Review: POWERS OF DARKNESS
In a way this post feels anti-climactic. I’ve said so much about POWERS OF DARKNESS, aka MAKT MYRKRANNA, already. I was talking about it for months before it came out, and I’ve offered my thoughts, and shared the thoughts of others, while I’ve been reading it. Now that I’ve finished it, can I say it was worth the wait? Unquestionably—and this despite the fact that I personally found the book inferior in almost every respect to DRACULA, with which it shares a kinship and from an earlier draft of which it was supposedly taken. Confused? Then you haven’t read all the OTHER posts relating to the book.
In short, MAKT MYRKRANNA is the previously “lost” Icelandic translation of DRACULA, which came out in print not long after DRACULA first hit the shelves of bookstores. Bram Stoker penned an introduction for the book, which Valdimar Asmundsson then translated and MAY have tinkered with. It seems likely that Asmundsson was actually using an earlier, unpublished and discarded draft of Stoker’s novel as his template. As a result, and the result of Asmundsson’s tampering—we do not know the extent to which Asmundsson contributed his own original work to the project, the extent to which he “rewrote” the source material—POWERS OF DARKNESS is a very different book from DRACULA, for better or worse. In a way, I think we shouldn’t compare them at all, as two distinctly separate things can never be equal, thus one can never be superior. (It’s like the old argument about men and women being “equal.” The counterargument is that they are not, because they CANNOT be. Deserving of equal rights, yes, equal treatment. But disparate things, legalistically speaking, cannot be equal.) Yet because Stoker WAS involved in the project to some extent, greater or lesser, comparisons are inevitable.
The first half of the book, detailing Thomas (not Jonathan) Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula, sets the bar too high for its abridged second half to leap over. The first part is detailed, nuanced, full of characterization and intriguing subplots (that are never followed up on) while the second half of the novel is shallow and insubstantial. It feels rushed, incomplete. That’s a shame. While we are given some new characters, the only one of which who receives a proper amount of time “onscreen” being the singular vampire bride, old stalwarts like Renfield are sorely missed. Perhaps the biggest deviation, though, from the original work (by that I mean DRACULA as a finished novel) is in the characterization of the Count himself. In MAKT MYRKRANNA, he is more of a smug super villain, presiding over a cult of ape-like acolytes and plotting world domination. He’s a lot more Fu-Manchu than Nosferatu. Perhaps because I never saw Dracula the character as an outright villain, more of a tragic antihero or a reluctant heel at worst; perhaps because in DRACULA the Count is enough of a blank slate that I am able to project my own desires and interpretations onto the character, I didn’t care too much for this interpretation. In POWERS OF DARKNESS, the Count is more fleshed-out. He’s also not nearly as likeable. This may well be what the writer or writers was/were going for; it probably is. But I missed the Count I know and love.
I must state, however, that any weaknesses I saw in POWERS OF DARKNESS are strictly due to the story structure and to—again, we must presume—the incomplete draft of DRACULA from which Asmundsson worked. The translation from Icelandic by scholar Hans de Roos, who we also must thank for discovering the work in the first place, is flawless. Heavily annotated, the care with which De Roos handled this Herculean task (it would’ve been to me!) is both obvious and inspiring. Where there is a doubt over the definition of a term, he explains it, and his decision to translate it the way he did. He points out the plot holes and inconsistencies in the text. He offers anecdotes and insights, and the final product is an imminently readable, smooth, and engaging piece free of over-stylized stumbling blocks and accessible to both the scholar and the layman. Kudos, Hans. Well done.
POWERS OF DARKNESS may not be as much fun as DRACULA, but it is an important part of the mythos. It may feel incomplete, the beginning of a ripping good story that was never finished, but what there is of it is vital and fascinating. The mystery of where Stoker ends and Asmundsson begins, and of the exact substance and personality of the text from which Asmundsson was probably working, go a long way towards filling in the gaps. With each passage, one wonders: “Did Bram write that? Was that originally a part of DRACULA? Or did Asmundsson create it?” If the latter is the case, one wishes he had added even more to the finished work.
Every fan should seek out POWERS OF DARKNESS. Every fan, and everybody else, too. It is a lost treasure recovered and restored. I honestly don’t know of any review I could give the work, anything I could say, that would be more positive—or honest. Did I love it more than DRACULA? No. Do I think you all should run right out and buy a copy? Absolutely. Buy it and read it. Many, many discussions and much delicious theorizing await us!