Friday, 18 March 2016

Stoker’s Manuscript, by Royce Prouty (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) | review by Jacob Edwards

Neither fading nor impaling into insignificance.

There are numerous ways to kill a vampire; somewhat fewer to keep him dead. Many a blood-curdling tale has been told. But the modern brow frowns upon capital punishment, so nowadays we prefer neutering (in the sense of making something ineffective). We strap vampires to the operating table and infuse them with a ghastly blend of garlic sauce and teenage hormones. We turn them into that which they most despise.

Throughout history, humankind has taken refuge in dark humour, chuckling grimly where otherwise we might have succumbed to fear. But comedy is not to blame for disempowering the vampire. Programmes like Count Duckula – spoofs within genre – were never going to have that effect. Laughter plays its part, yes, but the true weapon has been love: we have pulled vampires unto our collective bosom, discarding our crucifixes so as to subsume them within society’s warm embrace.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought vampires into the trialled and tribulated domain of teenage life. It used their dark renown as currency against which to stake kick-ass girl power. Buffy’s rise brought with it inflation, to the point where individual vampires became virtually worthless. You couldn’t give them away. The exception was Angel, but only because he was Buffy’s love interest: dark, broody and… good. To survive, it was no longer sufficient for vampires to steer clear of daylight, wooden stakes and razor-sharp chin-up bars. They had to renounce their very identity. They had to reinvent themselves.

The Twilight Saga brought this process to its wretched conclusion, firmly establishing vampires as mysterious, hunky, angst-ridden and easily besotted. Where once they were fearsome and otherworldly, now they manifested as mysterious but desirable; where formerly a different species altogether, now they were no different from any other lugubrious teen: living apart from the rest of the world, self-absorbed and misunderstood. They had issues.

Vampires, in short, became just like anybody else. To use the word pejoratively, they entered the mainstream. Gone was the unspeakable predator; the physically superior, morally bereft killer; the legend and lore; the monster hiding behind a facade of ancient nobility. No longer was there a sense of darkness; no terrible secret underpinning our fear of the unknown. These days, vampires are creatures of the everyday. There is nothing foreign (let alone alien) about them; nothing out of the ordinary in the hungering urges and bloody depravations that once constituted a force beyond reckoning. The vampire, in flaccid truth, was taken out of Transylvania, and so too was Transylvania taken out of the vampire.

In both cases, Royce Prouty has endeavoured to put it back.

Stoker’s Manuscript (Prouty’s debut novel) is centred around the original, unpublished prelude and concluding section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These documents are to be auctioned, and antiquarian expert Joseph Barkeley is engaged to verify their authenticity and deliver them to an anonymous buyer in Romania. Having returned thus to his homeland, Barkeley – an orphan of Romania’s communist regime under Nicolae Ceauçescy – finds that the excised chapters have a significance far beyond their literary worth… and not just to the reclusive buyer who resides deep within Bran Castle.

Perhaps the most satisfying feature of Prouty’s writing is the realism – seemingly innate – with which he grounds his story. There is a veracity to his characters, an immediacy to the setting, which together echo the literature of bygone days in hinting at fictionalised autobiography. Joseph Barkeley could be a real person, as could his brother or indeed any of the humans portrayed. Where popular fiction would have them splatter the screen or ink-smudge the written narrative with their motivations, instead these remain unobtrusive, the players sure-footed in gracing the pages of Prouty’s book. Romania itself is brought to life with a perspective that makes it eminently believable, both as a country in the throes of hardship and as the dark spawning ground of those undead creatures of legend.

Stoker’s Manuscript is a work of supernatural horror, but it is steeped in history and far from whimsical. The unreal elements seem disconcertingly plausible. The horror, though sparse, is all the more gruesome for the matter-of-fact way in which it is depicted. No aspect is played up merely to shock the reader; rather, the scenario is allowed simply to unfold, intrinsically horrific. The vampires, when they appear, lay claim to absolute dominion. The humans remain helpless; forsaken. Both sanity and sanctity are drawn in to be consumed.

Vampires, before we saw fit to humanise them, had the power to drain us not only of lifeblood but also of spirit, merely through dint of their existence. Occasionally we still tap into the fundamentally chilling dichotomy between them as predator and us as prey – Blade, for instance, before it impaled its own premise upon two splintered sequels – but for the most part we seem now to invite vampires into our homes and hearts, the nature of Dracula’s progeny becoming just one more trendy accessorising of our own human traits.

Royce Prouty, thankfully, makes no such concession; and where the mainstream would have us be enthralled by a boy crying wolf ever more loudly, ever less plausibly, Stoker’s Manuscript instead leaves the warning unuttered. Whatever secrets lay buried within Stoker’s original manuscript, we don’t need to be told that we disinter them at our peril. Yet, in Prouty’s world – looming more genuine than many a reality we fashion around ourselves – the vampyres of old remain a force to be reckoned with. Restored of both pride and place, they are more truthful to Stoker’s original than just about anything that has arisen in the hundred-odd years intervening. Prouty may not be long in the tooth as a novelist, but evidence suggests he might well prove long-lived. Jacob Edwards

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