Dracula vs. Hitler (I may never get used to typing or saying that) is a 500 page novel written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, who is otherwise known for writing screenplays to such films as Mr. Holland's Opus. Let both those facts seep in for just a moment. First, this book is 500 pages long. If you told me a month ago that I was going to read something 500 pages long, I might have guessed its title had words in it like "War," or "Peace," or "Les," and "Miserable." "Dracula" and "Hitler" would not have factored at all. Second, if the author's previously best known work was a sentimental film about a high school music teacher making a difference in kids' lives, how did he get onto vampires and Nazis? That's quite a remarkable shift in genre.
Anyhow, what exactly is this book about? After an opening that rewrites the end of Bram Stoker's Dracula (which takes place in the late 1890s), we jump ahead to Nazi-controlled Romania in 1941. Abraham Van Helsing, the mastermind of Dracula's defeat in Stoker's novel, is still alive (though no one ever explains how, as he would be around 135 years old). Along with his daughter Lucy Van Helsin, he leads a resistance cell. The struggle is going badly and Van Helsing decides that in order to defeat the Nazis he must reawaken the Count and convince him to join the cause. Dracula agrees after an oddly brief conversation that goes something like this: "Ah, Van Helsing, my old nemesis! How I hate you! I will feast on - what's that? Germans in Transylvania? The hell you say! Let's join forces!" Amidst a love triangle between Dracula, Lucy Van Helsing, and a British spy (who is the grandson of Jonathan Harker from the Stoker novel), in their spare time the rebels sabotage a couple of railways and bridges. This gains the attention of German High Command and, eventually, Hitler himself. Hitler obsesses over the possibility of achieving undead status and leading the Reich for all eternity. Nazi stormtroopers capture Dracula by running him over with a half-track tank (I'm not kidding) and, in the last thirty pages or so (of what is, remember, a 500 page book) the Fuhrer meets Dracula. I'm not going to give away the ending, but let's just say it is...less than decisive.
Before anything else, let me say that I find the impulse behind this story quite interesting. Splicing together unlikely figures in a "what would happen if they met?" scenario can be very creative and entertaining. In 1962, Toho pictures paired their famous monster "Godzilla" with RKO studio's 1930s property "King Kong" for a classic beastly throwdown. (If you have a spare seven and a half minutes and are in the mood for a hoot, watch "King Kong vs. Godzilla's" final battle here.) In 2006, the Doctor Who episode "Doomsday" answered the question, "what would happen if the Daleks fought the Cybermen?" (Answer: nothing good for the Cybermen.) More recently, the DC movie universe gave us the humorless, ponderous, and confusing "Batman versus Superman." In my free time, I enjoy the game "Age of Mythology," where you can be an ancient civilization like the Greeks and attack your rivals the Vikings, pitting cyclopses versus frost giants. So, I understand the impulse behind Dracula vs. Hitler. There's a deep human curiosity about how disparate historical and fictional entities might interact that these narratives attempt to satisfy.
Similarly, another intriguing aspect of the premise comes from the actual existence, believe it or not, of a powerful vein of superstition and occultism in the actual Nazi inner circle and hierarchy. While the Indiana Jones movies obviously exaggerated events, the Nazis really were interested in objects like the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. There was fertile ground for this novel to explore or expand on this very real aspect of Nazism. Besides, it's not the first time Nazis and vampires have been put together, though in the past they've usually been on the same side, like Baron Blood, a Nazi vampire and villain from Captain America's World War II days.
Inconspicuous fellow, isn't he? Just blends right in. So, perhaps like a salmon going upstream, I hoped against hope that there would be something enjoyable about this novel. Maybe it would be really silly and funny. On the other hand, maybe it would be an incredibly dark exploration of the meaning of evil.
Sadly, it's neither. The first rule of a mashup affair like this should be that the two characters spend some actual time in confrontation, and that something consequential comes of that clash. That doesn't happen here, as it's hard to create that situation when the characters don't meet until the last thirty pages of an enormous novel. What the author is really interested in, and spends vastly more time on, is the forbidden romance between Dracula and Lucy, where the latter goes through all the Twilight-esque stages of fear/thrill/eroticism from being in the presence of the vampire. The Count, on the other hand, is portrayed as a noble, suffering, creature-of-the-night longing to remember his lost humanity.
For me, that characterization was one of the hardest parts of the novel to take. In Stoker's Dracula, the vampire is a fascinating villain precisely because of his cruel, relentless, and unrepentant malignancy. Character transformations and arcs can be interesting, but only if they are given time and have a traceable progression. In Dracula vs. Hitler, the Count merely announces that he has been "changed" and feels repentant. How? Why? The reader has no idea. What we're left with is a once powerful villain reduced in our imagination to a whiny, mooning sap. I mean, just imagine if that had been done with another great villain, like Darth Vader?
Oh, right. I'd pushed that awfulness out of my mind for a moment. But doesn't that prove the point? And think how great it was to see Vader back in true form at the end of Rogue One.
It really feels like the premise of Dracula vs. Hitler (as campy as the title sounds) was a lost opportunity to make a deep philosophical point about how it takes a monster to destroy a monster. In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "Beware that when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster...for when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." This novel could have been an interesting application of this theme to the events of World War II, using the fictional figure of Dracula as an allegory for how the Allies at times employed brutal and horrific methods to meet the brutality and horror of the Nazi regime. (The firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and other German cities, resulting in indiscriminate destruction of civilian populations, are one prominent example.) When fighting evil, how do you resist the temptation to descend to its level? The author could have used Dracula as a symbolic fulcrum to wrestle with that question, just as Stoker used the vampire to express late Victorian neuroses, anxieties, and fantasies.
What Dracula vs. Hitler is instead, though, is a predictable romance story of the forbidding-yet-alluring vampire and the woman who loves him. The book is derivative in another respect as the author borrows lines from Stoker's novel, as well as his format of diary, journal, and telegrams forming the chapters rather than a single narrative. In Stoker's book, this technique serves to build tension, characterization, and dramatic irony. In Dracula vs. Hitler, it does not appear to serve any purpose other than to seem like Stoker. And did I mention that, for a book called Dracula vs. Hitler, Hitler's hardly even in it? Not in all 500 pages?
I shouldn't be too hard on the book just because the author did not make the choices with the material that I would have. People like all kinds of different things and that's cool. Hopefully someone, somewhere will enjoy this book. (Although, it's odd that the author chose to end his prefatory note with this thought: "I'm sure that there will be a whole slew of people who will think this all fell out of a horse's ass." I don't know if it was that bad. Sounds as he anticipated a slight amount of pushback.) All told, if you like the whole "vampire romance" motif, this might be a book for you. If you don't, you may want to go another direction.
Next time, join me for the previously scheduled discussion of Zen in everyday life and the link between meditation and health. Visualization exercises, unsolvable riddles (koans), and Haikus will abound! Until then, take care.