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Dracula has always been top of the food chain as far as vampires go. Irish novelist and short story writer Bram Stoker took six years to write the original novel titled “Dracula” back in the 1890’s. The literary tradition of the vampire had of course been established some seventy-five years before Stoker’s book by John Polidori’s (friend of ‘Frankenstein’ creator Mary Shelly) “The Vampyre”. But it was Bram Stoker’s reverse ageing Count Dracula character that inerasably placed vampires on the literary map.
In more recent times and many thousands of incarnations later, the vampire genre ( now so vast it is divided into a great many subgenres – teen vampire fiction, adult vampire fiction, undead erotica, vampires & werewolves etc) has found expression in modern makeovers that consistently reimagine, morph and recast the original characters and settings; think Buffy, Blade, Twilight, Hotel Translvania, Vampire Academy, Dracula Untold, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Vampire Diaries, as well as the upcoming Castlevania and I Am Legend 2. Even Sesame Street’s fanged numerical pedagogue Count von Count can be included as yet another interpretation whose heritage can be traced eventually back to Stoker’s original. A google search using the term –‘Best vampire books from new authors’ brings up a Goodreads list of 757 books.
How then to set oneself apart from this overflowing literary crypt? If you’re American author Chip Wagar you opt for the ‘back to the future’ route as the trusted way forward. Perhaps not quite to the level of homage paid by the 1998 Gus van Sant directed, shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho”, The Carpathian Assignment (named after the 2nd largest mountain range in Europe) is nonetheless the closest thing in style and substance you will likely presently come across to Stoker’s original and defining 1st person narrated masterpiece.
Which poses a not un-sizeable dilemma for any modern author since contemporary audiences are most certainly more sophisticated and demanding in their tastes and, it can be said, are no longer wired for the overwritten and melodramatic prose that characterized a great many of the books written two centuries previous.
Chip Wagar may be channeling Stoker but his text is neither overwritten nor melodramatic. All the original main characters are reprised – English solicitors clerk Jonathan Harker, Dutch doctor Professor Abraham Van Helsing and of course Count Vlad Dracula himself. Along for the ride as well are a grab bag of atmosphere-inducing motifs, among them – riderless horses, howling wolves, concealed doors, holy wafers, incantations recited in Latin, scampering rodents, creepy inn keepers, brooding castles on mountain tops (okay just one), an ever changing slideshow of ‘queer and bleak landscapes’, the requisite supply of people ‘in mortal danger’ and enough malevolent glares all round to keep the isolated mountain people of the Carpathians sweating bullets. If setting is character, then the sense of place here is, as they say, palpable.
Flashy word play is kept in the background. The writing style might best be described as super natural – unencumbered as it is by attempts at overly clever word gymnastics and not bogged down by daunting slabs of pre-era language. Ghostly smooth, uncomplicated and frequently deliberately underplayed sentences, particularly sharp in noting historical details of the time, prevail. This is not a writer in love with their own verbal smarts but rather one who lets the story unfold and flow without needing the hundred dollar, come hither words.
From the get-go you sense you’re in the hands of a skillfulness teller and so duly surrender to the illusion of an alternate world. Wagar gives us a 320 page historical fiction divided into seventy chapters that switch the story between different settings and parallel narratives. Scenes such as when pipe-smoking detective Kalvary Istan and his colleague Kasza find themselves standing in knee deep rushing water under a bridge while forced to watch helplessly a scene of carnage unfold before them on the land, only to hear on the bridge above them the wheels of a laden wagon pass overhead (plot point red flag) spawn plasma- screen quality mental images that subconsciously tighten the reader’s nerve endings. When the author describes Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Dracula’s castle “in the dead of night” (p159), you experience, in spite of or perhaps in part because of familiarity with the mystery and legend- woven literary template being used, the same sense of foreboding Bram Stoker’s readers from a previous time would have.
What’s delivered on these pages is not throat-squeezing, stomach knotting suspense but more the slow burn of mounting dread leading to a supreme climactic conclusion. Time honoured and legend- impregnated writer’s dream template or not, this is manufactured dread only made possible by the skill of the writer and his tactical use of foreshadowing, micro-tension, a story with considerable narrative pull and a worthy and believably rendered protagonist. You know what’s coming at the end but that doesn’t stop your heart from starting to race a good fifty pages before.
Wagar keeps the internal logic of the story consistent so the reader can allow themselves to fully yield to the blend of the realistic and fantastical of this nineteenth century gothic nether world. What a vampire can and can’t do is clearly laid out and adhered to. Rule number one in The Carpathian Assignment is that vampires “must always rest in the soil of the ground in which they were interred to regain their powers”. (p 267) This constitutional edict of the undead is central to the mystery that threads it’s way through the book and which propels detective Istvan to attempt to uncover why boxes of dirt are being transported (smuggled) “from Count Dracula’s castle to Constanta or Varna on the Black Sea to be sent overseas”. (p 149) This being done well, readers will likely often find themselves mentally calculating the remaining hours of daylight left in a day within the story. The ‘something’s not quite right’ radar also starts to ping with every mention of any individual sporting an even slightly pale complexion.
The Carpathian Assignment doesn’t turn anything on it’s head. But unlike so many other recent vampire books and films it doesn’t seek to. This is not Dracula Untold but more Dracula retold. Wagar does not throw his readers goblets of blood on every page. Rather, the novel offers a suspensefully told supernatural story that dusts off the feel and fabric of Bram Stoker’s original work and serves it with consummate skill for a contemporary audience. The author has set out to create a steadily smoldering and edgy historical chiller with look- behind-you atmosphere and that is exactly what he has done.