Stoker’s Wilde by Steven Hopstaken & Melissa Prusi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
**This review contains major spoilers**
I really wanted to give it 4-5*s and claim I loved it or really liked it, as it started out hysterically funny and really promising.
Firstly: writing about real people and fictionalising their lives is a brave choice. Writing about real people who have left behind a large corpus of their own writings, with authorial voices uniquely theirs, is braver.
[When a Brit says “that’s a brave choice” or “that’s an interesting choice” it means, don’t do it. That’s a terrible idea. Stop. But, in this case, I also mean it literally – and so an extra star it is].
I absolutely loved the beginning of the book. I loved the stab at early Wildean wit, the epistolary format, the interweaving of real events with fictional ones. I thought the werewolf hunt was really, really, REALLY funny, engaging, dramatic, atmospheric, and exactly what I’d hoped for when I picked this up.
By the time we got into the middle, however, the authors had lost that sparkle that had sold me on Act One. The middle section leaned fairly heavily on the source material of Dracula and the Portrait of Dorian Grey, and in the latter case the threads worked really well, but in the former it felt like they were relying too heavily on references to the novel and its scenes and dialogue to make Bram’s scenes memorable and stand up by themselves. Lucy Mayhew, bless her, is an entirely flat throwaway character who, like all her namesakes in all the adaptations, exists to be doomed. The American (whoever he was) is related to Teddy Roosevelt and I can’t even remember his name. Then again, Quincey P. Morris was arguably also one of Stoker’s flattest creations too, so that’s about fair.
The heavy reliance on “Dracula” to construct the middle act of Bram & Florrie’s scenes may be because of the perception that Stoker is not as engaging as Wilde, but this seems unfair to Stoker. I started to prefer his scenes, although some of the episodes could have been edited out to streamline the action a little more. Actually, Bram is very well drawn as a character, and the decision to make him (and Henry Irving!) supernatural worked incredibly well.
What really got me was that the authors stopped making the Irish and British characters *funny* in the middle, because things take a Dark Turn. The lack of gallows humour really stood out to me, because that’s 90% of the culture here. It made me think that what to me were the funniest lines in the werewolf hunt at the beginning were funny by accident, not design, and that the authors hadn’t quite understood the inherent humour in irony (I know Americans stereotypically don’t get either British and Irish deadpan humour or irony, and I also appreciate the subtle differences in British and Irish humour, but I’m not convinced that the American authors understood this as well as they could have to make the most out of their characters).
For me, because of the Serious Turn in the middle, the book started to flag around the 55-65% mark.
The plot itself was solid and had a lot of things to like in it. Wilde in the book is enthusiastically bisexual or at least bi-romantic, even though his sexual liaisons are all with men [that is, with consenting adults], so whatever you consider Wilde the real man’s sexuality to have been (gay, bi, pederast, more here: https://lgbt.wikia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde) the authors here claim him as a bi-icon, which I quite liked for personal reasons, though his self-described “Socratic” tendencies are still potentially problematic in real-life considerations of him as a man, and by extension a re-imagined character.
I enjoyed the twist on the vampire genre, but here, Literalism (something I’ve noticed in a lot of American-written paranormal novels, but is not limited to American writing) undermined my enjoyment.
Just because Dracula means “Son of the Dragon” doesn’t mean there literally actually needs to be a dragon. Dragon blood – or rather, the parasites that live in dragon blood – are the cause of vampirism in humans in this book, which on one level is pretty cool and reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain, but on the other level… nooooo what are you doing?? Why do you need to take a figurative title literally? It felt a bit like dumbing down, or spelling something out that didn’t need to be spelt out.
I was hoping we were going to play with religion and explore Bram/Wilde’s takes on this, especially as Stoker uses his novel Dracula and other stories to defend Roman Catholicism, but instead we had a twist that saw the “portal to hell” (at Stonehenge) becoming a portal into another realm, another dimension, where dragons live and strange powers originate, and, it was hinted, Jesus may have come from.
Ingenious twist, yes, but I did eye-roll a bit at that too. it just felt a bit like the authors wanted to avoid Stoker’s own faith issues (not to mention Wilde’s complicated relationship with faith and religion, culminating in his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism) by erasing it via an atheist soft Sci-Fi insertion, which was a shame, because they had really tried to write in the voices of these men and worked to weave most of their real-life elements into the plot. That they didn’t take up this challenge – although perhaps they do in the sequel – was a bit of a let-down.
[I’m not Roman Catholic and don’t really have a dog in this fight, it’s just something I thought would be fairly important to tackle… rather than just suggest “oh, yeah, everything probably comes from another world á la Stargate”.]
Those were my biggest gripes, because they threw me out of the book somewhat.
HOWEVER – the conclusion was satisfying (I felt the novel could have ended a bit sooner after the climax, it got a bit Peter Jackson LotR Part 3 for a while), the characters and the originality of the plot line have stayed with me, and I appreciated the amount of research the authors did. The odd-couple dynamic of Stoker and Wilde is rightly praised by other reviewers and is the driving force of the book, although as I said previously the dip in (especially) the Wildean humour in the middle detracts from the book’s verve somewhat.
I’m not quite invested enough to read the sequel, which takes Stoker & Wilde to America (of course), but I wouldn’t rule it out.
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