Doyle investigate a bizarre disappearance in new book.

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