Dracula vs. Hitler?! Yes, yes, I know — the title is beyond hokey and there’s no way that this could be a good book. A graphic novel? Maybe. But not a full-sized, 500-page novel. I love horror and I love Dracula, the Dracula as he was originally … gothically evil, not gothically high school. And World War II lit is cool. But the combination? It sounds like a comic book, or maybe the next generation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s classic-lit/horror mash-ups.
Do you want the honest truth? Dracula vs. Hitler is a very fun book. The title was a warning, but the evil v. evil angle drew me in and Dracula’s placement on the side of the allies in the middle of WWII was intriguing. While the novel isn’t perfect, it’s a terrific story in the very capable hands of author Patrick Sheane Duncan.
The author prefaces the novel by relating his accidental discovery of a number of WWII artifacts buried deep within a government warehouse. This discovery includes an unfinished novel, diaries written in an obscure shorthand, German military dispatches, and notes taken in Dutch that our narrator/author had transcribed for our reading shock and pleasure. You know the trés popular ‘found footage’ horror films, like The Blair Witch Project? Think of this as ‘found documents’ that reads like an epistolary.
Patrick Sheane Duncan is the author of the novel Courage Under Fire, which was turned into a film for which he also wrote the screenplay, as well as the under-rated Mr. Holland’s Opus. Dracula vs. Hitler is a bit of a departure from those other more erudite efforts, but what Dracula vs. Hitler may lose in presumption it makes up for in fun and creativity. The writing style is authentically evocative of Stoker but modernized to resonate with the contemporary reader.
The narrative starts with Van Helsing returning to the location of where he had dispatched Dracula. Unsurprisingly, Dracula had not been completely eliminated. Van Helsing isn’t ultimately looking to destroy the vampire, but to secure him; to keep him safe from doing further damage. He’s not sure himself why he doesn’t just kill the monster. Perhaps it’s his scientific curiosity … perhaps in the future there may be something to be learned from the creature’s vast powers and abilities.
Van Helsing secures Dracula in a tomb following a vivid and bloody battle scene between the two. The rest of Dracula vs. Hitler’s story takes place 40 years later in the now-amalgamated Balkan region of Rumania that was formerly Transylvania. The Germans have invaded and, as usually happens with these things, there’s a persistent band of rebels battling the Nazi behemoth.
Van Helsing lives in a small town with his daughter Lucille, named after Lucy from the original episode with the King of Vampires. They’re part of the small but ferocious group of rebels, fighting tooth and nail against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and their stoolie Rumanian governors. The face of German abhorrence is the brutishly efficient Major Reikel who’s assigned to squash the rebellion. Subtle, Major Reikel is not. He ruthlessly kills a number of innocent villagers to shock the rebels into good behavior. Realizing their small warfare will only anger the Germans into killing more innocents, Van Helsing flashes on his subconscious reason for not destroying Dracula when he had the chance — he’ll revive his monster and pit him against the bigger monster: the Nazis.
Joining the Van Helsings, and eventually Dracula, are two young English soldiers parachuting behind lines to provide a conduit between British intelligence and the rebels. One is Jonathan Harker, the grandson of the original Harker that fought Dracula in the late 1800s. He and a demolitions expert, nicknamed Renfield due to his unorthodox behavior following a head injury, find their way to the Rumanian rebels, where the dots connect between past and present and Stoker’s fiction and reality.
Hitler appears about midway through Dracula vs. Hitler, shortly before Major Reikel captures Dracula. After reading dispatches from his Rumanian outposts, and comparing the popularized vampire myth with the vampire reality, he sees an opportunity for immortality through Dracula’s blood: not just for himself but also for Germany and the entire Third Reich. Hitler plays a less active part than the title might suggest, but his role and appearance are key themes to the conclusion of the story.
Duncan’s strength is his vivid realizations of WWII special operations and the animated action sequences of the rebel ally, Prince Dracula. The development and growth of the characters is more obvious and awkwardly over-written. Lucy is all about female empowerment … except when she near-immediately falls for the tall, pale, and handsome prince. Harker and Lucy have a one-time romantic evening after their first battle together, and Duncan spends too much melodramatic ink for most of the rest of the novel on Harker’s unrequited lovesick infatuation. The World War II realism marries well with a subtle and persistent sense of humor.
Themes range from the obvious good versus evil and the shades of evil and darkness that can dwell within and without a man or woman. Our Dracula has clearly done some evil in his rather long existence. Is he only about evil? No, of course not. He is the cliché and stereotype that Stoker drew in “The Book,” but the “real” Dracula of Duncan’s imagining is much more complicated. He loves his country and land, and he’s willing to risk his exposure to rid his land of the war-hungry “Huns.” A certain warmth and camaraderie develops among the allies after a time.
The action and realistic violence as well as the connections to Stoker’s novel drove the story for me, but I had to ride out the character development and romance along the way. Dracula vs. Hitler is a blend of Universal Studios-style monster movie, gritty character-centered World War II action film fused with effusive romantic melodrama.