LURID: Dracula - The Grandaddy Of Them All
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.
Happy Birthday to the original caped crusader! Dracula was published on this day in 1897, casting a sinister shadow that stretches all the way to our own century. Against all odds (and a particularly messy copyright situation) the vampiric count, along with the gaggle of adventurers pledged to defeat him, remains a household name, a Halloween go-to endlessly reincarnated in movies, comic books, animation, television dramas, video games, short stories and fan fiction. It doesn't matter how many times he's decapitated, staked, burned or doused with holy water, he keeps on rising from the dead.
There's no single reason for Dracula's resilience. If he, too, could emerge from the tomb at sunset, there's no doubt that the author, Bram Stoker, would be proud of his widespread and enduring cultural legacy. But he'd probably also be somewhat surprised at its existence, and peeved that he didn't reap more profits during his lifetime. Dracula was the fifth of his twelve novels, none of which made a huge impact upon publication. When Stoker died, of 'exhaustion', in 1912, he was practically penniless. Fortunately, Dracula didn't die with him. The ongoing popularity of the characters and story stems from a volatile mix of history and luck.
Abraham Stoker was an old school showman, who managed the Lyceum Theatre in London from 1878 to 1905, also touring productions to the United States. During that time he developed a keen sense of audience, honing it in discourse with leading literati on both sides of the Atlantic. Stoker worked for Sir Henry Irving, the first actor ever to be awarded a knighthood, who was one of the figures credited with making theatre arts respectable again. At the Lyceum, Stoker learned that the key to entertaining the new breed of upper and middle class playhouse patrons lay in a careful mix of classic tragedy, morally instructive melodrama and contemporary spook tales — best of all were productions which managed to combine all three.
From the safety of their velvet-padded seats, the Lyceum crowds enjoyed nothing more than a storm-chased walk on the wild side, through the dark forests, moonlit wastelands, derelict castles and dubious integrity of Gothic literature. They delighted in inward thrills, of both an erotic and visceral nature — if it was possible to separate the two. For them, sex was horror, the animal in man, the unstoppable impulse that led directly to ruin, that state of moral existence best observed from a distance.
Therefore, in Dracula, Stoker delivered exactly what he thought the paying public wanted. Experience had taught him that murder most foul, strange and unnatural was a failsafe crowd pleaser, especially if the murderer was a primal monster hiding behind a mask of civilization, a leitmotif of the era, as discussed in this column before. It's easy to see where Stoker found inspiration for the killer count when he first started gestating the character: Londoners flocked to the Lyceum production of The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the summer of 1888, a show which established the cultural context for the Jack The Ripper furor later that year, which in turn had a profound influence on his friend Oscar Wilde's sensational 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Stoker's first outlines for Dracula date from the beginning of the 1890s, and a holiday in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, poking around the ruined abbey that would provide such a dramatic backdrop for key scenes in the novel. However, he was an antiquarian as well as a showman, and wanted depth and a certain authenticity to his story. He had been auditor of the Historical Society while a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and, like M.R. James and Thomas Hardy, was fascinated by folkloric traditions which, at the time, seemed to be rapidly disappearing. He spent seven years researching history, geography, folklore and myth, honing in on traditions of Eastern European vampires, a unique species of undead more intelligent and dangerous than the revenants of Western medieval lore, who were merely animated corpses.
Although he never travelled to the region himself, Stoker was intrigued by the rich landscapes and history of Transylvania, nestled in the remote Carpathian Mountains in Romania, where many of the vampire myths originated:
...the ground fought over for centuries by the Wallachian, the Saxon and the Turk... there is hardly a foot of soil in this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots and invaders.
He was drawn to accounts of boyar such as Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, a ruler famed for his learning, intelligence and martial art, as well as his habit of impaling the heads of his enemies on stakes. Inevitably, he must have encountered the stories of another Transylvanian elevated to mythic status, Count Saint-Germain, who has supposedly been knocking around the palaces and castles of European nobles since the time of Christ, without aging a day beyond 45.
Stoker did not want to add to the backward-looking store of fiction focused solely on a mythical Gothic past, however. Transylvanian castles, forests and peasant superstitions are crucial to the Dracula narrative, but one of the great strengths of the book is Stoker's blend of the ancient and modern. He had witnessed the positive reactions of theatre audiences to productions rooted in their reality, as opposed to those set in a far off land in a different century. So, along with the time-honored tropes of country inns, sullen gypsies and ravening wolves, he constructed Dracula's plot around the devices and desires of the 1890s.
Technology is key to the good guys' strategy for gaining the upper hand over the bloodsucking fiend. Along with tried-and-tested medieval procedures involving crucifixes and communion wafers, victory depends on dexterous use of the latest gadgetry. As a guest in Dracula's castle, Harker relies on shorthand to keep his suspicions secret from his host. Mina just happens to be a skilled stenographer, who types up everyone's notes and conversations, and converts the recordings on Dr. Seward's phonograph cylinder into the written word. Van Helsing and the Crew of Light update each other via telegram, which proves to be more speedy and reliable than the psychic links utilized by the vampire. When the count flees London for the sanctuary of Transylvania, his pursuers have no problem overtaking him — they simply hop on a train.
Dracula also reflects fin de siècle scientific theory. Like his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stoker built on the naturalistic literary traditions established by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who incorporated the latest scientific innovations into their work in the service of logic and authenticity. Stoker had a direct line to the latest in anatomical discoveries in the form of his brother, Sir William Thornley Stoker, President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and he was at one time the Inspector of Vivisection for Ireland. It's no surprise, then, that the grisly details of corpses and decomposition in Dracula are so vivid and realistically observed. As Dr. Seward watches Van Helsing cut open Lucy's coffin, his previous post-mortem experiences cause him to take defensive action:
I had expected a rush of gas from the week old corpse. We doctors, who have had to study our dangers, have to become accustomed to such things, and I drew back towards the door.
The new and burgeoning science of psychology also underpins important aspects of the plot. When he's not tomb-raiding, Dr. Seward oversees a mental asylum in a particularly enlightened and forward thinking manner, willing to explore the origins of paranoid schizophrenic Renfield's delusions rather than condemning the patient to a permanent straitjacket. Stoker was familiar with the ground-breaking work on hysteria of French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot and his protégé Sigmund Freud, and subjects the cool-headed Van Helsing to an authentic bout of the vapors — again reported by Dr. Seward:
The moment we were alone in the carriage he gave way to a regular fit of hysterics. He has since denied to me that it was hysterics, and insisted that it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions. He laughed till he cried, and I had to draw down the blinds lest anyone see us and misjudge; and then he cried until he laughed again; and laughed and cried together, just as a woman does.
In the 1890s, science and spiritualism were not mutually exclusive schools of thought. Stoker, like many curious intellectuals of his era, bridged both worlds. Indeed, in 1897, the year of Dracula's publication, there were an estimated 8 million followers of Spiritualism in Europe and the USA, most of them drawn from the ranks of the educated upper and middle classes. Belief in life after death was commonplace, especially the idea of a sentient soul that could continue to learn, develop and communicate beyond the grave. Stoker furthered his occult interests by attending meetings of the Society for Psychical Research and he numbered members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn among his friends (including William Butler Yeats and Pamela Colman Smith, illustrator of the Waite-Smith tarot deck and Stoker's 1911 novel, The Lair of The White Worm).
Stoker's Count Dracula is a literal dead man walking, Spiritualist hopes and fears made flesh. Not content to wait for the knock-knock-knock of a medium at a seance in order to make a brief, ectoplasmic appearance, he wants robust corporeality, even if he has to drain the blood of dozens of victims to get it. He represents a warning, 'Be Careful What You Wish For' manifest. Part of Spiritualist thinking is the belief the soul continues to evolve after death, that the brief span of human mortality isn't enough to achieve enlightenment, and therefore the spirit must continue to grow and learn on a higher plane. That's fine if the soul's goal is to disappear, finally, into The Light. However, Dracula, something of a Renaissance man to begin with, is headed in the opposite direction. He plans to gain power in this plane by combining his ancient esoteric knowledge, with modern scientific wonders. Van Helsing explains why this makes the vampire so dangerous:
...he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman and alchemist — which latter was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare...there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay. Well, in him the brain powers survived the physical death... he would be yet — he may be if we fail — the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.
This rich blend of sources and ideas makes Count Dracula a multi-faceted abomination, terrifying from any angle. His un-dead status makes him an affront to medicine, and his return from the grave to indulge in earthly passions violates religious belief. He is a monster in biological and supernatural terms. His kiss stimulates Eros and Thanatos within the same pupil dilation. He has the power to engender a new species, and destroy the human race. He's a much more complex and clear-cut being than his literary antecedents, Sheridan Le Fanu's Sapphic seductress Carmilla, or the often confusing Varney The Vampire, serialized between 1845-7 by James Malcolm Rymer. When Stoker finally published the novel he had laboured over for the best part of a decade — and which undoubtedly represents his best work — the author of Dracula had every right to feel proud.
Yet, despite all that research, the ongoing quest for veracity, the careful mix of titillation and edification, technology and superstition, Dracula failed to set literary London alight. Stoker was very disappointed when the newly-knighted Henry Irving refused to play the count on stage or sanction a Lyceum production — which would have increased book sales. Stoker published seven more novels over the next decade and a half, to equally underwhelming receptions. When Irving died in 1905, Stoker's tenure at the Lyceum ended too, and he subsequently struggled to eke out a living. He went back to writing theatre reviews, as he had done after first leaving university, this time for the Daily Telegraph. It's possible he was suffering from the horrors of tertiary syphilis during his final years. After what was described as a 'series of strokes' he died in April 1912, his past glories as an honored friend of poets, writers and artists across England, Ireland and the USA far behind him.
For his most cherished creation, Dracula, the author's death was just the beginning. Count Dracula proved to be a monster tailor-made for the twentieth century, and he became several times more resonant during the 1910s. He was a harbinger of devastating war in Europe and epidemic infectious diseases, as well as providing a powerful visual symbol of human sexual identity and anxiety. Unfortunately, Stoker had omitted to publish the copyright notice that would protect his work in the USA (it entered the public domain), which led German producer Albin Grau to believe he didn't necessarily need permission from the Stoker estate to produce a movie version of the novel. He hired screenwriter Henrik Galeen and director F. W. Murnau, and set about bringing the Count to a wider audience via the silver screen.
However, Stoker's widow, Florence, proved to be a formidable protector of her husband's intellectual property. Even when Grau changed Count Dracula to Count Orlock, Harker to Hutter, Mina to Ellen and retitled his 1922 production Nosferatu, Florence insisted that the work was a derivative of Dracula and took Grau to court. She won, bankrupting Grau's film company and ordering every single print of the movie to be destroyed. This was a shame, because Nosferatu is an eerie masterpiece, Stoker's vision filtered through the craquelure of World War One and the special effects possibilities of the new medium of the feature film, which were only just coming into their own. Max Shreck's performance as the Count is the stuff of legend — beautifully addressed in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a lyrical and conjectural 'Making Of...'. But the court injunction failed to drive a stake through Nosferatu's heart. Prints had already been shipped to the United States, where the film was considered in the public domain and beyond prosecution. Yet, thanks to the scandal in Europe and subsequent properly authorized versions, it had pirate status. For many years Nosferatu existed only as a cult classic, a part-decayed undead thing (especially after various horrible attempts to colorize it), only to be viewed in secret after midnight.
Meanwhile, stage producers and film studios took note: they needed to get the rights from Florence. The Dracula juggernaut as we know it rumbled into motion. The 1927 officially sanctioned stageplay starred Hungarian-American actor, Bela Lugosi, who would go on to define (and be cruelly defined by) the role. His depiction of the Count as an opera-caped villain, muttering sinister one-liners in heavily accented English, may not have been what Stoker had in mind. But Lugosi's interpretation of Dracula was a massive hit for Universal in 1931, and set vampire parameters for generations to come.
Since the 1920s, Dracula has appeared in over 200 movies, comic and tragic, and has leapt from new medium to new medium as fast as ways of telling horror stories are invented. He's proved to be one of those rare literary creations (like his contemporary, Sherlock Holmes) who can be reincarnated time and time again, rising from the ashes of a previous existence to hold sway in a new era, a different language, a shifting culture, without compromising his essential essence. In our morally obfuscated times, Dracula is more robust than ever, functioning as hero, villain or anti-hero, whatever the story requires. His unique brand of dark romanticism is evident in the sex and exsanguination urban fantasies crowding bookshops around the world. Sadly, Stoker's painstaking research generated few rewards in his lifetime. But the author's hard work, the dynamic backstory and vibrant inner life he so meticulously constructed for the monstrous count has made his legacy truly immortal. Happy Birthday, Dracula. You'll outlast us all.
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