Review: The Dracula Papers Book I: The Scholar's Tale by Reggie Oliver

Monday, April 11, 2011

Since Bram Stoker's Dracula appeared in 1897, the vampire legend has taken on a curious afterlife, with gory fangs penetrating deep into all literature's rich veins. Every year, the struggle to keep the vampire original, interesting, and frightening grows harder. Now, in an age when most writers are looking for ways to siphon away Dracula's monstrous blood and fill him with a human soul, or launch him into the stars, hardly anyone has wanted to look back at the legend's roots. Until now. Reggie Oliver's new book, The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale, published by Chomu Press, takes us back to Medieval Transylvania. Armed with a formidable knowledge of history and a talent for spinning quality drama, Oliver banishes cliches and seeks to unveil Dracula's beginnings.

This novel is a departure in size and scope from Reggie Oliver's previous efforts, which include four popular short story collections. To call it an expansion of last year's novella, The Wounds of Exile, would be obscene, though the entirety of that storyline plays a small part. Oliver has instead unchained an original and highly elegant take on the Dracula horror that pierces through genres. One part historical fiction, and another weird literature, mixes with a rich overlay of adventures, fearful visions, and wartime drama. It is hard to say where history ends and legends begin here, but this is what makes the work a coherent human drama, and an unsettling one.

The Dracula Papers unfolds through a forgotten autobiography by Martin Bellorious, a brilliant young scholar who is summoned to Transylvania as an instructor to King Xantho's two sons. Along the way, Bellorious links up with a courageous dwarf, an introverted alchemist, and a wide cast of larger-than-life characters who each play a role in the succeeding drama. Oliver's celebrated capacity for wit, intrigue, and brutally vibrant detail is well on display before his band reaches Wallachia and encounters the book's true protagonist.

Vlad, the younger prince, is an enigmatic shadow. Though anyone can guess that this withdrawn adolescent is to bear Dracula, the Impaler, and perhaps many other titles, his fate materializes only through severe episodes that remain shocking and engaging even as they occur. Reggie Oliver's mythic Prince is a wonder to behold in all his aspects. His unlikely victories in combat are matched by savage tragedies with his royal peers, just as his demonic rage is equaled by a surprising tenderness for a noble girl. Although subsequent books in this series will reveal further critical episodes contributing to Dracula's historic potency, Oliver's portrayal of his formative years in this novel is sufficiently powerful to make the mighty destination awaiting the young man believable.

But is there any weird horror? This question, inevitably asked by longtime Reggie Oliver followers, is an affirmative. Amid the painstaking historic details and glamor of exotic courtiers is a dark atmosphere that occasionally slams readers with visions, ghosts, and real world horrors equal to or greater than the frights in Oliver's short stories. Castle Dracula conceals many anxious secrets, such as the abandoned chambers of a former Queen, who cursed the place with a terrible secret in her black quest for youth. It is often Bellorious' superhuman brainpower alone, or joined with the courageous explorations of others, that uncovers and brings sense to these terrible mysteries.

Later, ghouls, prophesying corpses, and a decrepit old prisoner who can talk to rats adds to the horror in The Dracula Papers. Additional blows arrive when Transylvania goes to war with the Ottoman Turks. The grim atrocities on both sides are grotesque not just because they seem like macabre fantasies from Oliver's imagination, but rather like plausible incidents from the lawless middle ages. Take the catapulting of human heads, for instance, or several scenes where infernos roast prisoners alive.

Oliver's visions of hell and other religious manias are particularly effective at inducing a shudder. His purgatory is a place where genuine, dehumanizing torture occurs. Fire is just the beginning, and the true evil hides in the darkness, where millions of buzzing voices consume the shrieks of the damned forever. These anti-miracles are often directly related to Dracula's accursed history, and especially to a monastery filled with “black monks” working a terrible sorcery in the affair that will probably not be clear until future installments are published.

Where Reggie Oliver's talent really shines is in his narrative's iron clad realism, which carries through diverse settings. Sixteenth century Eastern Europe never seemed so barbarically convincing in its horror. But then, the author carries this over to the Orient, where readers enjoy a brief rest from Castle Dracula's musty confines in the Sultan's marvelous palace. The lavish indulgences feasted upon by the Ottoman tyrant are sickening in their own right, but Istanbul and the Mediterranean also form a last proving ground for the scholar, Prince Vlad, and their aides as they fight to return to Transylvania. Before the end is in sight, Bellorious' harrowing story gives way to an exquisite chaos aboard a pirate ship that must be experienced to be believed, and a final secret about the vampire Prince.

By the time The Dracula Papers concludes, one wonders if fiction is finally stranger than truth. This four hundred plus page tome should be exhausting with its indulgent horror, passions, wars, and mysteries. Yet, by some devilish energy, weariness never sets in. Only an unquenchable desire for the next novel remains. Reggie Oliver has succeeded at mining a hellishly engaging story from an old quarry that has yielded only trite, brittle material for so long. If subsequent books in this series prove as momentous as The Scholar's Tale, then Bram Stoker may have finally found a worthy heir.

-Grim Blogger

  © Blogger template Writer's Blog by 2008

Back to TOP