Burchfield, Thomas. Dragon’s Ark. Ambler House Publishing, March 2011. 402 pp. USD $11.70. ISBN 978-0-615-38547-1.
While Bram Stoker’s mother accurately predicted that Dracula would be her son’s crowning achievement, I wonder if even she would have been startled by the number of pieces inspired by it. From the German Expressionist classic Nosferatu to the schlocky Dracula 2000, from Kim Newman’s alternative history Anno Dracula to Loren D. Estleman’s daring reframing of the original novel, to include Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count, one need not look hard to find the former Vlad Tepes in the entertainment industry. But, probably starting around the 1950s, it became an exercise in quantity over quality. For every original takeoff like Vampire Hunter D, you get a hundred Jesse James Versus Dracula films. Then you’ve got wasted potential like Thomas Burchfield’s Dragon’s Ark.
The basic setup is that Monitor County, situated on the Nevada-California border, is being bought up by Sierra Future Development Group. Their plan is to turn the area into a tourist oasis and resort area. They are using the standard corporate tactics to accomplish it: bribes to government officials, intimidation against recalcitrant locals, payouts to landowners, etc. But there’s one huge obstacle up on the mountain called ‘Dragon’s Ark’, long-time resident Klaus Bartok. He decides to get involved. He’s officially a century old, but…well, given my last paragraph, we all know how old he is and what his real name is.
Okay, good stuff, first. The most interesting people in this whole novel are the Suttons: David and Carla. David is one of only two doctors in the county (later, the only one). He is hard-headedly scientific and rational, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that says he might want to seriously reconsider. His wife Carla is a former bus driver in the first stages of ALS (AKA Lou Gehrig’s Disease). She is just beginning to lose the use of her limbs. Their lives change dramatically when they find Bartok’s SUV in an accident on Dragon’s Ark. Soon, Carla’s disease is going into a mysterious remission and David is explaining away the inexplicable so hard that the reader might feel like slapping him. Watching how their relationship deteriorates makes me wish that the novel had just focused on them. My suspicion is that it would have been a better book.
Another nice touch is how this indescribably beautiful land goes flat and sterile with Bartok’s accident, recalling Robert Place’s connecting Dracula to the Fisher King of Grail Legend. Chapter 17 is dedicated to recounting what really happened during the events of Stoker’s novel. A few details are never explained, but it is the sort of boasting one would expect from an immortal monster who has outlived his enemies. Sunlight, rather than killing him, only makes Bartok an old, frail man (and a cranky one, at that). Finally, there is heavy emphasis on Bartok’s shapeshifting ability. His changing into surreal, monstrous forms is a handy reminder of how far from humanity vampires truly are.
So, what makes this less than what it could have been? Aside from the Suttons, there is absolutely nobody else that you can connect with in a meaningful way. One need not necessarily like characters to be willing to follow them, provided they are interestingly written. But am I honestly supposed to care about Henry West, the half-white, half-Indian drunk who is used as a pawn by everyone and comes off as a worn stereotype that isn’t even worth hissing at? Or Jeff Potter (no J.K. Rowlings jokes, please), who, in the mercifully brief time he is in the story’s prologue, comes off as your average child of the Stepford Corporate Clones (He and his family are still more life-like than the real head honchos of Sierra Future)? Or Barbara Albanese, whose sole asset in being the local realtor is the impressive chest she shows everyone, and who has no meaningful dialogue? My reaction to each of these cardboard cut-outs is monumental indifference. A stack of statistics on the nightly news is more interesting to listen to. The utterly irrelevant Chapter 29, telling the complete life story of a minor character whose sole purpose for being in this book is to be Bartok’s next snack, is a perfect encapsulation of all the problems mentioned above.
Most of the problem lies with how the story is told. We get lots of descriptive passages, with only the barest patches of dialogue to let us know that there are actually people in these word paintings. It is a technique that can work. Max Allan Collins often describes dialogue passages to skip over boring details and Isabel Allende’s Zorro is nothing but this technique in action. But here, it just comes off as flat. There is not one complete conversation in the entire book. But I have too many memories of people telling other people what they think in something other than their own words, as if the author didn’t trust his own dialogue skills to the task. The internal dialogues are even more annoying, aggravated by shifting such thought processes between characters in the same scene with no warning (Flashbacks are handled with the same carelessness). This is a major contributor to all characters staying within their designated stereotypes. Any character who falls under Bartok’s hypnotic influence, or the effect of the land’s dimming mentioned above, goes beyond ludicrous. In both cases, everyone shows all the self-awareness of shroom-heads on a bad trip. Finally, there is the irritating mention of Dragon’s Ark in almost every chapter. The desired effect is menace, but the menace keeps diminishing every time it pops up. By Chapter 15, that mountain had become something I’d like to nuke so I didn’t have to hear about it anymore.
All this slows the story down to a glacial crawl. The average reader is unlikely to get past Chapter Ten. The ones who get to the end will have no payoff for their trouble. All that has changed at the end of this story is that a few piles of earth have been moved, several boring cast members are now dead (As Dorothy Parker said when told Calvin Coolidge had died: “How can they tell?”) and there are now two vampires running around. Great…now we all know where not to go for our next vacation. Ultimately, Dragon’s Ark has a few redeeming touches buried under a pile of mistakes as massive as the titular mountain itself. The immortal Count Dracula deserves better treatment than this.
Bio: J. Keith Haney is a recovering game addict, collector of classic comic stories, and general man of mystery.
Dragon’s Ark is available through Amazon.com