October 25, 2013

Book Review Column: Vampires, Monsters and Madness, By Lissa Sloan

Editor's note: Just in time for Halloween, Lissa explores the dark side of enchantment with some horror reviews right up EC's alley.

Vampires, Monsters, and Madness: in which I review retellings of three nineteenth-century British classics.

A young man beginning his career in the law gets an opportunity to work for a mysterious count overseas.  He soon finds that his aristocratic client has a sinister purpose, and he and his sweetheart are caught up in a struggle for her soul.  This may sound like Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, but it also describes iDrakula, a retelling of Dracula by Bekka Black.  Like Stoker’s original, iDrakula is told through correspondence, but instead of journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings, Black uses text messages, emails, and internet screen shots.  Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray are now Manhattan teenagers recently graduated from high school, and are joined by familiar characters Renfield, Lucy Westenra, and Abraham Van Helsing, though they play somewhat different roles.
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The update to twenty-first century communications makes sense, as Stoker’s characters are tech-savvy, making use of shorthand, phonographs, and typewriters, which are fairly cutting edge tools for the late nineteenth century.  Sometimes the less-is-more theory works to Black’s advantage, with texts giving tantalizing little hints of what is going on, but overall, the story loses atmosphere and character development, possibly because of these briefer forms of communication.  Additionally, I expect an updated story to do more than change time or setting.  A retelling should either expand on a very short original, twist the original, or comment on how the story applies to a modern reader or the modern world.  While iDrakula briefly touches on ideas such as promiscuity in an age of deadly sexually transmitted (and blood-borne) diseases, I wish some of Dracula’s themes had been more fully explored for a modern audience.  There are a few plot twists, but not as many as I might have hoped for.  Black does know her Dracula, however, both Stoker’s and the historical legend, and she slips in several amusing Easter eggs for Dracula fans, making iDrakula a fun, quick read. 

Monster, a novel of Frankenstein is Dave Zeltserman’s reimagining of Mary Shelley’s gothic horror classic from the creature’s point of view.  The story’s setting and several significant events remain the same; the main differences are in the creature’s motivations and in Frankenstein’s intent and personality.  Monster is the story of Friedrich Hoffman, a young chemist with a happy life ahead of him, until his fiancĂ© is brutally murdered and Hoffman is convicted and executed for the crime.  He returns to life in the laboratory of fiendish Victor Frankenstein, who plots to use him in a devilish display exposing humanity’s hypocrisy.  After escaping Frankenstein’s clutches, Hoffman must discover who was behind his beloved’s murder, make Frankenstein answer for his crimes, and come to terms with who and what he has become.

 Zeltserman begins well, effectively portraying the horror of Hoffman’s situation as he lays helpless for months on the table while Frankenstein practices black magic on him.  A particularly creepy addition is Charlotte (or what is left of her), a severed head kept alive in a bowl who mouths her terrible story to Hoffman.  However, once Hoffman is on his own, the psychological horror of the story diminishes as he encounters vampyres and Satan worshippers, and reencounters Frankenstein and his friend the Marquis de Sade, who are planning a grand production celebrating the animal authenticity of human depravity.  While Hoffman’s backstory is interesting to explore, his attempts at kindness, motivations for the violence he commits, and struggle for a place in humanity do not provide a departure from the original, as Shelley’s creature expresses these ideas quite articulately.  Similarly, while Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is less deliberately villainous, he is certainly flawed, and reading Shelley’s book also leaves the reader wondering which character was the true monster.  While Zeltserman’s version of the story does dip into the themes of violence begetting violence and personal responsibility, the changes he made in the story do not seem to justify a retelling, and it left me largely unmoved.                   

In Splintered, madness runs in sixteen-year-old Alyssa Gardner’s family.  The curse began with Alyssa’s ancestor, Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and has affected all her female descendants.  Alyssa’s mother Alison has been in an asylum for years, and Alyssa herself hears insects talking to her.  The only way she can quiet their voices is to trap them and use them in fantastical collages of a world she’s never seen, except in long-forgotten dreams.  But she knows it is only a matter of time before she too succumbs to madness.  When Alison is scheduled for shock therapy, Alyssa must go through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole to break the family curse.  While on her quest to set Wonderland to rights, she experiences the bewildering highs and lows of the attentions of Jeb, the fiercely loyal friend she has vainly loved for years, and Morpheus, her alluring but not entirely trustworthy Wonderland mentor.

Author A.G. Howard’s style is rich and evocative, engaging all the senses to draw the reader in.  Alyssa’s Wonderland is a nightmarish and sensuous version of Lewis Carroll’s original, with stunning, sometimes disturbing visuals and twisted incarnations of familiar characters.  It seems a fitting update for an adolescent Alice navigating the treacherous path to adulthood.  Remembered dream visits to Wonderland provide awkward exposition at times, and the plot can be a bit dizzying.  However, Splintered is a lush blend of sizzling sexual tension, adventure, and self-discovery, making a visit to Wonderland well worth the trip.

What do you look for in a retelling or reimagining of a classic story?  Join the Enchanted Conversation and tell us what you think.  Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan.

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