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View Full Version : Revisiting An Old Friend of The Family: Saberhagen's Dracula Trilogy.



RichardGarfinkle
09-16-2016, 06:15 PM
In the 1970s SFF writer Fred Saberhagen wrote three books about pop culture's #1 Vampire:

The Dracula Tape

The Holmes-Dracula File

An Old Friend of the Family

This discussion is chock full of spoilers.

I reread these over the last couple of days and found that they mostly held up despite the 35-45-year gap in time between initial and later reading.

There is a slight overlap in publication times with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain novels, and a good case has been made for these two ushering in the era of the modern vampire novel.

But in Saberhagen's case, only the third of his works can reasonably be considered the kind of story we now expect in vampire fiction. The first two novels are pastiches/elevated fanfic, and in many respects more interesting works.

The Dracula Tape works from the same conceit as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (without the esoteric humor). It is a book about what's happening on the other side of the story from an original work.

In this case, it is Dracula narrating his perspective on the events of Dracula and what was going on behind the scenes. The narration is being made in 1970 to a descendant of Mina Harker and his wife while they are trapped in their car in a snow drift. The narration is recorded on tape and so it is an explicit first person narration with an explicit audience.

The choice and circumstance of narrator are worth any writer's study. Dracula's character comes across well in the way he tells his story. He does not paint himself as a nice person. He is a lord, a lover, a soldier, and an old man trying to find how to fit into the new world that has grown up around him (He is also more than a bit of a tourist).

His primary battles are against Van Helsing (who he heaps with scorn) and the quartet of guys who follow him: Jonathon Harker, Doctor Jack Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris. Lucy Westenra is still largely a plot device, as she was in the original book, but Mina Harker is elevated to the status of Dracula's lover and aide.

The narrative structure of the novel allows Dracula to have perspective on Dracula and he does not always paint himself with sympathy, noting his own errors (particularly in the matter of Jonathon Harker's time in Castle Dracula).

What struck me on rereading was the virtue of the time gap between this book and the original novel for which it is fanfic.

The gap of time between 1897 and 1970 allows for greater perspective to be incorporated into the work. The ability to synthesize that perspective into the narrator's perspective makes for a nuanced work that would be more difficult to pull off if one were writing contemporary fanfic.

The novel ends with Dracula revealing that Mina Harker (who stayed with her husband when she found out she was pregnant) has now (in 1970) arisen as a vampire and will go off with her true love Vlad.


The Holmes-Dracula File is deeper into fanfic territory.

There are a few references to Sherlock Holmes in The Dracula Tape, but it is ambiguous there as to whether Holmes is a fictional character or a real person. In this book there is no ambiguity. The book is far more a Holmes pastiche than it is a Dracula story. Indeed, it exists to deal with two bit of Holmes lore:

1. Why does Sherlock Holmes have an aversion to women?

2. What is the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, which Watson alludes to but never tells the tale of.

Saberhagen was not the only Holmes aficionado of the time to tackle these questions. In the mid 'seventies Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven Percent Solution and The West End Horror tackling both of these issues (Bram Stoker is a character in The West End Horror and a manuscript copy of Dracula is briefly used as a clue).

The narrative structure of The Holmes-Dracula File is interesting. It consists of alternating chapters with different narrators. The even numbered chapters are written by Doctor Watson in a decent approximation of Conan Doyle's Watson. The odd numbered chapters (beginning with the first) appear for a while to be written in third person omniscient.

The first event of the story is an old man being conked on the head by a wooden club which induces amnesia. The fact that it had to be wood to do this harm is emphasized, so the reader is clued into the fact that this old man is Dracula right from the start. We follow along as he struggles with the difficulties of being an amnesiac vampire held captive.

A few times the narrator comments on the character of the old man ("I didn't say he was a nice old man, did I?") in a manner that sounds like authorial intrusion until a few chapters in the narrator reveals himself to be Dracula.

It is never explicitly said why Dracula is narrating this or to whom, but early on Watson relates that he does not expect this story to be published in his lifetime for reasons of what we would call national security. It is heavily implied that the manuscript has been entrusted to Dracula for safekeeping and that it is he who released it. Dracula never says that he is putting his own comments into Watson's work, but that fits the narrative structure.

The story has explicit villains, a group of people who are creating the means of spreading a plague and are blackmailing the British government with threats of what we would label bioterrorism. This is one of the two connected cases that Holmes is investigating. It is the bioterrorists who kidnap Dracula for their experiments. In the course of investigation Holmes comes upon evidence that a vampire is at work. He seems to know an awful lot about the signs of vampirism. Holmes eventually tells Watson about vampires, leading Watson to worry for his sanity and consult his old friend Doctor Jack Seward (who is canonically the keeper of an insane asylum). Seward's advice involves suggesting that Watson drug Holmes and bring him to Seward. It later emerges that Seward is one of the bioterrorists. Also he makes a pass at Mina Harker despite her being married to one of his closest friends.

There are times in the book where people who have met Dracula mistake Holmes for him and the other way around. Late in the book there is a confrontation between the two. It is narrated by Dracula because Holmes has ushered everyone else (including Watson) out of the room.

Holmes explains to Dracula that Holmes' mother had had numerous affairs, including one with a vampire, and that she eventually became a vampire. Holmes wishes to know whether that vampire was Dracula. Dracula denies it and in his narrative voice comes to the conclusion (not shared with Holmes) that it was his younger brother Radu who had been involved with Holmes' mother.

Holmes explains that his brother Mycroft and his father hunted down and killed Holmes' mother after she turned into a vampire.

In this we see an element common to Saberhagen's reason for Holmes' aversion to women and Meyer's. Both decided that Sherlock's mother's behavior with other men than his father was primarily responsible for this aversion. Both also had Holmes' father kill his mother.

Fans of the BBC series Sherlock have been treated to a very different portrait of the Holmes family, including his mother, and the more modern idea that Sherlock is asexual.

There is a bit of worldbuilding in the dialogue between Holmes and Dracula. It emerges that if a woman is pregnant with twins while carrying on with a vampire she can give birth to a human child and a born vampire. Holmes explicitly states that he has a twin brother who is a vampire. At the end of the book we are introduced to Jonathan and Mina Harker's two children, a boy and a girl. Watson is narrating at the time and he implies that there is something about the girl that seems off.

The ending of this book is dramatic and amusing and very fan-squeeish for those who are fans of both Holmes and Dracula.

An Old Friend of the Family is, as I said, the most modern of the novels. It involves a battle between Dracula and a bunch of more recent vampires who want to just party down and kill people whenever they feel like it. Their leader explicitly launches an attack on Mina Harker's descendants in order to lure Dracula to America and try to take him out.

The novel is written in third person limited, losing the narrative benefits of the previous two books. It fails to connect strongly to the previous two. Dracula never refers to his previous meeting with Mina's descendants (in The Dracula Tape). There is no mention of the vampire child (who would be aunt, great aunt, and great-great aunt to the Harker descendants who are the book's main characters). There is also no mention of Mina herself, who is also a vampire. Why didn't she come to America with Dracula to protect her descendants?

The portrait of Dracula's character is consistent throughout these novels. He is passionate, ruthless, and honorable. He consistently underestimates people and is consistently surprised and often delighted by their abilities. That character is well painted in the time and place of Victorian England, especially aided by the perspective given by his 1970s self looking back upon events. But those benefits are lost in the modern vampire novel with the modern setting. Dracula in 1970s Chicago is a character in an action novel and unfortunately nothing more.

For Dracula and Holmes fans, the first two novels are well worth the reading. The third is useful in examining the rise of the modern vampire novel, but it didn't especially hold up on reread after three decades.