Review ~ Who Was Dracula?

Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood by Jim Steinmeyer

Cover via Goodreads

In more than a century of vampires in pop culture, only one lord of the night truly stands out: Dracula.
But where did literature’s undead icon come from? What sources inspired Stoker to craft a monster who would continue to haunt our dreams (and desires) for generations? Historian Jim Steinmeyer, who revealed the men behind the myths in The Last Greatest Magician in the World, explores a question that has long fascinated literary scholars and the reading public alike: Was there a real-life inspiration for Stoker’s Count Dracula?

Hunting through archives and letters, literary and theatrical history, and the relationships and events that gave shape to Stoker’s life, Steinmeyer reveals the people and stories behind the Transylvanian legend. In so doing, he shows how Stoker drew on material from the careers of literary contemporaries Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde; reviled personas such as Jack the Ripper and the infamous fifteenth-century prince Vlad Tepes, as well as little-known but significant figures, including Stoker’s onetime boss, British stage star Henry Irving.

Along the way, Steinmeyer depicts Stoker’s life in Dublin and London, his development as a writer, involvement with London’s vibrant theater scene, and creation of one of horror’s greatest masterpieces. Combining historical detective work with literary research, Steinmeyer’s eagle eye provides an enthralling tour through Victorian culture and the extraordinary literary monster it produced. (via Goodreads)

I’m excited this year because for once I’ve read enough books to post a Top 10 of 2013 without including half of what I’ve read during the year. On the other hand, nearly half of the top ten could belong to one author: Jim Steinmeyer.

Who Was Dracula? was published this year in April. At first blush, the subject might seem to be a departure for Steinmeyer. His other books have primarily been about magic apparatuses and magic history, but stage magic and theatrical productions are less than a skip-jump away from each other in this era.
Much of this book is devoted to Stoker as the stage manager for Henry Irving and the Lyceum theater. What I really enjoy about Steinmeyer’s writing is his ability to efficiently sketch out the historical setting and people it with those names we think we know. I’d love to see a TV series based around Stoker being the stage manager at the Lyceum, writing and researching in the background.

Another portion of the book takes a closer look at some of the possible inspirations for the character of Dracula. Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Jack the Ripper. Some pretty heavy-duty controversial figures and Stoker knew them all (well, knew the first two and was acquainted with a man suspected of being the third). The origin of Dracula, the historical figure, is also examined. All sorts of good historical nuggets are investigated.

I also like the agnostic quality of Steinmeyer’s conclusions, or rather, he doesn’t worry too much about making any grand pronouncements about who is or isn’t “Dracula.” I have a degree in English lit and I know the propensity to want a clear-cut motivation for everything that is placed in a novel. I’m also a writer and I know how arbitrary things can be. Have I ever used an amalgamation of people I know in a character for no other reason than I need details for a character? Yep. Have I ever appropriated a hobby/work from life and given it to a character? Yep. Have I ever *accidentally* named characters in a way that might have been construed to mean something? Uh, yep. Alas, being writer is often more a matter of appropriating what’s around you rather than being original or intentional.

Genre: Non-fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Jim Steinmeyer
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Format: Hardback
Procurement: Tempe Public Library
Bookmark: Checkout receipt.

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Peril of the Short Story 2013

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I didn’t get as many short stories read during R.I.P. as I intended. Strangely, my attention span has been craving longer works.

Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray BradburyI really meant to finish Shadow Show. I’ve been reading this anthology on and off since last year. R.I.P. 2012 included Shadow Show stories! I think I burnt out on anthologies earlier in the year and once again Shadow Show has become a box of very rich chocolates.

“The Page” by Ramsey Campbell – Long, idyllic set up to a sort of an air conditioned ending. I can see this story in my head as an episode of an 80s anthology show, like The Ray Bradbury Theatre though maybe not the best episode of such a show. The middle-aged couple trying to enjoy their time on the beach, the sort of spooky mystery of the wind-blown page, the powerful woman at the end that I can only imagine in a shoulder-padded power suit.

“Light” by Mort Castle – Reminds me of Bradbury’s California mysteries, especially the last one, Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury had a love affair with Hollywood. Hollywood consumes dreams and then spits them back to become other people’s dreams.

“Conjure” by Alice Hoffman – Girls. Do you find them in Bradbury stories? Not often, but this might be what it would look like if there were girl characters in Bradbury’s world. It’s perhaps a more perilous world for them than for boys. (This story reminds me a little of Dennis Leheane’s Mystic River, a Bradbury story terribly inverted.)

“Backward in Seville” by Audrey Niffenegger & “Earth (a Gift Shop)” by Charles Yu – Both were short responses to specific Ray Bradbury stories “The Playground” and “There Will Come Soft Rain.” Both solid and more sci-fi aspected than the other three stories.

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost StoriesAfter watching Night of the Demon, I was interested in M. R. James “Casting the Runes.” It is a bit different from the movie. The plot is simpler, but it’s also more subtle in its telling. And as a writer who often hates writing transitions between scenes, I rather loved this:

It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry Harrison and Dunning were brought together.

Well played, Mr. James.

Saturday Cinema – R.I.P. TV 2013

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The new season brought a plethora of peril for television viewers:

The title "Sleepy Hollow" is written over a town shrouded by clouds.Sleepy Hollow, premiered 9/16/13. How do you make a TV series out of a seemingly one-off villain? You mix it up with a muddled plot involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a soldier, hand-picked by George Washington to fight evil, who has been time displaced by a curse placed on his my his witch wife. The contrivance makes my head hurt. What saves this show for me are the characters of Abbie and Ichabod. They have great chemistry while remaining not-a-couple. Abbie is a good cop without being uber perfect or uber flawed, which is nice to see in a female character. Her normality is required against the background of ghosts, witches, and demons. To be honest though, I’m a sucker for fish-out-of-water. Ichabod ranting about the amount of tax on a bag of doughnut holes buys a lot of amity with me.

The Blacklist (2013) PosterThe Blacklist, premiered 9/23/13. For a show with no true speculative fiction aspects, The Blacklist had a pretty substantial presence at San Diego Comic Con, asking the question: Who is Red Reddington? Well, Red Reddington is James Spader and he’s the reason to watch this show. Reddington is a spy and master criminal. After eluding law enforcement for the entirety of his career, Reddington turns himself in as a gambit to clear his own blacklist. Spader is delightfully menacing and manipulative in the role. My concern is whether the series will keep the base plot fresh and semi-believeable. It’s already had a few problems.

American Horror Story (2011) PosterAmerican Horror Story: Coven, premiered 10/9/13. What I like most about American Horror Story is that each season is self-contained. Presumably, the writers know where the story is going to end and can actually construct an arc rather than spinning a plot that can potentially run (too) many seasons. Speculative fiction seems to lend itself to formats that are not the usual for US television. I can’t recall an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt, that isn’t genre. In its third season, AHS: Coven takes on witchcraft in America, in an utterly fictitious, non-historical, non-politically correct way. So far, the first three episodes offer the requisite amount of squicky sex and violence that is pretty much a hallmark of the show. The cast, with some returning faces from previous seasons playing new characters, seems overly large. I do like that one aspect of the plot involves a YA-ish plot involving a school for “special” girls while another involves the elder stateswomen of the local covens.

File:Dracula promotional image.jpgDracula, premiered 10/25/13. After only seeing the premier episode, I haven’t quite decided what I think about this series. In an odd reversal, this Dracula arrives in England under the identity of vaguely Southern gentleman and industrialist Alexander Grayson. This Dracula only drinks blood…and whiskey. There are twists to this plot. Dracula isn’t in England only to expand his culinary horizons, but as part of a revenge plot with a bit of Victorian sci-fi technology thrown in. Thus far, I’m annoyed by some seeming anachronisms. In London, 1896, is it viable to take individual photographs of 100 guests as they arrive at a party and have their photos developed later that evening? Is it possible that a large black man could gather in-depth information about guests in a matter of minutes, no matter how well dressed he is? Would two “friends” kiss (non-peck-on-the-cheek) in public? Dracula is already on the bubble for me.

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Review ~ The Seance

The Seance by John Harwood

Cover via Goodreads

Wraxford Hall, a decaying mansion in the English countryside, has a sinister reputation. Once, a family disappeared there. And now Constance Langton has inherited this dark place as well as the mysteries surrounding it. Having grown up in a house marked by the death of her sister, Constance is no stranger to mystery, secrets, and the dark magic around us. Her father was distant. Her mother was in perpetual mourning for her lost child. In a desperate attempt to coax her mother back to health, Constance took her to a seance hoping she would find supernatural comfort. But tragic consequences followed, leaving her alone in the world– alone with Wraxford Hall. Saddled with this questionable bequest, she must find the truth at the heart of all these disappearances, apparitions, betrayal, blackmail, and villainy, even if it costs her life. John Harwood’s second novel delivers on the great promise proven by his first with this gripping mystery set in the heart of Victorian England. (via Goodreads)

I wish I could remember where I came across mention of this book. It happened in October, because it wasn’t in my What Else in September post and I haven’t known about it longer than that. When I saw it was available from the Phoenix Digital Library, I nabbed it without realizing that I had read Harwood’s The Ghost Writer.

The Seance starts with a quote from Elijah Farrington’s Revelations of a Spirit Medium. I wasn’t expecting this book to automatically ground itself in the non-paranormal, and while I was looking for a good creepy read, I wasn’t disheartened by that. I wasn’t disappointed either. The Seance is full of atmosphere. It starts slow, but by the end I was talking to the book, trying to convince the character that their plans were bad, bad ideas. In some books, that reaction might indicate frustration with characters; that the characters are acting stupidly. In The Seance, it felt more like inevitability. The characters had no choice except to do what they were doing.

After re-reading my impressions of The Ghost Writer (it’s been over five years), I have to say that The Seance seemed much more solidly put together than Harwood’s first novel. That great Hammer horror feel is still there–a set piece of the novel is a suit of plate mail in a ruined manor surrounded by dark misty woods and the plot is labyrinthine–but the events of The Seance are more clear, even when one of the characters is being deceptive.

The Seance was pretty much the perfect book for me to read last week on the heels of a pretty disappointing similar book. (The review of that book will be up in a couple weeks.) I wasn’t entirely sold on Hardwood before, but I’ll be taking a look at The Asylum in the future.

Genre: Gothic horror.
Why did I choose to read this book? Well, I am writing about seances and stuff.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Heck, yeah!
Craft Lessons: More mysterious suits of armor.
Format: In-Browser ebook.
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library

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Review ~ Magic

Magic by William Goldman

Cover via Goodreads

Starting out as a boy in the Catskills, Corky develops into a brilliant and famous magician whose long-hidden secret and expert skills attract dark forces intent on destroying him. (via Goodreads)

A.) That summary is…not great. The crux of Corky as a character is that without Fats and his ventriloquism act, he’s a pretty poor magician. That’s his secret. As for dark forces, well, I guess. Maybe. Can madness be considered a dark force?

B.) I was really surprised that I didn’t own this book when I looked for it earlier in the year. I like William Goldman. I like the short, screwy horror novels of the 1970s. How had I not read or acquired this book previously?

Magic has the perfect first line for any book about or touching on stage magic: “Trust me for a while.”  Maybe that’s a good first line for any book period. Writers and magicians both ask for just a little trust before leading the audience down a path.

The novel begins with some journal entries labeled as Police Exhibits. These set a very sinister tone for the rest of the book. I had seen the movie version of Magic with Anthony Hopkins many years ago and mostly remembered the plot, but Goldman’s execution of it in novel form (he wrote the screenplay as well) is unsettling. As unsettling as ventriloquist’s dummy. There were a couple times during flashbacks to Corky’s childhood that were a little slow, but they’re paid off well enough later in the book.

A solid, seasonal read.

Genre: Horror
Why did I choose to read this book? Looking at magic fiction, like Goldman, like 70s horror.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yep. It was a fast read.
Craft Lessons: Goldman does a few non-standard things that work, but I’m not sure a newbie can get away with being structurally unconventional.
Format: Good old-fashioned mass-market paperback.
Procurement: BookMaze

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Saturday Cinema – R.I.P. Magic, or Magic Dressed in Blood

Ticket3As might be obvious, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading and other “research” into the subject of magic. Between Grand Guignol theater and spiritualist acts like the Davenport brothers, horror has lived close to magic for a long time and both have always been close to my heart. It certainly hasn’t hurt matters that the signature trick of Joseffy (one of the magicians I’m writing about) was  Balsamo the Living Skull. He also had a disembodied rapping hand and caused a stir in a department store when he and it went shopping for a new cuff…

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Growing up in the 70s and 80s, popular magic was on the tamer end of the spectrum with the likes of Doug Henning and David Copperfield on television. Seeing Penn and Teller on Letterman was…surprising. (The good bit starts at about 2:30 with a long set up.)

It should be noted that the classic sawing an assistant into halves wasn’t done until the 1920s, but didn’t gain popularity until a pretty woman was added to the mix. Without even realizing it, I’ve included no women being dismembered in this collection of videos. Kevin James and his half-assistant has a little fun with Vin Diesel on The Johnathan Ross show.

Fellow The Illusionists, Dan Sperry nearly killed Sharon Osborn (with laughter) with his Life Savers and dental floss routine on America’s Got Talent, but I rather like his take on the classic dove production:

Speaking of classic, Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Levit performed Jim Steinmeyer’s Palingenesia, a recreation of Thomas William Tobin’s 1872 illusion. at the 9th Los Angeles Conference on Magic History in November 2005.

But back to spiritualists and a magician I grew up with: David Copperfield included a version of the spirit cabinet in his 1995 TV special.

If you wait long enough, everything that is old is new again.

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Bloggers Dressed In Blood Mini-Challenge: Freeze It!

Bloggers Dressed In Blood Mini-Challenge: Freeze It!

Hosted by

Midnight Book Girl

Joey on Friends used to keep The Shining in the freezer because it scared him so much. For this challenge, I want you to share what book you’ve read that’s worthy of being put in the freezer and why you found it scary.

I don’t get too creeped out by books. Usually. Often, the scare will be situational, like when I was reading The Haunting of Hill House in college. My third-floor dorm room was right across from the stairway. I was reading the part when the entity in the house slams against the walls outside of Eleanor’s room when a group of floor mates returned from a raucous night out. I nearly jumped out of my skin…

But there is a book that did leave me very unsettled:

In the Dark

Nothing much happens to Jane Kerry, a young librarian. Then one day Jane finds an envelope containing a fifty-dollar bill and a note instructing her to “Look homeward, angel.” Jane pulls a copy of the Thomas Wolfe novel of that title off the shelf and finds a second envelope. This one contains a hundred-dollar bill and another clue. Both are signed, “MOG (Master of Games).” But this is no ordinary game. As it goes on, it requires more and more of Jane’s ingenuity, and pushes her into actions that she knows are crazy, immoral or criminal–and it becomes continually more dangerous. More than once, Jane must fight for her life, and she soon learns that MOG won’t let her quit this game. She’ll have to play to the bitter end.

Semi-omniscient MOG and Jane’s moral slide weirdly threw me for a loop. Maybe because the story starts in a library, something of a sacred place for me, or maybe because Jane’s just so normal, but whatever the case, Richard Laymon really wound me up with this book.

This Mini-Challenge is part of Bloggers Dressed in Blood, a month-long celebration of all things horror. Sign-up, link-up! Do it, before you regret it.
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