With Halloween approaching I decided to get in the mood with a suitable read and review. My love of the traditional movie monsters will out and I was really pretty surprised with this novel. What I had expected was an entertaining easy reading, which the book delivers but its cleverer than that too. If you could imagine Bela Lugosi's Dracula meets WHR Rivers you have it. Quite literally when you consult the author's acknowledgements afterword but it will be apparent by then so perfect is the characterisation and narrative style.
The book opens with Lisa Watson, the main narrator, entering into service as a psychiatrist at Carfax War Hospital, formerly Seward Sanitarium, with the aim of treating the patients suffering from "War neurosis", "hysterical paralysis" and identity crisis. The ensuing adventures and challenges, including battles over the relative merits of hynotism and talk therapies versus "faradic therapy", ie electrocution, serve very well as a story in itself. I was reminded of Regeneration featuring WHR River and Witcover pays tribute to this influence at the end of the book and I think as a result this book would have an appeal to fans of Irvin D. Yalom's psycho-analytical novels (When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (Perennial Classics),Lying on the Couch: A Novel).
On the back cover of the book there is a trademark for universal studios and I feel that the characterisation of Dracula in the novel is very, very much in keeping with that of the earliest film adaptations rather than anything straight out of Stoker. I appreciated this very much because Dracula and vampirism are portrayed as abjectly evil and unnatural, it is a characterisation which I have always prefered to some of the more recent reinventions of vampires as romantic, misunderstood and conflict beings like a pre-modern X-Men. There are some memorable, quotable passages, such as describing Dracula like a "miracle turned inside out". The continuity from the confrontation with Van Helsing is handled well but it is from the movies, not from the Stoker novel which finishes with the final battle taking place in Eastern Europe not England. There is plausible explanation as to why Van Helsing did not destroyed Dracula's remains altogether, with an intriguing and apparently blasphemous account of the vampire's origins (although this develops in a way which fans of some more contemporary vampire films could be familiar with).
For what felt like protracted parts of the novel Dracula is abscent, making an appearence and then not featuring again while the storyline returns to dynamics between the hospitals practitioners and the treatment of "war neurosis". However, this is not to say that the novel is in anyway disjointed. The pace is fine and most of the ealier observations and characterisations, the sadistic "faradic therapist", the kindly and pious matron, become important later when Dracula takes centre stage. There are perhaps only two short passages which felt a little out of keeping with the rest of the novel. One being some hearty banter between two of the principle characters which didnt seem in keeping with the terror of their immediate circumstances, the other an action sequence like something out of Zombi flick with the heroes shocking corpses.
The author also pulls the novel back from the implausiblity at times too, for instance having characters reflect on absurd details, such as attribution of the first world war to supernatural evil or suggestions of Dracula's origins, and reframing it in more credible ways through their conversation or internal dialogue. I thought this was a nice touch, probably unnecessary but proof of the author's talent. There's a great series of acknowledgements, including references to sources on war psychiatry, trench warfare and websites which are all great.