by Steven Hopstaken and Melissa Prusi
Flame Tree Press
*** Review copy received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review ***
Description: Years before either becomes a literary legend, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde must overcome their disdain for one another to battle the Black Bishop, a mysterious madman wielding supernatural forces to bend the British Empire to his will. With the help of a European vampire expert, a spirited actress and an American businessman, our heroes fight werewolves, vampires and the chains of Victorian morality. The action will take them to dark forests in Ireland, through the upper-class London theater world and culminates in an exciting showdown at Stonehenge, where Bram and Oscar must stop a vampire cult from opening the gates of Hell. FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
Review: With the title alone, it is suggested that not only will this book involve Bram Stoker somehow, but also possibly Oscar Wilde, or quite possibly, Dorian Gray as a character. After being thoroughly intrigued by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker’s collaboration from October 2018, entitled Dracul, it has been interesting to see the newest trend in fiction, of casting authors like Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde as characters. I’m a sucker for most historical fiction, especially if it’s from the eras I like, and I’m a particular fan of Victorian stories, so right off the bat, when the authors started things off with a White Worm Society Archivist’s Note, I felt a good buzz going, signalling that this would be my kind of read. What I wasn’t expecting was how hilarious and entertaining this book turned out to be, which was a nice surprise. I needed to read something light-hearted after such serious fare that started this year off for me, and this novel was a delightful page-turner.
We learn that it has taken many years of investigations to catalogue and put all of this archival material together, and how this society came upon the items in its collection. I loved their notes about punctuation. That was a nice touch, and I appreciated the little digressions they added about history, such as the length of Wilde’s letters.
Things proceed in an epistolary manner with a letter from Oscar Wilde to Florence Balcombe from 1876. I found the Victorian style to be fun to follow. In the letter, Wilde discusses a dinner party that happened with Captain Richard Burton in Dublin. I actually burst out laughing when the letter mentioned that one of Wilde’s older brothers, Willie, attended, and brought along “one of his most tiresome friends, Bram Stoker.”
As it turns out, Burton states that vampires are real, he’s killed them, and he’s now hunting werewolves at the request of the Queen, including a recent killing in Greystones. The main characters form a rag-tag band to investigate the murder of a girl, supposedly by a werewolf. We then get our glimpse into Bram Stoker’s point of view from his journals. Stoker, as it turns out, does not think that a werewolf killed the barmaid. He thinks that it’s just a rabid dog. Adding even more entertainment to the section is that Stoker and Wilde seem to hate each other, with Stoker finding Wilde pretentious and annoying. On a more serious note, Stoker also reveals he has been suffering a fit and it has been many years since he’s experienced one, so he’s worried. He thinks he’s having hallucinations and losing his grip over his sanity.
The action in the novel is excellent. A reader might assume that because of the epistolary format that this might be boring, or long-winded from a pacing point of view, but it’s written with modern readers in mind, while remaining authentic to its Victorian roots, and so I found it to be a fantastic blend of old and new, and rip-roaringly good fun.
The novel also goes into Florence Balcombe and how her relationship develops with both Oscar Wilde and then Bram Stoker. The novel sticks mostly closely to historical events within the context of the fantastical insertions, such as that Bram Stoker is worried he himself may be a werewolf. At first, he writes reviews of plays for the Dublin Mail newspaper until he then gets hired to work at a theatre.
There are some shifty characters on the scene, including Count Ruthven, a mysterious figure known as the Black Bishop, and an actor, Irving, that make this book more interesting the more it continues. On a more personal level, Stoker isn’t happy that Florence is marrying Oscar Wilde, especially as Oscar’s interests lie elsewhere, but he insists he’s only got a platonic thing for Florence although that’s not the case. Eventually, Stoker fesses up, marries Florence, and takes a job at the Lyceum theatre in London.
Adding to our cast is an actress, Ellen, who is friends with Oscar Wilde. He tells her to be wary of Stoker because of their intense discord, but he’s also moving to London soon. The novel fills in some creative details for why Stoker has the gift of Second Sight, and the action/adventure feel of investigating mysteries and secrets makes this an excellent page-turner. At some points, the plot does slow down and plod along, and there were a few scenes I felt could be omitted, but for the most part, I loved reading this novel and felt it was excellent.
Tensions strain between Stoker and Florence while heating up between himself and Ellen, more secret identities are revealed, people turn out not to be who we thought all along, and there are some very interesting spins on the common lore along the way. The climactic scenes are also hugely entertaining.
To sum up, this novel is a very entertaining and highly enjoyable romp through the Victorian era, especially for readers who like a more light-hearted take on some of literature’s favourite authors cast as dynamic characters.