What if Bram Stoker wrote his classic 1897 horror novel Dracula as a veiled way of telling a story even more horrifying?
That’s the premise of James Reese’s new historical thriller The Dracula Dossier. Stoker, the Irish author and theater company manager remembered today for his hugely influential novel about the iconic vampire, is Reese’s narrator. The novel’s other characters include the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry (megastars of their day), poet William Butler Yeats and Lady Jane Wilde, mother of the acclaimed playwright Oscar.
In fact, every major character in The Dracula Dossier, set in 1888, is a real person. But one famous name who never appears is Dracula; in fact, there are no vampires in the book at all.
But there is a terrible, seemingly unstoppable fiend washing London in blood, perhaps the most famous real-life killer ever: Jack the Ripper. And, as Reese tells it, Stoker knows who the Ripper is, and he and a small circle of friends are the only ones with any chance of hunting the murderer down.
Reese borrows Stoker’s epistolary mode from Dracula (which Stoker in his turn borrowed from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White), assembling The Dracula Dossier’s narrative from Stoker’s journal entries and his letters and telegrams to various friends, as well as newspaper clips about Jack the Ripper. As it does in Dracula, the method gives the story an authentic period style and a powerful air of urgency.
The author introduces the novel with a missive to Reese’s editor, dated 2008, from an insistently anonymous Comte de Ville (whose pseudonym sharp-eyed Dracula fans will recognize), explaining how the dossier came into his hands.
The novel then plunges into its atmosphere of eerie violence, with Stoker, on business in New York, recording a strange incident in which he cuts himself badly with an exotic knife he owns, an act he can’t explain: ”Whatever did I mean to do?”
Returning to London, Stoker writes more fully about the event to his dear friend Thomas Hall Caine. Now forgotten, Caine was a hugely popular novelist in his day and also the ”dear Hommy-beg” (a childhood nickname) to whom Stoker dedicated Dracula.
Caine, from his remote home in the Isle of Man, makes a fateful request of Stoker: to introduce an American doctor, one Francis Tumblety, to his London friends.
The doctor is an unsettling figure, imposing yet elusive, to whom Stoker takes an instant dislike. Yet they are side by side during an elaborate ritual meant to initiate them into the stylishly occult Order of the Golden Dawn making Stoker a witness when the ritual goes horribly awry.
Tumblety in real life was a slippery con artist on two continents and is still one of the major suspects in the Ripper case. Reese makes him literally a man possessed.
But even after the Ripper begins slaughtering prostitutes, Stoker can’t just call the coppers. It seems Caine’s relationship with Tumblety was what the Victorians called ”the love that dare not speak its name” and Tumblety has a stash of letters that could utterly ruin Caine.
That may seem to us a weak reason to let the Ripper keep murdering women, but remember that seven years after the events of this novel, Oscar Wilde, at the height of his success as a playwright, was sentenced to two years hard labor for having an affair with a young man.
So Stoker, Caine and the flamboyant but doughty Lady Wilde pursue Tumblety themselves. Alas, they have no handy Dr. Van Helsing armed with a bag of sharpened stakes and a store of research to help them just their own wits and courage.
Reese has researched the book meticulously, and he makes graceful use of footnotes (purportedly added by the mysterious Comte) to fill out the historical background without slowing down the story.
Unlike Patricia Cornwell’s 2002 Portrait of a Killer, Reese’s book is not meant to solve the Ripper case. The Dracula Dossier is fictional, an homage in style and structure to its namesake novel, an engrossing look into the lives of eminent Victorians, and a smashing, scary read.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES