Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’

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

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Out of the Dark by David Weber

My reason for buying Out of the Dark was the shorter version appearing in Warriors. I was curious to see how David Weber would develop the idea into a novel.

Sometimes, an idea makes a book inherently interesting and can lift it from boring and pedestrian to something better. This is not to say every good idea will make the book good but it will, at least, give it a fighting chance. Ah, the magic word “fighting”. As most of you will know, there’s a whole genre subculture where SF embraces the military side of life. This fascination with battles and wars has always been around with much of the myth- and saga-making investing great creativity in enhancing the end of Carthage, the fall of Troy or the defeat of Hannibal, while not forgetting the Greeks like Leonidas and Xenophon and, later heroes like Beowulf and others. Our own history lives in the glorification of major campaigns like the Crusades, or Shakespearean interest in British civil and international wars, or. . . well the list is endless, isn’t it? It’s the same when we come into this last century. I grew up on comics detailing WWII, the adventures of the Foreign Legion, etc. Then came the explosion of books, film and television series like MASH. It was only a matter of time before Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1960) spawned an SF subgenre.

David Weber

Well, Out of the Dark fits beautifully into the alien invasion/planetary defence mode started by H G Wells in The War of the Worlds, developed in film by Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956), with epics like the Transformers, Independence Day, et al showing Earth surviving against the odds. Following in these footsteps, David Weber can’t resist showing us how we might run the asymmetrical fight against invaders who have superior technology to cross between the stars.

The good idea is to think about the difference in culture between races that are essentially herd-based herbivores, pack-based predators and omnivores who will gnaw on a root until something better wanders into range. The basis of human development has been to turn from random chance to farming sufficient to feed a growing population. We began shepherding, fishing and planting. So, if we scale the develop of intelligence up to a planetary or interplanetary level, what would happen to cultures? Intelligent herbivores might be defensive in outlook, preferring peace and stability to enable their herds to graze in peace, whereas predator species might be looking for new challenges given a hierarchical society with the dominant Alpha males at the top and less strong fighters in submissive positions. Think Klingons. Except Weber prefers to assume a common cultural theme between herbivores and pack-based predators. Herds and less strong predators have a submissive culture. They survive and develop their own self-interest by fitting into a hierarchy. This is a rational decision to sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of all. Hence, if an invading force appeared on the planet of a herbivore or predator culture, and demonstrated overwhelming superiority, they would become submissive and look for ways of optimising their position in the new hierarchy. Weber assumes we humans just don’t know when we’re beaten. Even though this is all seriously superficial and does not allow for the evolution of different cultural norms over the millenia, I’m nevertheless prepared to suspend all judgement as the book unfolds.

For those who prefer to read the book without knowing how Earth is saved this time, stop reading here.

I confess to being bored by all the detail of which guns were being used, their ammunition and the lists of hardware available to the different groups fighting the invaders. I understand this keeps the geeks happy, but I’m happy if whatever they use kills the critters. But there are some intriguing discussions of the logistical problems for the interstellar invaders and explanations of why they misjudge the initial decision to invade and the conduct of the emerging conflict. Frankly, I long ago tired of third party descriptions of aliens as having an effect comparable to that of a hurricane. Weber offers us a refreshing contextualisation for the invasion, explaining the first view of Earth on the 25th October, 1415 and the return of a fleet in contemporary times. The different alien races have potential for development should there be sequels. As it stands, we are given enough information about the Shongairi, the wolf-like creatures who actually invade, to understand their problems. They are slow to decide extermination is better than subjugation, but we can sympathise. They are the product of centuries of social conditioning. Given what we are told about them, the rigidity of their decision-making systems does make sense.

However, we now come to the deus ex machina solution. As a novella in Warriors, I was vastly amused by this. Chasing through a shorter version of the story, it just comes as a genre-busting joke. If you’re going to have loupy aliens, having Earth’s vampires to fight back seems quite reasonable. Our werewolves would probably not fare nearly so well. Think of it this way. Humans have long been the food animals for vampires. Like shepherds, they have ensured enough of us survive to provide food. But when the Shongairi propose to eradicate the humans, Dracula has no choice. Any good herdsman will defend his flocks. Needless to say, it’s a short sharp campaign to create enough new vampires to be able to take out all the alien bases on Earth and assume command of the fleet in orbit. Once you overcome the basic silliness — vampires vs aliens — it actually does leave more to be explored should the vampires now take the dreadnoughts back to the Shongairi worlds and, in Death Star mode, reduce them to asteroids. What was good enough for Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, should work equally well when applied to the Shongairi.

It just about kept my interest to the end and, while it’s not the best military SF book I’ve read, it strikes me as being quite good of its type. I can understand that the purists will be outraged by this subversive use of vampires but, once you accept the idea of alien invaders, it’s hardly any more silly for humans to have supernatural farmers as allies.

Jacket artwork by the generally impressive Stephan Martiniere.

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