::Literate Blather::
Monday, March 26, 2007
5 Questions About: Dracula

(DaRK PaRTY has been fascinated by vampires ever since reading Stephen King’s novel “Salem’s Lot” when we were still in high school. The culture of the vampire has never been stronger and has spawned is own literary genre. Authors like Anne Rice, Tanya Huff, Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, Christopher Pike, and Christine Feehan have built careers on writing about vampires. But the writer who started it all was Bram Stoker and his 1897 novel “Dracula.” DaRK PaRTY wanted to learn more about Stoker’s enormous impact on literature, movies, and popular culture so we turned to Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a renowned expert and author on all things Stoker. We recently caught up with the Toronto resident to present to her our 5 Questions.)

DaRK PaRTY: What is it about Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that has proven so timeless?

Elizabeth: In the novel, Abraham Van Helsing says of the spread of Dracula’s kind that “the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.” The same can certainly be said of the novel itself. Almost everyone in the Western world has heard of Dracula, whether he or she has read Bram Stoker's book or not. While most know Dracula from the movies, his fame has expanded much further. The Count has infiltrated every aspect of our culture, from comic books to ballet, from Sesame Street to Masterpiece Theatre.

The novel itself was not a best seller upon publication (it had moderate sales) and reviews were mixed. Yet it has never been out of print, has been reissued in hundreds of editions, and has been translated into more than 40 foreign languages. In spite of several obvious weaknesses, a creaky plot, static characters, sentimental dialogue, and numerous internal inconsistencies, many consider the book a “classic.”

In my opinion, this is an indication of the enduring power of the myth that Stoker borrowed and reshaped, a myth that resonates in different ways for each generation, inviting them to confront and explore their own fears, anxieties and desires.

As for the novel, many enjoy it solely at the level of narrative – a revisiting of the age-old theme of good versus evil. But others have perceived in the book more profound themes, viewing it as a rich narrative that yields up a considerable range of interpretations: for example, that it explores late-Victorian fears and anxieties about issues of sex, gender, race, evolution, invasion, and degeneration.

DP: If you were to describe the personality of Dracula in Stoker's novel -- what attributes would you use and why?

Elizabeth: Most people’s image of Count Dracula has been shaped by popular culture, especially the movies and by how the image of the vampire has shape-shifted in the past 100 years. The vampire of Stoker’s novel is an evil entity, with no redeeming features and not at all deserving of our sympathy. He is physically repulsive, a “foul thing of the night” that must be tracked down and destroyed for the good of humanity.

As for his physical appearance, Stoker’s Dracula is a far cry from most Hollywood representations. He has a waxen complexion, a thin nose, bushy eyebrows, long sharp fingernails, a cruel-looking mouth, sharp white teeth protruding over the lip, hairs in the centre of his palms, and very bad breath.

DP: Is Dracula based on the historical figure Vlad the Impaler? What are the similarities and differences between the two?

Elizabeth: Never has so much been written by so many about so little. The conviction that Vlad was the inspiration for the novel, though widespread, is unfounded. The connection between Stoker’s Count Dracula and the historical figure (Vlad the Impaler) is tenuous at best.

This is what we know. Stoker began working on the novel that would become Dracula in March 1890. At that time, the name for his vampire was “Count Wampyr.” He found the name “Dracula” in the summer of 1890 at the Whitby Public Library in William Wilkinson’s book, An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The book contained a few lines (which Stoker copied into his notes) about a fifteenth-century Wallachian voivode known as Dracula who crossed the Danube River to attack the Turks, enjoyed a brief success, was driven back into Wallachia, was defeated, and replaced as voivode by his brother. Wilkinson added a footnote that “Dracula” was a Romanian word for “the devil.” Apparently, that is what persuaded Stoker to borrow the name for his fictional vampire.

That’s it. Everything else about the connection between Count Dracula and Vlad is at best speculation, or at worst fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence that Stoker knew any more about the real Dracula than what was in Wilkinson’s book. Significantly, Wilkinson refers to him only as “Dracula” (not as Vlad) and makes no mention of impalements. Likewise with Stoker.

The name “Vlad” appears nowhere in the novel Dracula. There is no evidence that Stoker knew what Vlad looked like, or about his infamous fondness for impalement. The fact that in Dracula, a vampire is destroyed with a stake through its heart is (Stoker tells us) borrowed from folklore and earlier vampire literature, not from stories about Vlad.

DP: There is an entire sub-genre centered on vampire fiction. Why do you think people are so fascinated by vampires?

Elizabeth: The staying power of the vampire has been much greater than that of other monsters (such as werewolves and ghouls). Part of the appeal is its association with three powerful themes: blood, sex and death. Add to that the potential for immortality, and you have a potent mix.

The major reason for the explosion of vampire fiction in recent decades lies in the ability of the vampire to shape-shift. Vampires are no longer merely evil creatures of the darkness. While some authors retain the traditional Dracula-like vampire, many others have opted to make their vampires more romantic and sympathetic characters. This helps to explain why so many today find vampire attractive.

DP: There have been dozens of movies about Dracula. Which ones do you recommend?

Elizabeth: I am limiting my response to movies based (albeit sometimes loosely) on Stoker’s novel. The main ones (in order of release) are: Nosferatu (1922, Max Schreck); Dracula (1931, Bela Lugosi); Horror of Dracula (1958, Christopher Lee); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973, Jack Palance); Count Dracula (1978, Louis Jourdan); Nosferatu (remake, 1979, Klaus Kinski), Dracula (1979, Frank Langella); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Gary Oldman); Dracula (2006, Marc Warren).

As for which ones I would recommend, it depends on what you are looking for. If you want a film that captures the horrific atmosphere of the original, then I would suggest the original “Nosferatu.” If you want a romantic, Byronic Dracula, then have a look at the Frank Langella version. If you prefer a film that sticks closely to the plot of the novel, your options are limited. The most faithful adaptation is Count Dracula, a BBC-TV production (1978). The Coppola move (1992) does include many scenes from Stoker’s book, but it interweaves them with a back-story involving Vlad the Impaler and a love story between Vlad/Dracula and Mina – neither of which is in the novel.

For more information about Dracula, visit my two websites at www.blooferland.com

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