The last sight that I remembered was a vague, white, moving mass, as if all the graves around me had sent out the phantoms of their sheeted-dead, and that they were closing in on me through the white cloudiness of the driving hail.
In Dracula’s Guest, a man on the way to visit Count Dracula on unspecified business, finds himself lost in an isolated graveyard in a driving storm and the things he encounters there terrify him deeply. In the other stories in this book, a cruel judge haunts the house where he died, a writer finds himself in danger of being murdered by beggars, an American on holiday in Europe has an unfortunate encounter with a black cat, love drives a man to murder, a gypsy prophesies that a man will one day murder his own wife and more uncanny and terrifying events occur.
So, a couple of words about this book. It was published posthumously by Stoker’s widow; Stoker died in 1912, not long after the publication of his final novel, The Lair of the White Worm. The book was republished in a Penguin edition (if you can ever get a Penguin edition of any book you want to read, do so) and that edition also includes The Lair of the White Worm. According to Stoker’s widow, Stoker had been working on this collection of short stories before his death; a few of the stories had been published earlier in magazines, but many, including the title story, had never seen the light of day. According to Florence Stoker, Dracula’s Guest was originally written to be the first chapter of the novel Dracula, but it was cut by Stoker’s editors for length. Scholarship is divided on this. Dracula’s Guest is not written in the epistolary format that Dracula is written in and Stoker was notoriously prickly at allowing his editors to have much say in his work (maybe one of the reasons his writing, well, frankly, just isn’t that good). On the other hand, there are drafts of Dracula where Jonathan Harker refers in his journals to travelling through Munich, where Dracula’s Guest takes place, and to having strange experiences there. Probably, the decision to remove Dracula’s Guest from the novel was Stoker’s own and he probably made it early in the writing process. But it’s in Florence Stoker’s interest to sell it this way, of course: at last, more from her late husband’s most beloved book, just as he always intended! Selling it as an intended section of the book that Stoker himself cut very early because it wasn’t very good wouldn’t work quite as well.
Anyway, I am on record as a dedicated non-fan of Dracula (both the original novel and the classic Lugosi film), but I was interested to revisit Stoker and see if I might appreciate his short stories more than his novels. Well, in some ways I did and in some ways I found these stories to be rife with the same sketchy writing that kind of sunk Dracula for me. A lot of the stories are pretty mediocre; a few of them contain no supernatural elements, though this is, of course, not necessary in order for a work to be classed as horror. The Secret of the Growing Gold, A Dream of Red Hands & The Coming of Abel Behenna are the worst of the bunch, pretty typical morality tales, just kind of vague filler with no real point. But a big problem is the predictability. You start a story in this book and you kind of wonder how it’s going to turn out and then it turns out exactly the way you thought it would. This isn’t a crippling problem if the writing offers some reward, but I’ve always found Stoker to be a particularly poor writer. But when a story is so predictable and there’s nothing to set it apart from any other story that’s very like it, there just seems to be no point.
One exception is The Gipsy Prophecy in which a gypsy unsettles a man by predicting that he will murder his wife. It’s maybe the only story in the book that actually had an ending I didn’t see coming. Well, and Crooken Sands, but that ending was just idiotic.
But there are two really, really great stories here. The first, and best, is called The Squaw; I’ve seen it before, published under the title The Black Cat (which caused me no end of confusion when I read Poe’s Black Cat and found it to be not the Black Cat that I had read years ago and always remembered), presumably because of its racially charged title. It’s a genuinely brilliant story. In it, a thrill-seeking American on vacation in Europe has an unfortunate encounter with a black cat and finds the incident difficult to shake, if you get me. It’s a masterful story and the most genuinely suspenseful and horrifying story here. Even having read this one years ago, and thus literally knowing (not just guessing) how it would end, I was riveted by this one.
The other is The Burial of the Rats in which a writer in Paris decides to visit a slum area populated by beggars in order to research his book. But as evening draws on and the writer finds himself so deeply in the slum as to be somewhat lost, he begins to suspect that the friendly beggars have no intention of allowing him to leave alive. This one is really suspenseful; there’s a couple of pages of set-up, but once our protagonist tumbles to his situation, the tension mounts as he must pretend to have no idea of his impending murder and also desperately attempt to discover a way out of his fix. The ending to this one is, unfortunately, anti-climactic and disappointing, so it doesn’t have the haunting sting of The Squaw, which has a brilliant ending, but it’s a great short story nonetheless.
I will say that Stoker is exceedingly bad at characterization and writes some of the worst dialogue you’re likely to encounter, but there is one area at which he is very good and that is at creating atmosphere. He renders some of the locations here really vividly; a hailstorm lashed cemetery in Dracula’s Guest, the dark brooding atmosphere of the judge’s house in The Judge’s House, the dark, confusing paths of the beggars slum in The Burial of the Rats, the pagan shadows that hang over the small Scottish village in The Crooken Sands. These locations I’ll remember. I think that’s a large part of why Stoker’s work has maintained a level of success – I suppose people will always sacrifice great characterization and good technical writing for atmosphere, especially in their horror. I suppose it’s the same impulse that drives people to the multiplex to check out the latest crappily made, totally predictable horror movie: bad as it is, it has some atmosphere.
Anyway, I would recommend against reading this one. It’s just not very good, taken as a whole. You can find The Squaw and The Burial of the Rats online and you should really read them actually, but skip the rest of this book. In fact, here they are, provided free by the Stoker estate: The Squaw ; The Burial of the Rats. Please, do go read those, or at least The Squaw, and come back here and comment on them.
Want spoilers? I know sometimes a short story title or something will stick out and I’ll think, I’d like to know about that one cause I’ll probably never get around to reading it. Well, just ask and I’ll post spoilers and/or more in-depth summaries of whatever you’re interested in behind spoiler tags and we can talk that way.
Horror? Sure. At its best, this book achieves a real frisson. Basically the entirety of The Squaw, once the cat enters the story, is unsettling and, ultimately, genuinely horrifying. And maybe it’s not exactly horror, but a conversation in a small shack as killers gather around it in The Burial of the Rats, well, it’s a nail-biter for sure. But, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, murders, prophecies, spurting blood, eyes clawed out, men swallowed by quick-sand . . . yes, there are plenty of grim things going on here. Shame it isn’t better.
All in all, better than Dracula, but still disappointing on the whole. 1 ½ stars.
Next time, it’s another collection of short stories, this time by a British author with a grim view of the upper classes and an eye toward merciless satire. But is it horror? Well, we’ll find out next time as I finish up 1914 with Beasts & Super-Beasts by Saki.