Friday, June 20, 2014

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.

Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 

The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 

Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney's house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?

My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well - it's not Dracula.

Of course it isn't Dracula, but you can see it's the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories - one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera's tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney's friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross's first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker's in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself - we only know of his intellect and experience through the others' easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.

Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys' house and lives.

The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.

What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there's the ending - abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don't think Stoker ever intended for Margaret's 'connection' with Queen Tera to be a secret - but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast - in a good way, if that's possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it's so simple, you wouldn't have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn't. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn't fallen for that.) 

My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book - like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn't eaten that thing in the first place.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It's not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It's also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I'd suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.

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