As we Goth and Horror fans have known for decades, there has never been a shortage of tales speculating on how the Vlad the Impaler of history became the Count Dracula of legend. Some have been better than others. Some have offered some pretty outlandish theories. 2018’s Dracula: Rise of the Beast (edited by David Thomas Moore, and containing stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Milena Benini, Bogi Takacs, Emil Minchev, and Carn Gussoff Sumption) does something different. Instead of speculating too much on the why of the Impaler’s transformation, this epistolary novel framed by an epistolary novel explores what his transformation has meant to him during his “human life” and to those around him during that time and the centuries that have followed it. In some ways, it’s less about Dracula than it is about the struggles of those, often powerless and marginalized voices, who have had to contend with Dracula’s existence.
The Premise. The opening correspondence, an email set in January of 2018, introduces us to the two main characters: Jonathan Holmwood (the great-grandson of Mina Harker of Dracula fame) and a woman named Dani Vaduva, of whom we know nothing at present (more about her later!). Dani wrote to Holmwood to request documents related to Mina Harker and Dracula. He gives her a cryptic warning to be careful and not expose herself on what seems to be a Reddit subthread – /r/fanghunters (which, sadly, doesn’t exist). We’re told nothing more about Dani, and then the book moves into its first of five sections. Each of these sections begins with an Interlude where Holmwood gives Dani a bit of the background on the “collection” that she’s being allowed to read.
The Voices. Each section contains a different set of voices, told, often in first-person through letters and journal entries – although a few sections have third-person narrative elements included. While Stoker’s novel contained numerous voices, all shared common elements of being fairly upper-middle or upper-class white voices from Victorian England. One of Dracula: Rise of the Beast’s strengths is that it provides us with a diversity of voices. The first section gives us the voices of medieval Jews living in Eastern Europe (mostly Hungary) – a population marginalized throughout the majority of the Middle Ages. We get to see rabbis beseeching Christian nobles to help them gain the ear of Hungarian king Matyas Corvinus, spying on a young, bloodthirsty Vlad Dracula (who, unbeknownst to many of them, is already a vampire), and possibly forging an alliance with Dracula himself. Another section provides us with an interesting interpretation of the legends surrounding Elizabeth Bathory. Another section focuses on women’s voices, specifically those of Roma women, in the “modern” world from the 1970s to the present. And another gives us the voice of Dracula himself – a long letter written wherein the Count tells of finding his “one true love”, of becoming a parent, and of the reason why he must sail for England at the start of Stoker’s novel.
This really is one of the novel’s strengths. The sections are largely well-written, and the voices feel distinct. I can’t fully say if they feel “accurate,” but there are enough distinctions and references to suggest that, at the very least, an honest attempt at portraying these people accurately has been made. I really like how the book focuses on the impact Dracula has had on marginalized people – instead of well-off British people. And it’s more important for the story’s conclusion than it initially seemed.
I said the sections were largely well-written, but there were a few problems. The first is that some of the longer documents felt like they dragged at times. That may have been the case, or it may have been that I was reading this while grading final exams, meaning that my eyes were tired and my focus was shot. Also, the plethora of voices, while intriguing to me, may be troublesome for some. For those who don’t know, this is often what researchers go through when piecing together evidence from archives – lots of incomplete knowledge, conflicting accounts, differing interpretations, etc. And for those unprepared for this, it could be difficult to follow. And finally, there is a scene where Dracula has sex with a witch, and the dialogue is cringeworthy and horrible. I’ve read a few romance novels, and none of them had dialogue that bad. I won’t spoil it for you, but I think that’s a reason to read this book in and of itself.
There will be some spoilers beyond this point. I don’t normally post spoilers, but this is something that DESERVES mentioning.
The Big Reveal. No, this section has little to do with Dracula himself. Instead, the big spoiler is that one of the main character’s, Dani, of whom we are told next to nothing throughout the book, is transgender. The last section of the book, titled “The Women,” features writings from the Roma woman Mera Szgany, her daughter Lolo, and her adopted daughter – Dani. We get brief depictions of Dani’s acceptance of who she is (being assigned male at birth and given the name Danior), her joy at starting HRT and the journey that is transitioning, and her fear of coming out to her mother. We witness them fight over this.
Interestingly enough, Dani’s mother’s anger at her transition isn’t about “losing a son.” Her anger and fear arise from how Dani’s acceptance of who she is and her transition will invoke a curse that Corvinus placed upon the Szgany family centuries ago. As a result of this, Dani has choices to make, has to learn the history of her people (hence, writing to Holmwood), and how to navigate how her what she learns about herself could and will impact how she navigates through the world. Those of us who are transgender, and I would wager members of the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized communities, understand that this serves as a metaphor for how we respond to accepting and living the truth of who we are.
And Dani is not the only LGBT character in the novel. There are insinuations that Corvinus and Dracula may have had a sexual and romantic attraction to one another and that to maintain appearances Dracula would use black magic to assume the form of a female while in Corvinus’ presence. I’m surprised nothing was mentioned about Vlad’s time being “imprisoned” by the Ottoman emperor whose son, at least according to European sources (take them for what you will), made sexual advances at both Vlad and Radu.
Take these sections for what you will. What I want noted is that very little is made about the fluidity of human sexuality and of gender identity. These are seen as aspects of who these characters are. From Sparta on, there have always been warriors who have sexual relationships with other warriors, so the relations between Corvinus and Dracula should come as no surprise. Dani’s gender identity surprised me because we saw so little of her voice until she announced that she was moving toward HRT. And that, I think, is one of the best ways to present trans characters in literature and other popular media – they are who they are, and we only know they are transgender when they disclose that aspect of who they are to us, and yes, that disclosure should be their choice. (Trust me, being outed is never a good thing.) Dani’s section seems far more realistic, and ultimately inspiring and uplifting than most of the transgender narratives mainstream media puts forward. It felt great to read a story about a trans woman’s journey that ended on a powerful, positive note. Thank you, Caren Gussoff Sumption for this!
Final Thoughts. Dracula: Rise of the Beast might not be everyone’s goblet of red wine, but it really is a fascinating take on the impact of vampires living in the world and having positions of power. It was mostly well-written and engaging. I honestly thought it would be downhill after the Elizabeth Bathory section, because I’m sort of a huge fangirl of hers. But, to quote Thorin Oakenshield, “Never have I been so wrong”. There’s a lot to unpack in this book, and I think I’ll definitely give it a second read pretty soon.
Rating: 3.9 out of 4 vampire bats with bad Eastern European accents.