Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula [1978]

I love alternate-reality stories. My favourite Buffy episodes are a double-bill of “The Wish” and “Dopplegangland”, my favourite original Star Trek episode is “Mirror, Mirror”. Once the tropes of a setting are established, it is fascinating to look at “what if?” scenarios. They are a second look at something you loved the first time around. So I was excited to see this title peeking out at me when I went to the Library. Post-modern pastiche with a big “What If?” element sounded hugely promising, and especially since Sherlock Holmes and Dracula represent orthogonal conceptions of society.

Sherlock Holmes towers like a giant over the entire genre of Detective fiction, and if he is standing on Dupin’s shoulders, well, so much the better. His method is the careful examination of clues, which he assembles into the truth. This is generally a truth so abstruse that he needs a mantra to go with it: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The genius of having Holmes encounter Dracula is simply that Dracula, as a construct of horror, is impossible. There is no scientific or rational explanation for Vampirism. Of course there are rules, limitations, special powers – but these are all arbitrary. Why can’t Dracula cross running water? What exactly is it about Garlic that repels him? In a battle of wits between the two, Holmes can no longer eliminate the impossible. We’re faced with the possibility here of Holmes genuinely meeting his match, not in intellect or cunning, but in the firm limit of human knowledge.

There are numerous branch-points in the fight against Dracula, and the introduction of Holmes to the narrative allows each of those branches to be explored. Holmes seems like a far more tenacious guardian for the ailing Lucy Westenra, but without van Helsing’s specialist knowledge he is doomed to fail. Her death will provide clues for the strengths, and weaknesses, of the Vampire. How will he parse Jonathan Harker’s journals? What impossible information must he derive from Renfield’s cell and history? It is all too easy to imagine Holmes and Watson pouring over the virtually inexplicable clues that Dracula leaves behind – Holmes untangling the origin of the strange boxes of soil.

Alas, all of those possibilities remain just that, as this book wastes every single opportunity to do anything novel or interesting with either Dracula or Holmes. It is unbelievably timid, choosing to insert Holmes into the various gaps left by the epistolaric original. In perhaps the most shockingly wasteful scene, Holmes visits an all-night book store to obtain a tome outlining everything that van Helsing knows from the original novel. I could barely believe that any author would side-step the obvious incongruence of Holmes’ scientific approach and the existence of Dracula. The choice to focus on Holmes and Watson fumbling around, without really changing the course of events from Dracula made both Holmes and Dracula into minor characters in a novel named after a purported conflict between the two. Perhaps this was a classic case of expectation ruining experience – if so, it was a triumph at that.

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