Dracula in Love by Karen Essex

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Hardcover, 384 pages

Published: August 10, 2010 by Doubleday

Setting: Victorian England

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Ah … Dracula. The vampire who held his English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, hostage in his Transylvanian castle and preyed on innocent virgins, imbibing their blood. The eerie, unforgettable villain of Bram Stoker’s Victorian classic and a staggering number of film adaptations.

Legends about revenants who drink human blood seem to span across many times and cultures. The Victorian versions of these stories ooze subliminal sexuality. In an era when some respectable folk covered piano legs, so it wouldn’t remind people of the curves of a woman’s legs and provoke untoward thoughts, perhaps it was easier to write about fanged undead preying on virginal girls than it was to discuss actual sex.

These stories glean a lot of power from their deep folkloric roots and from the subliminal sexuality. Today vampire stories have dumped the subliminal aspect — the vamp-sex is right out there. This defuses the tales a bit, but they are still great fun.

“The truth is we must fear monsters less and be warier of our own kind,” the narrator says, in the introduction to this novel. Like Dracula, My Love by Syrie James, this novel re-imagines Bram Stoker’s famous story, telling it from Mina’s point of view. In many ways, it’s a darker, edgier story than Dracula, My Love. While there are supernatural elements, the focus is on human evil, particularly the treatment of women in Victorian England.

While Stoker’s tale is laden with subliminal sexuality, Dracula in Love makes it overt — several scenes are hot — and exposes the ugly fear and repression that women faced, especially when expressing their sexuality. “(Dracula) is often read as a cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century,” Essex wrote. “In this vein, I wanted to turn the original story inside out and expose its underbelly or its “subconscious mind,” by illuminating the cultural fears, as well as the rich brew of myths and lore, that went into Stoker’s creation.”

In Dracula in Love we see the budding women’s movement, with ladies taking to the streets to protest their disenfranchisement. We also see various ways women were controlled, including mistreatment in mental asylums. Unwanted wives, or women who refused to cling to the asexual role society proscribed for them, found themselves institutionalized as “lunatics” and subjected to horrific treatments. This piece of the story reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Dracula in Love also incorporates an imaginative re-creation of Celtic myths, offering — among other things — an interesting contrast between the patriarchal nature of Christendom and female-centered “pagan” religions. This facet of the book reminded me a bit of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. And English folklore, from ghost stories to miraculous tales, is strewn throughout the book.

Like Dracula, My Love, this novel fills in some of the gaps left in Stoker’s story. This makes a more fully fleshed out story, with more richly developed characters — particularly the women. However, it often weakens the story. Isn’t it those shadowy gaps, and the things left unsaid, that lend the original tale a creepy sense of mystery? For example, Essex’s account of the creation of vampires, including Dracula, was imaginative and unique but didn’t appeal to me. And Dracula himself, who was intentionally portrayed as not evil, lacked a lot of his edge.

In Dracula in Love, the male characters were flawed but fundamentally decent. In this novel, Jonathan is irredeemably weak and gormless, and his cohorts are warped and a bit sinister. This makes sense, as this is a very different story, one that focuses on the dark side of history and human nature. Somehow this makes the novel both less compelling, as I didn’t feel a connection with the men in the story, and more compelling, as it drew me into a gritty reality.

Overall, this is a well-crafted blend of historical fiction and paranormal romance and a good read — at times it’s gripping and painful, and at other times it’s delightfully fun. I think it will be quite popular with vampire lovers and historical fiction aficionados who don’t mind the raunchy bits.

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