Dracula, Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, has been a cornerstone of literary horror since its publication in 1897. In the intervening 121 years, Stoker’s novel has inspired plays, motion pictures, television series, and other novels and short stories. But what was Stoker’s inspiration for the book? That is the intriguing question addressed in Robert Masello’s new novel The Night Crossing.
In 1895, Bram Stoker was working for actor Henry Irving and managing the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End. He enjoyed his work, but continued to pursue writing. He dreamt of writing a significant story—something that would captivate readers, and imbue his life and career with a sense of literary immortality.
While walking home from the Lyceum, Stoker noticed a young woman standing on the embankment of the Thames. He sensed what she was about to do, and after she threw herself into the river, he dove in after her and pulled her to safety (struggling against the stones she placed in her pockets). The act of saving the young woman set in motion a series of events that would involve mummies, giant scarabs, mystical forces, and evil of an all too human nature. And it is those events that would ultimately provide the inspiration for his masterpiece, Dracula.
In The Night Crossing, Robert Masello weaves a marvelous tale that blends historic people and events with the fantastic. He masterfully uses the Egyptomania that was sweeping London during the late 1800s to marvelous effect, drawing fascinating connections between Egypt, London and Eastern Europe that result in an exciting, and sometimes harrowing, adventure for Stoker and a young female archaeologist. He also references the burgeoning social upheaval and discrepancies between the very rich and the very poor at the time, creating a compelling backdrop for the action of the story.
The characters, many of whom are based on known historical figures, are nicely drawn. Of particular note is a character of Masello’s creation: Mina Harcourt. The daughter of a British Egyptologist and a woman of Roma descent, Mina offers a window into the difficulties faced by adventurous young women and people of color at this point in history. She is continually questioned regarding her position in society as a woman whose skin is brown instead of white. And while Mina is clearly the intellectual equal of any of the male experts in archaeology with whom she interacts, she is repeatedly dismissed, belittled or underestimated. Masello reminds us not only of how far we have come, in more than a century since this story is set, but also of the changes that still need to occur, so that women like Mina Harcourt can thrive like their male counterparts.
The Night Crossing is a rollicking adventure, filled with great characters and events that push just to the limit of believability. It is a page turning novel that readers will want to believe happened—even when they know what they are reading did not actually occur.