Moon Rising2-smallReview by Francis Gilbert

Have you ever wondered what Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was really like? According to Ann Victoria Roberts he had some rather strange sexual predilections which might not be entirely unfamiliar to fans of his fiction.

In Roberts’s new novel, Stoker is fascinated by the by the blood he draws when he deflowers a teenage virgin at midnight in the graveyard of the magnificent ruins of Whitby Abbey… But before deciding that all this is too corny to be true, the reader should bear in mind that very little is known about Stoker’s life and that Roberts has been exhaustive in her research.

The narrative is mainly set during the summer of 1886 when Stoker, escaping the vicissitudes of London life, visited the charming Yorkshire fishing town of Whitby. These are facts. What is not known is what Stoker did during this long, hot summer other than that he uncovered a few interesting folk tales and some of the haunting locations which he used to such great effect in Dracula.

Roberts imagines that he met a 19-year-old fishergirl, Damaris Sterne, during the storm that saw the ship Dimitry wrecked just outside Whitby. The novel is recounted in the first person by the feisty Damaris and describes her tempestuous relationship with Stoker. When the inevitable happens and Stoker abandons her to return to London, Damaris is left isolated, alienated from the townspeople and pregnant. The questions posed are, how will she survive in the patriarchal society of Whitby, and will she ever see Stoker again?

Roberts has written an engaging tale. For the most part she subtly weaves fact and fiction and shows that the real horror of the late Victorian period was not ghosts and ghouls but men and their treatment of women.

Stoker is revealed to be a troubled figure; he tries to be kind to Damaris but his physical and mental desires seem to constantly overcome his better instincts. Roberts shows that, for all his attempts to break free of Victorian morality, he is its slave. Her portrait goes some way towards explaining why Dracula manages to be both a subversive and a conventional text.

However, the star of the book is the locale of Whitby. It’s bustling harbour and brigantines, its damp cottages and smoky inns, its winding stone steps and alleyways, its abbey and its windy cliff-tops are all wonderfully evoked on crisp, rolling sentences. Moon Rising has immeasurably enriched my appreciation of this marvellous town.