#3 of my Top Ten of 2016
This massive hardcover clocks in at 476 pages (489 in pdf form, with cover etc. being counted among the pages), so let’s take a look!
This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
In a nut-shell, this is a twist of the original Dracula-novel as penned by Bram Stoker, with annotations. “I don’t need to read that, I know Dracula’s story already!” – I can see this impulse in at least some readers out there. You’d be wrong, for the text actually has been expanded by roughly 1/5 – 1/4 of its size, with characters like Kate Reed introduced to the fray, providing additional depth and perspectives. This only in the beginning to keep you reading – this is not vanilla-Dracula: The premise is that the unredacted Dracula is an after-action field report that has been censored and changed in the published version. So, please, indulge me and follow me on a little excursion – I guarantee that the following analysis may actually make you reconsider.
Blood. It is impossible to talk about Dracula without first going on a brief tangent pertaining this most fascinating of bodily fluids. No other fluid alarms us to its extent – we are hard-wired to instinctually consider red an attention-catching color because of it: The blue or green blood of other species does not alarm us in the slightest, but red blood…there is something primal in its look, smell and taste and throughout recorded human history, blood has been a central component of our mythology – it is the gradient of life and the currency of death itself for our kind. We “spill blood” when we kill, the implication of casual shedding of it conjuring up an excess, a transgression against the “civilized” code of conduct we based our societies on. Perhaps most famously in recent TV-history, Dexter the serial killer ultimately is what? Bingo – a blood-spatter analyst, signifying his killer-nature – he reads, in blood. He divines with it, though he does so at the altar of science.
Altar? Yes, for at the same time, blood has always held more meaning – the sacral component is prevalent to this date: While we may have, for the most part, abolished the notion of offering blood to deities and spirits, sacrificial practices have been an integral part of religions all around the globe and indeed, continues to be. Before you shake your head and point towards your enlightened Christianity or other religion, please consider symbolism like “partaking in the blood of Christ” or similar practices. To paraphrase Sir James Frazer: We have moved up in our level of abstraction, but the thematic core remains; the original religion fades, but the icon remains and takes on a new mantle and guise. The haruspex of our day and age is the blood-spatter analyst.
Where there is the sacred, however, there also is the profane and nary a thing that exists in our world has as significant a powerful symbolic charge as blood – we associate its transgressive excess with connotations of evil, of the vile and debauchery. There is spectacle in fascination in blood, the grimy lair of an insane butcher that reverberates with the middle ages’ social stigma of the meat-processing professions. A sense of revulsion, in this day and age more than ever, is associated with slaughter and death of animals – mainly due to the spilling of blood – for do we not all bleed red?
Bleeding red…it evokes an instinctual sympathetic response, triggering flight or the notion to help in most human beings…and here we have yet another intriguing component: This sympathetic response can obviously rise: For as long as there was fiction of blood, there also was a connotation of the sexual inherent in its appearance. From the bodily fluid of the female menstruation to the child-birth, the connotations of a triumphant hunt or battle – in no other symbolically charged part of our bodies has there ever been more of a blending, more of a fusion of Eros and Thanatos than in the blood that courses through our veins. Beyond the obvious requirement of blood flow for intercourse, the red lipstick, rouge on the cheeks, the red, sweaty lips set against a dark beard – all of these and infinitely more signify the passion of blood. We blush due to it. Our blood pump, commonly known as heart, accelerates when we are aroused. It does not require a fetish of blood drinking or any sort of kink to appreciate the powerful imagery and functionality that is associated with blood.
While the history of the non-folklore-vampire is a relatively brief one, our mythologies are stuffed to the brim with creatures feasting upon the blood of the mortals, prolonging their life and that often in sexually charged ways, coupling a thirst for blood with a thirst for a deviantly-coded sexuality free of the fetters of concern and empathy: The excess of spilled blood collocated into sexuality, blending the adrenaline-charged association of triumphantly dancing on the verge of death with the ample linguistically implied associations with La petite mort.
This is an intriguing turn of phrase, mind you: It originally pointed towards not our commonly used synonym for orgasm, but simply denoted a loss of consciousness and control. Consciousness and control – two factors that we value as a species, that we need to survive…and that, ultimately are NOT associated with any of the nigh-indefinite connotations we have with blood when we take a look at the above. Blood is excess, passion and ID running rampant – it is NOT control.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that there frankly is no tale in horror as well-known; none that has been adapted in this staggering amount of guises. The themes, ultimately remain – but they change. Oh, how do they change. Ask any person on the street whether they know what “Dracula” is and they’ll know. Only…they don’t. You see, we all have probably encountered the count in one of his hundreds of incarnations in various media and forms of art and when we haven’t encountered him, we have encountered mythology derived from the original tale of the bloodsucking vampire, charged with eroticism. Take a look at any given array of vampire novels, from the infamous Twilight-books to the Shadow Chronicles or similar works of fiction and you’ll find a plethora of narratives sporting a female (or male – this is 2016, after all!) heroine/hero who has to tame the dark and brooding vampire, come to terms with the associations and implicit violence and thus, ultimately, transcend death itself. It’s basically a twist on the beauty and the beast-narrative, a tale, literally as old as time.
This, however, was not always so – the folkloristic origins of Dracula and many a bloodsucking mythological creature often were that of…well. Corpses. Decaying, foul corpses rising from the grave to kill their families. The sexual connotation only has been a relatively recent invention, with the eponymous novel Dracula by Bram Stoker being one of the first to exemplify just this. And while we all know the plot of Dracula, supposedly, precious few of us actually do. I mean…we all have heard about Van Helsing, Harker, Mina and the Count himself, obviously. Perhaps we have since then, via one of the countless vampire anime or adaptations heard about Renfield as a servant of Dracula and nebulously picture a kind of vampiric Igor or dashing, subservient underling who homoerotically serves his dominant master. We all know how Dracula and vampires in general have to return to their coffins at dawn, how they are destroyed by the purging rays of light unless they are daywalker-dhampir-half-breeds…you know, one of the most prolific angsty-teen-power-fantasies ever devised in the last generation? Well, if your conceptions of Dracula contained any of these tropes, if you thought by yourself “I don’t need to read this, I know it already!” – then you’d be wrong. All of the above is not necessarily so in Bram Stoker’s original novel. Come on, if you haven’t read this one, then I did blow your mind there, at least a little, right?
And see, that is the point I wanted to make…or at least, it is the first point I wanted to make. Nary an iconic figure has so thoroughly underwent the transformative progress and process of popular culture like Dracula: We know Frankenstein’s Monster, Jekyll/Hyde, we have werewolf-lore galore and still, none of these classic creatures of anthropomorphized IDs of the dark romanticism have had quite this impact; much less changed to quite this extent. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is, no kidding, a scene wherein the count walks the daylit streets of London with a straw hat on his head. Let *that* sink in.
How did this come to pass that we know so little about the Dracula we all ostensibly know? Well, to point to the above – the icon remains. Dracula is a symbolic vessel for our anxieties and agendas of a given day and age. When Bram Stoker’s original novel gave voice to Mina Harker as a capable, female protagonist whose moral fiber outclassed that of their male brethren throughout most of the novel, later interpretations of the material had different foci: While Mrs. Harker, in the original, ultimately was re-absorbed into the norms and ideas of mainstream society in a lackluster addendum written to appease moral guardians or Stoker’s own sensibilities, there can still be no doubt that she already exemplifies a new breed of female character, one beholden neither to the ever more normative feminist movement of her day and age, nor to the patriarchal structures of established mainstream British society- the transgressive element lies not simply in her actions, but also in her skill-set and when she chillingly remarks Dracula as her approaching husband, she is performing two subversions at the same time: On the one hand, this state, sprung from her spoiling through Dracula’s blood has explicit connotations with rape and the breaking of one’s spirit. In the context of Victorian and fin-de-siècle England, this can be seen as a scathing, sympathy-inducing attack on the angel in the house-ideal of the demure, passion-less woman. At the same time, however, it is also an equalization – for one devotion is replaced with another, with Dracula, according to previous observations, being obviously highly sexualized in his coded depiction.
In later adaptations of Dracula, a subtext of a less obvious nature suddenly sprang to life – namely the matter of fact that he is also a nostalgic relic. A book written in the fin-de-siècle-era obviously needs to contend and address a changing of values and the fears associated with the new world order, the anticipation of upheavals the like of which our species had heretofore never chronicled. English society, at this point, was suffused with a slowly shaking foundation – the 3 grand psychological malaises cast their shadow, as a mankind devoted to science and reason has to come to terms with neither being the center of the universe, nor a creator’s chosen master creation, nor master of one’s own faculties.
The rise of fascist ideology as an international phenomenon and the anxiety a devolution or degeneration of mankind could bring can perhaps be quoted as one of the reasons why Dracula’s original at that time did not elicit the same manner of controversy as The Island of Dr. Moreau. Dracula’s theme, though, proved to be the more stable one: For in the Count’s nobility, in his origin deep within the Carpathians, he pointed for his contemporary audience towards a literally darker, but also nostalgic time, where science, something the characters in Dracula constantly, obsessively use, was of no importance. Indeed, Dracula requires a return to sacral rites of Catholicism of all religions (quite scandalous in Britain) and folklore; the light of enlightenment, metaphorically and physically, can’t seem to touch him. This association with ages past, with “simpler” times is a universal human notion – it was then and still is today. Dracula, in many a rendition in media, is a nostalgic atavism for us as a society, but he is, at the same time the exact opposite.
Above anything else, Dracula is transgression. When a given incarnation depicts him as beholden to the mast, it is to a potentially more romantic past; even if historically this was not true, he still remains sexually charged, emotionally vibrant; he still has all the trappings of the Beauty and the Beast-romantic. Even the number of his brides and his flaunting of conventionalized relationship-paradigms is ultimately transgressive. And when the present is mired in tradition, cluttered by an antique aesthetic, then it’s Dracula’s task to counteract exactly this with radical modernism and a violation of the aesthetics that have brought him forth – where once, Dracula rose and crept from the shadows, he’ll later look down upon humans in the depth. And so, in time, I believe that Dracula will once again walk in sunlight.
Ultimately, the Dracula-characters throughout history remain a grand projection of empowerment…and interestingly, one for both males and females. He is the way out of normative patriarchal structures and suffocating, abuse relationships and familial structures, he is the easy hand to grasp, the male ID fulfilled. He is nostalgia and exactly the character a given generation wants – whether romantic and non-phallic, dominant and suave or bestial and brutal – Dracula has been coded in a myriad of ways in a plethora of movies, books, screen-plays…and games. Obviously. There is a reason why Vampire: The Masquerade had such a huge appeal – it was a fin-de-siècle fantasy for the 21st century, resonating with all of the aforementioned tropes and so much more, without the perceived clutter of the “old” structures and sentences.
You see, having read pretty much all of the classic pieces of dark romantic literature, I can, without a doubt say, that many of them, to our day and age’s sensibilities, are somewhat plodding. Conditioned to enjoy short-lived and to the point entertainment and immediate gratification, I have witnessed, though never quite understood, the frustration with this literature. Until I had to read it all during my MA. Oh boy. Confession-time: I’ll never, ever touch Dickens out of my own volition again. And “Wieland”, the first American gothic novel actually made me fall asleep while reading it – a feat only a select few tomes have accomplished. I’m not the biggest fan of this kind of prose, preferring more the engaging and challenging works of Modernism and Post-Modernism. HOWEVER, I also encountered a lot of gems – I won’t have to tell you that Poe holds up to this date. You know it. And while e.g. “The String of Pearls”, the basis for the recently adapted Sweeny Todd-story was a chore to read, other books weren’t. Cue in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While less frantic than most contemporary novels, this book remains, to this date, a page-turner. The constantly changing perspectives of narrators and their letters, diary entries etc. keep you engaged as you try to puzzle together the components. And the book actually wastes no time for the “big reveal” – you don’t lose anything by knowing that Dracula is a vampire, nay, THE vampire. The book, pretty much from the get-go, makes this clear and then is all about struggling with this threat. And, from a gamer’s perspective, the characters actually behave pretty much like a roleplaying group in CoC, ToC, or Night’s Black Agents – you see different attributes and skills if you closely look; you see the drives of the characters. One could almost ostensibly assume it was a work penned about a certain horror campaign in Night’s Black Agents Stoker personally played…
Which brings me full circle to this book – this is literature, yes. This is the original Dracula…but it is more. The premise of this book is deceptively simple: Dracula is real, there was a conspiracy, things went horribly wrong. Now the original file has fallen into your hands – with annotations by no less than three generations of agents fighting the vampiric conspiracy…or are they? Dracula has always existed in the fringes, in the haze; the demarcation line between light and day, passion and control, norms and rebellion – and now, once again, his narrative is put into the context of a new age, a new medium that is, much like Dracula, at the same time an old medium: This is a gaming supplement and it is literature. It is a fusion of the old and new, of nostalgia framed by no less than 3 meta-narratives – whose intrusion into the text is handled surprisingly smart. In color-coded hand-written notes and annotations, they tend to ultimately crop up in the filler-scenes, remark upon small, seemingly unremarkable details…and add whole new meaning and ultimately, terror to the book. When one can see the inevitable happy end approaching, one knows that it’s, in fact, not the end – and we get to know why.
One of the achievements of the annotations and new content is that they take the small bits and pieces and point them out to the readers; Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan did their research: Did you know that the first, Icelandic edition (Makt Myrkranna – Sagan af Drakúla greifa) of this book has a preface that mentions Jack the Ripper? Well, I did, but only because I studied both Icelandic and English literature extensively. Well, this book is full of such interesting tidbits…and the sheer fact that the original Dracula and his behaviors have become alien to our sensibilities, that he, indeed at this point is different from our expectations of what Dracula is, makes reading this book intriguing to say the least. But what about the clash of narrative voices? I actually indulged in a little experiment and handed this book to a friend of mine who had not read the original Dracula – and guess what? She was flabbergasted when she realized that this was not all penned by Mr. Stoker – Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have mastered the peculiarities of Stoker’s style and vocabulary to the dot and, as a whole, this rendered “re-reading” Dracula actually a fulfilling experience, in spite of my excellent memory..
How good is my memory? Well, unless I have to look up a particular wording, I do not read any books twice. I can still recall the plots of movies, books, comics…the whole shebang I have consumed. My memory, at least for the purpose of retaining this type of information, seems to be quite pronounced. This means I basically remembered the whole original book. I still had more than just a bit of fun – the 3 meta-narratives and their epochs that are reflected in verbiage and in how they interact, lend a whole new dimension to an already inspired, intriguing book and the new bits and pieces integrate so seamlessly into the overarcing structure, they actually enhance the plot rather than just stretching it – this is, in fact, a better piece of literature than the original.
We are gamers. We are roleplayers. This is literature and, at the same time, the most massive hand-out I have ever held in my hands. So go out there, get this book, preferably in print – and when your investigators or agents or simply bibliophile players find a strange unredacted file, just hand them this book. It’s perhaps the most awesome set-up for a campaign you can wish for, a huge, immersive facilitator of play, a book that they can analyze, engage and pick apart – this is a gaming supplement, exceedingly educational for players and GMs alike and a glorious supplement beyond the confines of Night’s Black Agents, though, obviously playing The Dracula Dossier will amplify the experience beyond belief. By the way – those strange notes spread throughout the text? Those numbers? They are here for a reason, but since that reason is relevant to the gaming aspect and not necessarily required for the enjoyment of this book, I’ll cover them in the second part of this review – the one on the game mechanics book, the Director’s Handbook.
For now, let me express my gratitude for reading my rambling analysis of this wonderful supplement…and then go. Get this.
I’m old-school, I’d suggest the bound hardcover I used when writing this. But the pdf has also its glorious charm: Why? Because it’s a glorious handout as well – you can *tease* this book…perhaps the PCs find some pages with one annotation type…and others that have another: You see, the pdf is layered and allows you to turn on and off the annotations of the respective agents and even the text. Hand them a white paper with only some cryptic annotations and watch agents trying to find the obscure means of making the text reappear. Yes – this is awesome from both an in-game and out-game point of view, exceedingly ambitious and a sheer joy to read and digest – a Dracula for our age. Now go ahead and weave your story with this, read a tale both old and new, literature that is a game in its experience and in its nature as a supplement. You won’t regret it.
My final verdict, obviously, will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and though this was released last year, I only managed to read an analyze it now – hence it is nominated as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Get this and read Dracula like you’ve never read or experienced the yarn before.
You can get this superb book here on OBS!
The print can be found on Pelgrane Press’ store here!