Shades of Nosferatu and the Independent Woman
Can lightning strike--the same place, or the same person--more than once? Statistically, yes, although a high concentration of electrical wires and/or electronic equipment seems to play a major role in determining the likelihood of such an occurrence. Under most conditions, though, it’s pretty unlikely.
But what if we’re talking about authors? (Metaphorically-speaking, of course; I’d really hate to see Zeus flinging lightning bolts at my favorite authors, all of a sudden...) What are the odds that an author with a very successful book or series already under her/his belt can create similar results, a second time?
With that question in mind, I had high hopes going into Deanna Raybourn’s latest book, The Dead Travel Fast. As the first standalone from her delightful Lady Julia Grey series, this new book would have a very pretty pair of slippers to fill. Still, the idea of a supernatural mystery set in the 19th-century was utterly compelling, especially coming from the mind of such a talented author.
The Dead Travel Fast starts off promisingly enough; Theodora LeStrange, a Scottish woman in her mid-to-latter 20s, has just lost her source of income following the death of her only living male relative. Her sole option, it appears, is to move in with her sister’s family--her sister, the husband (a parson), and four (soon-to-be-five!) small children--in their already-cramped home. The problems with that plan are abundant; Theodora and her sister have little in common, the husband is a busybody who insists he knows what is best for Theodora (regardless of how little he actually has a handle on any such thing), and the children are all small, noisy, and constantly underfoot. In addition to these frustrations, such conditions would also seriously hamper Theodora in pursuit of her dream--that of becoming a published author capable of sustaining herself.
It is, therefore, with a great deal of joy that she receives a most-fortuitous missive from an old boarding school chum, Cosmina Dragulescu. Cosmina, it seems, is soon to be wed, and would like nothing better than to have her dearest friend by her side for the upcoming nuptials a few months hence. Such a wonderful opportunity this presents for our fledgling writer, as Cosmina’s family lives far, far from Scotland... in the Carpathians, in the heart of mysterious Transylvania! Theodora accepts the invitation with alacrity, as it solves both her immediate problem of a place to live as well as offering her the chance to travel and have a great adventure. (Note: Theodora, although perhaps not fully-realized, is another admirable Raybourn heroine--progressive in her thinking and independent by nature--and it is interesting to see just how she goes about achieving her dream.)
Eventually Theodora arrives in Transylvania, only to encounter her first hints of the strange foreignness she will soon find. The tiny village she has been dropped off at isn’t her final destination; she discovers that she still needs to traverse the steep and rugged mountain nearby in order to reach the Dragulescu castle at the very top. Carriage travel isn’t possible up the shear precipice, though, and so she must be carted up--in what proves to be a most unsettling ride--in a sedan chair, on the backs of two strong men.
Once deposited safely--albeit a bit jostled--at the castle, she is nervous and excited, for the edifice awaiting her is straight out of a fairy tale--all dark and menacing and exotic--and the inhabitants of such further contribute to her overall sense of anxiety. Her old friend Cosmina is quite altered in appearance, not the plump, rosy-cheeked girl she’d known, but one grown thin and wan. The other castle-dwellers are even more distressing: the Countess, an older woman obviously suffering from some illness which has left her in a weakened state; the Countess’ companion, a stiff, severe Austrian woman who serves as her nurse/attendant; the nurse’s son, a taciturn young man who functions as the steward; the requisite cook and a couple of servants; and finally, the Countess’ son Andrei, now the current Count following his father’s recent passing.
Theodora doesn’t quite know what to make of her fellow residents. Even Cosmina is not as she’d expected, for she is suffering from some malaise (which Theodora soon learns is disappointment over her broken engagement). The Countess is polite but haughty, causing Theodora to be uncomfortable and wary in her presence. Frau Amsel, the companion, takes an instant dislike and is most unpleasant toward her. Florian Amsel is quiet, dour, and odd. And the Count? He is quite the enigma--an urbane, handsome man who has spent much time in Paris, he clearly doesn’t fit in with the rest of them, and yet there he is, forced to take over the running of the castle as well as the welfare of the villagers (who have a feudalistic relationship with the Dragulescu family), by dint of his father’s death. Of course, such interesting companions also have the potential to provide much fodder for a budding writer, so Theodora is determined to make the best of her time among them.
As her days are spent primarily in the library, writing, and her nights, with the family, it only gradually becomes clear there is much evil which lies beneath the surface of life at Castle Dragulescu. Rumors of supernatural things abound, and it isn’t just the uneducated peasants down in the village who believe in such legends. The family doctor tells Theodora tales of local werewolves, and the castle servants are sure the dead count has become a strigoi mort (a vampire who returns by night to suck the blood from those still living in his lands). From her room in the tower, Theodora experiences firsthand strange happenings; the dog wakes her up--then disappears, as if by magic--in the middle of the night, from within her locked room. She sees what appears to be a winged creature (a vampire bat?) from her window. She hears the eerie howling of wolves (werewolves?), at all hours of the day and night. Things come to a head when the castle is awakened one night by horrific screams, to find that a maid has been murdered, and there are two puncture wounds--still bleeding--visible on her exposed breast. It is clear that something must be done; everyone is surely at risk from whomever, or whatever, has committed this atrocity.
Theodora, meanwhile, has struck up a relationship of sorts with the Count. Their attraction doesn't come as a surprise, since both are unattached, intelligent adults, but the fact that they meet in secret, late at night, is most shocking. It is through this unorthodox friendship of theirs that Theodora persuades the Count to set aside his playboy ways and take responsibility for setting things to right within his demesne--including the murder and the subsequent fears which everyone now labors under--no matter what the cost. His subsequent actions put in motion a sequence of events which lead to the eventual, inevitable, revelation of “who/what/why/how-dunit”.
The revelation is rewarding, paying homage to all the classic Gothic horror tales from which Raybourn obviously takes her inspiration. I also appreciate that she continues the story a bit past the denouement, because it gives her the opportunity to tie up those little loose ends (which authors so often neglect to do)--the what happened to whom, afterward, sort of questions.
There are a few little quibbles, though. The middle of the story is a bit repetitive, with Theodora thinking the same thoughts again and again. Also, it would have been nice if the legends she introduced had been explored more fully; we only come face-to-face with a few of the possible horrors mentioned--even though the groundwork was laid for there to have been so much more. (Perhaps Raybourn is saving some ideas for future books?) Finally, one can’t help but make comparisons between this book and the Lady Julia series--and Lady J comes out the clear victor. That series is superior both in degree of complexity (so many more details and such a richly-layered world), and in the nature of the conversations between the characters (witty banter and genuine feeling in the Lady Julia books, versus a somewhat flatter, thinner dialogue here).
The Dead Travel Fast is an enjoyable book, but it isn’t an outstanding one--especially not from Ms. Raybourn. It’s definitely worth a read for all her fans, though, as well as for anyone with a hankering for an old-fashioned, classic tale of Gothic horror.
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)