I’m a cautious fan of alternate versions of famous books. Sometimes a new writer looking at a classic is able to illuminate it, show us aspects we never would have seen for ourselves. Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a good example of this, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants working in the Bennet’s household. It can be difficult, though, to get it right, especially if the point of view character in the new book is someone who doesn’t last through the whole of the original book. Renfield, Slave of Dracula, by Barbara Hambly, stars one of those characters, and if Barbara Hambly weren’t an excellent writer (she is; go check out her other books, especially her Benjamin January mystery series), I would have been reluctant to give the book a try. Which would have been too bad, because she manages to pull it off: a view of the events of Dracula from a character who’s usually seen as minor, which brings depth to that character and to all the other characters he touches.
We all know the outlines of Renfield’s story from Dracula: he’s the guy who was involved with Dracula before Jonathan Harker, who had a complete breakdown as a result and ended up in the asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward, eating flies and spiders and ranting about the lives he needed to ingest. He’s something of a grotesque in the original, a contrast to Jonathan and a person who invites Dracula into the asylum where Mina Harker is staying, so Dracula can attack her and so the rest of the book’s plot can unfold. In the original, Dracula kills Renfield in the asylum for his unfaithfulness, long before Van Helsing and the others chase Dracula to his home in Transylvania.
Hambly turns Renfield into a person with his own history, his own needs and his conflicts. For most of the book, Renfield relates his side of events via letters to his absent wife and daughter, whom he has hidden away before his commitment to Seward’s asylum, to protect them from his wife’s conniving family.* He comes across as an erudite, educated man with a past in India of the British Raj, and his obsession with eating flies and spiders and the like becomes more understandable (though still kind of bizarre). His relationship with Dracula is complex; we never learn how he met Dracula and how Dracula achieved his power over Renfield, but he finds himself seeing through Dracula’s eyes and feeling what his master feels (which, by the way, gives us the events we’re familiar with from Dracula). He’s a sympathetic character, especially when you see how mentally ill people are treated in this era and especially in this asylum, where the lovesick Dr. Seward isn’t paying too much attention to how his staff earns extra money.
Even where Hambly diverges from the original plot, she’s scrupulous about using characters and events that are part of the original. In this version, Renfield allies himself with Dracula’s wives, who have come to England to follow their master and to make sure he’s not setting himself up a new harem in England. We’ve seen the wives in Dracula, though they weren’t as differentiated as they are here. Each has her own personality (Elizabeth, the oldest, is the most like her husband, cold and cruel), and one of them, Nomie, sees Renfield as more than just a means to their ends but as a person in his own right. She becomes such a major character that if you’re aware of the fates of Dracula’s wives, you spend a lot of time worrying about her fate and how Renfield is going to react to it.
Ah, you ask, but how does the author get around the death of Renfield? Very cleverly, I answer, but I’m not going to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that his destiny makes perfect sense in the context of the vampire world (and that’s as much of a hint as I’m going to give), allowing him to be an actor in the events that lead to Dracula’s destruction.
There’s one major twist in the book which I didn’t foresee, but, shocking as it is at the time, when I thought about what we already knew up to that point, it felt fair, not as if the author were twisting the plot just for the sake of twists (coughGoneGirlcough). Renfield is our protagonist; he’s not a hero, but he’s understandable and he brings new light to Dracula and the other characters around him.
You don’t have to have read Dracula in order to enjoy this book (though why haven’t you read it? It’s a fun book and a classic); what you probably already know from having seen various movie versions of Dracula and what you know from living in this culture will be enough to give you all the background you need. Of course, if you have read the original, it’s even more fun to read this. Introduce yourself to a new and fascinating Renfield, here at The Field Library.
*And yes, this means this book can be used as an epistolary novel for the purposes of the 2019 Reading Challenge.