Described as an homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Pierced Heart, by British author Lynn Shepherd, is one of those novels that has followed the recent popular trend of re-visiting a great work of the Western literary canon. Dracula – the novel that defined the vampire tradition in literature – does provide a framework for Shepherd’s plot, where similar tropes and even character names are used, but what this deliberate “homage” to Dracula mostly does is set up reader expectations.
There is the young handsome man (private Detective Charles Maddox) who has been sent “abroad” from London to investigate a reclusive aristocrat in an isolated, foreign castle (this time in Austria, not Transylvania), where he finds himself confronted with unexplainable things, including newly dug graves, large menacing hounds, bats, and some very mistrustful peasants living adjacent to the castle. The reclusive foreigner himself, a Baron Von Reisenberg, is suitably pale, avoids the sunlight and food, and has a habit of creeping around the castle looking suspicious. And then there are the unexplainable small cuts on Maddox’s throat. And just as the reader thinks, “oh I know where this is heading” the author does a turn which takes the story into a new territory, subverting reader expectations and providing a new twist to an old narrative.
While the novel is awash with gothic elements and the author borrows liberally from writers such as Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, there is also a distinct nod to the Victorian detective genre, á la Arthur Conan Doyle. The characterisation of private detective Charles Maddox – who has also appeared in Shepherd’s earlier novels – is almost anachronistic, as in many ways he seems like he could well be the hero of a novel set in a contemporary sphere. The third person narration that deals with Maddox’s sections of the novel is written in a strange mash-up between a very modern, observational voice, and an overarching commentary (reminiscent of some of Jane Austen’s style of writing), that directly addresses the reader. It seems like an experimental choice to construct Maddox’s point of view this way, and while it is innovative, there are some elements of plot and characterisation that are simply lost within this style of narration. While we can see that – like Sherlock Holmes – Maddox is a highly intelligent, modern man of the Victorian era, who uses logic and reason with a small dash of instinct to solve his cases, the style of narration removes Maddox from the reader and there is a struggle to really get to know him, and to appreciate the finer elements of the plot.
The other part of the novel tells the story of Lucy, a young woman who travels Austria with her father and their Phantasmagoria show – a projector show that throws up images of different kinds in order to make the audience believe that the ghosts of the deceased are being summoned. Unlike Maddox, Lucy’s story is told in her own words, through the device of her diary, and when her father employs an enigmatic, pale, old man to help Lucy with her nightmares and “visions” she is thrown into a web of terror that leads back to intersect with Maddox’s story.
There is a great deal of historical research in this novel – events such as the great London Exhibition of 1862 are described in detail, and the London of that time – from the squalor of the poor areas to the opulence of the rich suburbs – is bought to life in a skillful and authentic way throughout the novel. Historical elements such as famous authors and paintings – in particular Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare – are integrated into the novel and provide a rich context for the plot.
Interestingly, the figure of Baron Von Reisenberg is actually based on a real Austrian eccentric, by the name of Karl Von Reichenbach. The author’s note at the end of the novel explains the historical reality of this character, which then, retrospectively puts a new spin on this very clever tale of murder, mystery and good-old fashioned gothic horror.