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The Dracula Papers Book 1: The Scholar’s Tale by Reggie Oliver

The Dracula Papers Book 1: The Scholar’s Tale by Reggie Oliver (Chômu Press, 2011) gets me back on the track of good books. Unfortunately, my luck was out with the last two choices pulled from the shelves which were starkly, if not relentlessly, bad. This gets me back to a British author whose work I’ve only enjoyed in short stories. Yet, before formally starting, I want to say a few words about Fred Saberhagen. I had the pleasure of meeting him some years ago and found him a delightfully engaging man. Appropriately, we were on a panel together discussing vampires and laughed about the different aspects of the trope. In conversation, I could honestly applaud The Dracula Tape. Yes, there are better vampire novels in the general sense of the word, but this inversion of the classic original to retell the story from the “monster’s” point of view, was a good effort to reinvent vampire stories with a sympathetic hero. Mashing up Dracula with Sherlock Holmes in the second volume added to the sly humour of it all. In the mid-1970s, this was all quite ground-breaking. Sadly, the series dropped off quite sharply in quality after the first three. Nevertheless, we should all thank Saberhagen for allowing Dracula to speak to us through the medium of a cassette tape recorder.

Ploughing a slightly different furrow, The Scholar’s Tale is the first of a projected tetralogy playing the unearthed manuscript game. This particular record of events was allegedly committed to paper by Martin Bellorius in 1632. He’s introduced as a polymath of wide fame during the Renaissance and so recruited to be tutor to two Princes of Transylvania, namely Mircea and Vladimir (then twelve years old). The major part of the novel concerns the political and military manoeuvrings that saw Transylvania and much of Hungary relegated to the status of vassal states under the Ottoman Empire.

Reggie Oliver looking suitably Puckish

This sets Reggie Oliver off on the tricky literary path of writing a suitably convincing seventeenth century autobiography or, perhaps more accurately, memoirs. It has to blend vocabulary, usages and literary conventions from earlier times with a form accessible to modern readers. What we end up with is suitably rambling and anecdotal. It borrows features of the early epistolary novels and blends them into a slightly picaresque form. That said, it would be wrong to characterise Bellorius as a rogue. He is, when all’s said and done, a notable scholar. But he certainly has to live by his wits once the adventures start and, were it not for him discovering some minor skills with a sword, he would undoubtedly perish early in his own story. Taken overall, about one-third of the book is the frame of Bellorius and his misadventures with the balance the origin story of Vlad, giving us the opportunity to see some of the machinations that shaped the boy’s early development (ignoring his genetic heritage since we’re not entirely sure who his father might have been). As a true act of literary humility, Bellorius remembers himself as a relatively minor character, frequently upstaged by events and a dwarf called Razendoringer who proves pleasingly competent in the art of survival.

In all this, we meander across the undreamed tracts of history, much like the Wandering Jew, named Issachar in this novel, whom we meet early on and whose name crops up afterwards as people remember him passing by. From the little I know, real world events have been moved around to fit into the fictionalised version associated with the Dracula canon. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the actual history of the time to judge quite how many changes to the record have been made. Indeed, even to make the attempt might do the literary work a disservice. Like most novels set in past times and dealing with vampires, it’s intended as a work of fiction and we should judge it not on whether it is, in any sense, accurate, but on whether the background context feels credible. In this, I distinguish biographical historical films dealing with supposedly real-world characters and events. When the subject matter is real people, I expect the history to be reasonably accurate (see Should historical films be like documentaries?) So, when you put it all together, The Scholar’s Tale comes out as a highly readable, if somewhat romanticised and slightly Gothic, version of events in Germany, crossing over into the shifting alliances of the Hungarian states as they failed to stand as a bulwark against the invading Ottoman forces, and then Turkey as factions vied for control.

To tell this story, Reggie Oliver beautifully interweaves vignettes into the structure of the narrative. He’s better known as a short story writer and dramatist. Hence, like a stream, we flow into small pools of circumstances in which mobs can be whipped up into the hysterical denunciation of witchcraft, apparently hospitable farmers may commit unnatural acts like cannibalism, a beautiful woman may be the leader of cutthroat brigands, werewolves may threaten travellers as they pass through dark forests, nocturnal visits may suggest vampirism, and so on. This is not to label this a horror novel. Quite the reverse. Our rationalist Bellorius is naive when it comes to the world and frequently oblivious to its dangers. Almost everything is told in a relatively dry and pedantic style as befits our academic as narrator. This is not to deny the odd outburst of purple prose as when our scholar encounters a man who can control rats and persuade them to attack the Ottoman camp. But simply to warn readers that The Scholar’s Tale is not a vampire novel in the traditional sense of cataloguing the depredations of a bloodsucking fiend. Like Fred Saberhagen’s earlier effort, we’re simply allowed a chance to see a young boy growing into a heroic role, i.e. before any of those “things” that have made him so notorious to later generations. As an aside, a couple of these textual interpolations made me smile. When the moment is right, it turns out Reggie Oliver has a nicely malicious view of how to retaliate effectively when wronged, and an eye for farce (although, in one sequence, the farce turns to tragedy when when the rhinoceros fails to survive).

Overall, The Dracula Papers Book 1: The Scholar’s Tale is hugely enjoyable, Reggie Oliver has proved himself adept at the longer form, and I’m champing at the bit, waiting for the next in the series to appear, apparently called The Monk’s Tale.

The Dracula Papers has been nominated for Best Novel in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.

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