Royce Prouty received a 2013 Stoker Award nomination for superior achievement in a first novel for Stoker’s Manuscript. Because of the nomination and the fact that Prouty’s protagonist, Joseph Barkeley, is a rare book and manuscript expert, I couldn’t resist.
Joseph Barkeley has always had a knack for spotting rare editions in crowded used bookstores, and is able to tell if a manuscript is genuine without the need for any chemical testing. It’s an ability that makes him the subject of Arthur Ardelean’s search for the right man to verify the authenticity of the original draft of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and to negotiate its purchase if its authenticity is established. (There is some real history behind this scenario, as the original manuscript for the novel was apparently lost, turning up only in 1980 in a Pennsylvania barn.) Ardelean is working on behalf of a principal whom he cannot identify. The manuscript is intended for exhibition in a new museum in Dracula’s Castle in Romania, and Barkeley is also expected to assist in the planning of the manuscript’s exhibition.
The manuscript has an interesting history that Prouty lays out for his readers, though those seeking mere horror will probably find all this talk of epilogues and titles and warehouse fires less than enthralling. For them, the real action will come when Barkeley gets to Romania and meets the buyer, who has promised him an enormous sum of money for his work. It cannot come as a surprise to any reader that this buyer is not entirely human, or that Barkeley soon finds himself in serious danger.
Prouty’s writing is competent but lacks a distinctive style. He annoyingly writes dialogue in Romanian, followed by an English translation, both in italics. He dumps information with no action and no dialogue. Most seriously, his characters are stilted types rather than fully-fledged individuals; this is particularly notable in his protagonist, who is little more than a cipher with an elaborate background. Because this man is so indistinct, it is hard to care much when he is in danger of losing his life. This fault is even more pronounced when it comes to the supporting actors, so that we feel shock when someone dies, but no loss. Prouty weaves a solid story, but could have really benefited from a strong editor.
I find myself once again bemused by the decisions of those who choose the nominees for the Stoker Award. Is this book really one of the best the horror field had to offer in 2013?