For lack of a better way to begin this review, I'm going to mention a few things that The Scholar's Tale, the first book of Reggie Oliver's Dracula Papers tetralogy, is not. It's not really a "strange story" in the way of Oliver's short fiction. There are short flashes of that kind of thing, particularly near the end of the book, but they're definitely more the exception than the rule. Also, despite what the title may make some readers expect, this isn't a vampire novel in the familiar sense of that label. Various forms and aspects of vampirism, both literal and metaphoric, pop up at intervals, but don't expect missing reflections, brandished crosses, or mysterious neck wounds. In fact, I might argue that The Scholar's Tale isn't a horror novel at all.
What is it, then? Well, if you put a gun to my head, I'd go with the overarching label "Gothic." But Gothic is one of those words that can mean just about anything depending on who's using it, so let me expand on that. For me, the essence of the Gothic is some form of exaggeration or excess. It can be narrative (unlikely events), stylistic (fevered prose), or thematic (taboo issues), or all three at once. In the case of The Scholar's Tale, it's most definitely narrative. This is the kind of novel where the protagonist narrowly escapes death three times in the first hundred pages, meeting a female outlaw queen, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Wandering Jew along the way-- and that's before he even reaches Castle Dracula. It's the kind of novel where every castle has secret passages, and every resident of every castle has dark secrets, where a ten page diversion into a side-story of murder, lust, or religious mania is all part of the fun. And The Scholar's Tale is most definitely a lot of fun. It's also something more than that, however, which is a topic to which I'll return shortly.
But first, a plot summary. What exactly are the Dracula papers? The book opens with a fictional "introduction" credited to Reggie Oliver, which fans will recognize as a modified version of the story "The Devil's Number." It transpires that Oliver has, as Gothic novelists will, uncovered a trove of papers, this one collected by Abraham van Helsing and relating to the life of Count Dracula. There follows a foreword written by van Helsing sometime after the events of Dracula, though the "amusing" mangled English of Stoker's novel is pleasantly absent. Then we come to the meat of the text, an autobiography of sorts written by the Renaissance scholar Martin Bellorius. While still a young man, Bellorius was invited to become tutor to the sons of the King of Transylvania. More than fifty years later, he sat down to describe those events, and the dark shadow they cast over the rest of his life.
Readers of Oliver's short fiction will know that, like the great M. R. James, he is a master of historical pastiche. Here he manages to echo the straightforward, slightly pedantic style of Renaissance treatises (or rather, of the nineteenth-century English into which they were translated) without ever becoming boring. Bellorius may stop, as a scholar would, to describe the detailed layout of a series of rooms based on the Kabbalah, but his language has a simplicity and a deceptive delicacy that makes it all read very quickly. (I sped through the last 400 pages in a single night.)
This clarity of language, and the book's rollicking plot, may make it seem like The Dracula Papers is a mere potboiler, a vaguely historical, vaguely horrific entertainment that can be forgotten as soon as it's put aside. But that's hardly the case. Oliver once described M. R. James as a classicist writer, explaining that "the classicist believes in the principle that art lies in the concealment of art, in a pellucid surface with hidden depths." I have no idea whether Oliver would call himself a classicist, but such concealed issues are at the heart of The Scholar's Tale. This is a book that, without calling attention to itself, examines the complex, self-defeating hungers that define us as human beings. The brutality and excess of the Gothic novel are not mere lurid diversions, but a lens through which to view our desire for love, power, life itself.
It's hard to be more specific about Oliver's thematic intentions with this epic story, because The Scholar's Tale is only the first quarter of it. This also leads to my one minor frustration with the book. Bellorius, a good Gothic narrator, constantly hints at some great darkness toward which the events he describes are leading, to the point where he is himself a terrified, haunted old man. As the book rolls on, there is much drama and much tragedy, but nothing that exactly lives up to his dire warnings. The ending is also slightly abrupt; I can see how it represents a turning point, and there's a wonderfully chilling revelation mixed in, but I also felt a sense of anticlimax that was difficult to shake.
Perhaps, though, that was only because I didn't want the story to be over, didn't want to have to wait for the publication of the second volume of The Dracula Papers, about which the Afterword to Book I offers some tantalizing hints. I wanted, and want, more of this wide-ranging, funny, frightening, and thoughtful Gothic extravaganza. The Scholar's Tale was one of my favorite books of recent months. And it also contains this delightful sentence: "Meanwhile Razendoringer came up behind him and thrust the boat hook up his rectum." How can you not want to read more about that?