You'd think rare book expert Joseph Barkeley would be a little suspicious. A rich, mysterious buyer has just asked him to authenticate the original manuscript for DRACULA, oversee the purchase, and deliver it... to Transylvania. But there's a lot of money at stake, and of course Barkeley, himself born in Romania, is too sensible to believe in vampires. Soon, though, he'll change his mind, and be forced to use the manuscript of the most famous vampire novel ever to discover long-buried secrets that may be his only chance to save his life. It's the premise for a crackerjack supernatural thriller, and indeed you get glimmers of how well it could have worked in other hands. But STOKER'S MANUSCRIPT is so let down by awkward prose, weak characterization, and lackluster horror sequences that it isn't remotely scary, exciting, or satisfying.
Even the title is misleading. All the "clues" in the original manuscript are material invented by author Royce Prouty and have nothing to do with Stoker's novel, which is barely relevant to this story. Rather than weave DRACULA and its history into his own ideas in a meaningful way, Prouty has taken a couple of the most basic facts about DRACULA's Romanian setting and created his own vampire mythology around them. There's nothing wrong with that, provided it's done well (and in fact some of Prouty's ideas, though underdeveloped, are neat), but those expecting a "secret history" with detailed reference to the original will be disappointed. So will those hoping for diabolically clever puzzle-solving. Barkeley works through each set of not-very-complicated clues in one undramatic rush. It's like watching someone do the TV Guide crossword.
Most of Barkeley's time is spent not on solving puzzles but on acting as a tour guide. STOKER'S MANUSCRIPT has some of the worst dumps of crude exposition I've ever seen. There's no effort to weave information into a coherent inner monologue or pace it within the flow of the larger narrative: he simply stops to lecture the reader for a couple paragraphs (or a couple pages) on history, geography, architecture, paper-making. Even when he ought to be terrified or in mourning, he can put aside his feelings to tell you how many towers a castle has. As a friend put it when I quoted a passage to him, "That sounds like a less interesting Wikipedia." Whether or not he's imitating an encyclopedia article, Barkeley speaks in the same stilted manner, as do all the other characters. Barely a page goes by without some peculiar use of language, most often due to Prouty making the beginning writer's mistake of assuming that more formal wording is better, even when it's wording no one would use the way his characters do. Sometimes the prose is downright ludicrous; I doubt, for example, that a great many Catholics refer to the box where sins are reported and absolved as "the confession booth." At times Barkeley sounds like an escapee from a bad Victorian novel: "One day I asked him what haberdashery he patronized." And an action sequence is fatally undermined when we're told that "blood pumped out like a squeezed fountain pen."
Prose like that is enormously distracting, but might be forgivable if Barkeley was an interesting protagonist. He's not. He barely has a personality. Prouty has made another first-time novelist's error: forgetting to maintain the intensity of point-of-view at all times. When the action dies down and there's no exposition to lay out, Barkeley may spend a paragraph telling (and I do mean telling, rather than showing) the reader that he's scared or curious or socially awkward, but during the narrative itself he doesn't often display the traits he's been assigned, and there's no evidence of the extreme reactions you might have to being imprisoned by a vampire or discovering terrible family secrets. Nothing has the emotional weight it should, and as a result, none of it has any impact: it's just a story you're reading, not something happening to anyone you might care about. I don't demand nuanced characterization in historical vampire novels, but there is a minimum standard for any kind of fiction, and STOKER'S MANUSCRIPT doesn't meet it.
Given this all-around artlessness, it's not surprising that the book doesn't work as horror fiction either. Stuff that tries to be scary is thin on the ground, and when it comes it falls flat due to the weakness of the prose. The villains appear only rarely, and when they do they spout the usual arrogant-monster dialogue, with none of the verbal flair that makes things like that palatable. Even when they're impaling people, the vampires aren't especially imposing. And, of course, despite their enormous tactical advantages, they make just the right mistakes to keep their enemies alive, at least for the moment. The story ends with enough dangling plot threads that a sequel is quite possible, but unless very Prouty quickly becomes a much better stylist, I won't be reading it. Even by the standards of blood-sucking thrillers, STOKER'S MANUSCRIPT is a disappointment.