I feel like I’m not quite sure why — is Mark Gatiss’s star power really so big? — but Big Finish have commissioned a prequel and a sequel to their Big Finish Classics adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula’s Guests is a three-part expansion of a tiny short story by Stoker, penned, just as the original adaptation was, by Jonathan Barnes.
It’s divided into three parts, The Artist’s Tale, The Vampire’s Tale, and The Detective’s Tale. Like Dracula itself, it’s an assemblage of tales: Renfield tells a tale of Dracula telling a tale, while someone tells a tale of Renfield, each tale seemingly embedded in another. Some of what we hear works on its own (the tale of artist Jeremiah Hart), some sets up elements of what happens in Dracula itself (the tale of Renfield), some must be there to set up what will happen in the forthcoming Dracula’s War (the tale of Dracula himself). Some characters cross from tale to tale.
I found it a mixed bag. The Artist’s Tale has its moments, but I don’t think is as frightening as it ought to be. I don’t know if this is because of a failure in script, direction, or performance, but when Hart is on his own in a desolate landscape, one never really feels the jeopardy — maybe because it is narrated retrospectively. But it still is effective in parts, as Hart becomes more and more absorbed into Dracula’s world. Dracula’s tale, I’m sorry to say because I thought Mark Gatiss did an excellent job as the count in Dracula itself, is dead boring, a long saga with nothing interesting to hook the listener, and too many scenes — always a misjudgement on audio — where someone gives a big speech to an invisible crowd.
I thought the choice to make Renfield a police detective an odd one, but to my surprise I enjoyed Renfield’s story most of all, as he dashes back and forth across London in pursuit of a brutal killer but he himself is slowly descending into madness. Ian Hallard puts in a strong performance, and how the character ends up the man we know from Dracula is a good hook. I didn’t like everything about it; one key character is someone from The Artist’s Tale, who has descended into madness because she read in a letter that Hart descended into madness, which doesn’t really convince as a motivation, especially as The Artist’s Tale never made her connection to Hart seem anything more than mercenary. And Van Helsing’s role in this is so fragmentary I’m not sure why anyone bothered to stick him in. But I think the original novel’s greatest strength is the sense of something contaminating London, and this section captures that the best — the faux-epic of The Vampire’s Tale is ill-suited to what Stoker was doing.
Because this is a Jonathan Barnes Big Finish Classics script, all the women are there to sexually manipulate or otherwise tear down men.
I have positive memories of Big Finish’s original Dracula, which I found a cut above many of their Classics range. But this was harder to like and to enjoy. Maybe I will get more out of it when Dracula’s War comes out and it is disc 1-3 of a nine-disc epic, rather than a weird curio on its own.
Dracula’s Guests (by Jonathan Barnes; starring Mark Gatiss) was released by Big Finish Productions in February 2020.