Monday, October 21, 2013

Dracula: The King of the Vampires

When I proposed the topic of vampires for Potomac Publishing's Most Wanted series years ago, I was asked to come up with some sample chapters. One of the chapters I proposed had a very definite plan to it. There is no doubt that Dracula, even to this day, is the most famous vampire in literature or media. It's amazing, actually, that one character has had that much of a hold on popular culture as this guy has. And all from a novel that didn't really do all that well on its first printing.

My plan had been to do a chapter devoted entirely to Dracula in which I would discuss the book, the author, the play, the movie, the movie studio, the actor responsible for giving us the iconic "look" we think of when we think Dracula, etc. For all these factors are key in the continuing popularity of the character. 

The editor of Vampires' Most Wanted saw it differently, however, and requested that I put the entry on the book in the chapter on Vampire Literature, the movie in the chapter on Vampire Movies, the play...well, you get the idea. Maybe that was a better way, I don't know. But I still like the idea of a chapter exclusively examining the popularity of Dracula. 

So, just for fun, I thought I'd offer the next several days the chapter I had originally planned, cut up for easier blog digestion. The entries are also larger than what you'd see in the book because at the time I submitted them I wasn't sure what word count they'd give me, so I just let the info fly! :)

So let's start at the beginning with the novel itself.

Timing is everything, or so it’s said, and timing played a crucial part in so much of the Dracula saga for it was over time that it gained its true success. And as time went on, the story would find its way to the stage and onto the silver screen. It was a long and complicated road that took a lot of detours and affected a lot of lives (not all for the better). But then who worries about time when one is immortal.

1.  The Novel
Other stories and books on vampires had come before Dracula, Bram Stoker himself having been influenced by Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. For some reason, however, it’s Stoker’s story that’s been able to capture the imagination of generations of readers. Of course, timing is everything and nothing proves this more than the affect timing has had in Dracula’s many incarnations. Stoker researched the novel extensively for several years before it was finally published in 1897, on the cusp of the new century which the author himself seems to acknowledge the wonder of by mentioning fabulous devices such as the Kodak camera, the Graphophone (the precursor to the dictaphone), the “type-writer”. Even Mina Harker is given a more modern strength of character than other women of the day were thought to have possessed. The story is told through a series of journal entries and correspondence by its principle players. The style known as the epistolary form had been used before but never to such amazing success. It must be remembered however, that the success of a Dracula was a gradual thing. Over time, the character of Dracula would find his way into other novels, stage plays, movies, television, even comic books and would be the seed for an entire genre. But early on, the novel’s royalties never enabled its author to quit his day job, nor would he live to see just how successful his creation would become.

That the character has become so influential is a curious thing considering that Dracula is a menace observed by the reader from afar, vicariously through the characters writing about him. Outside of a few scenes where conversations with him are recorded by the journal authors, he is a figure on the outskirts of the novel, alluded to, physically described but never really mentally or emotionally assessed. It could very well be this vagueness that is the secret to Dracula’s endurance throughout the decades. By leaving him enigmatic, Stoker has allowed him to be refashioned with time, soulful or soulless depending on what the script calls for.

Bela Lugosi
Christoper Lee
Frank Langella
Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Gary Oldman
 The 1992 version “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” the version many feel is most faithful to the book, none the less tries to give Dracula a soul by giving him reason to travel to England. There, he is sure he will be reunited with the soul of his beloved wife that now resides in the body of Mina Harker. Blood will be spilled (or rather, ingested) liberally along the way but it’s all in the name of love and romance. Yet there is very little really romantic in the Stoker novel. [note: I understand that my opinion on this is not popular, but I was not as struck by the erotic elements as some and I found very little romance surrounding the character of Dracula himself] Much has been written about the erotic subtext lodged within the pages of Dracula; and perhaps if one puts themselves into the Victorian mindset it becomes obvious. The Victorian mind was always to be controlled; never to succumb to animal instincts such as lust, desire, even love may have seemed risky if it ran too deeply. Words were carefully crafted, deeds carefully done. Passion of any sort strictly muted. So the actions that occur in the novel may have seemed dangerously close to forbidden heights of excitement (when to a modern reader they would seem bland at best) and thus the legend was born. Dracula’s main drive, however, his passion, is not for sex or love but rather for simple survival. It’s what, along with his history, rules him. His history has taught him that to survive one must conquer before being conquered; destroy before being destroyed. A philosophy present in the human animal long before the Romans took it to such insane extremes. It isn’t love or lust that draws him to Mina Harker but rather the need to survive and seeing in her one more tool to achieve his aim. It’s only as Van Helsing’s group begins to pose a threat that Dracula speaks of destroying them. Even then, after the caskets of home soil he has stashed around London have been made unlivable, any human desire to destroy these people is overruled by the animal instinct to survive by returning to his native land. Even one of the most provocative scenes, where Mina is forced to drink blood from a wound in Dracula’s chest, is more a perversion of the image of a babe gaining sustenance from its mother’s breast than anything sensual between a man and a woman, though psychologists, both amateur and professional have had a field day with it for years.

For years it was believed that Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration for the character of Dracula though now that belief has been dispelled. Still, based on Dracula’s own words to Jonathan Harker regarding his past, it seems obvious that while Vlad himself wasn’t the inspiration, his history was. It’s a brutal history; full of battles, conquest and cruelty and used to patch in the holes in Dracula’s own past. There was a more likely candidate for the personality of Dracula in Stoker’s boss Henry Irving, a larger than life actor who the author struck up a friendship with years before agreeing to become his acting manager at the Lyceum Theatre. 

Indeed to see a photo of Irving it’s easy to match him to the description of Dracula in the novel. Irving, the first actor to be knighted, was beloved by audiences and had an almost mesmerizing effect on the people around him. Stoker, in particular, seemed to be trapped by the actor’s charisma (though a genuine friendship does seem to have existed between them). If Irving was the inspiration for Dracula, then Stoker was indeed his Renfield, devoting his time and energy to the survival of his master (or his master’s ego) to the exclusion even of his own family. Indeed, as Stoker seemed on the verge of a successful career of his own, his good friend seemed to turn on him, mocking the stage play he’d written for Dracula, selling the Lyceum Theatre without even consulting Stoker. As loyal and generous as Irving could be, he could be just as petty and egotistical. Perhaps, as seemed to be the case with so much, it was a subconscious thought that led Bram to take his friend’s negative side and apply it to the character of Dracula.

There is something about this novel that opens the imagination of the reader. Dracula’s description in the novel, while perhaps unattractive, is not as awful as some people have described it to be. Nor, however, as he regains his youth over the course of the novel, is Dracula the dashing, alluring character that later retellings would fashion him to be. (This sexiness would reach the heights with Frank Langella’s portrayal of him in the 1979 version). Again, perhaps Stoker’s true genius was being able to write a story that people could plug their own interpretation into. For his part, Stoker claimed never to understand where these theories came from. He wrote a horror story—plain and simple.


  1. He is The Lord of all vampires of Transylvania a region in Romanianthe birthplace of the vampire lord and king of all bloodsuckers rules the world of darkness and mayhem also known as Vlad Tepes(.Vlad the Impaler) during the dark ages in Central Europe /Balkan Peninsula in world history and remains a legendary figures of all time.Thanks for the information.From:Wayne

    1. I think that's one reason I haven't been able to get into NBC's "Dracula." I don't buy the character they present as a character with the sort of past that Stoker has him describe in the novel. Though to be fair, I've only see the first episode so maybe it gets better.

  2. Dracula he is cool and handsome Transylvanian gentleman from Europe and still a playboy vampire....,,,,Wayne