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1. The strange love of Count Dracula

I have before me the 1983 OUP edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: very ably and amusingly augmented with introduction and critical apparatus by A. N. Wilson, who takes the view that the novel is only a ‘second-rate classic’ (per its ‘prurient, high coloured, sensationalist prose manner’) but that Stoker’s true distinction was ‘mythopoeic’, in that he ‘created, or fixed in creation, a version of the old horrors concerning the living dead which has acquired mythological status…’
I like the way Wilson defines Dracula’s enduring power – namely, that Stoker ‘reflects the very bewildered sense, still potent in a world which was (even in 1897) preparing to do without religion, that mysteries can only be fought by mysteries, and that the power of evil in human life is too strong to be defeated by repression, violence, or good behaviour…’
Repression – ah, yes… Wilson’s argument is that most Dracula fans cannot and do not take seriously the menace of blood-sucking members of the Transylvanian aristocracy. He does believe, though, that some among us relish Stoker’s tale because we sense that ‘power in evil’ in human affairs. Conversely, Wilson identifies a section of the fanged cult for whom vampire stories are, clearly, a means of indulging ‘the taste for the kitsch.’
But I suspect that all three of these votary-subsets would have to own up to something Wilson discerns in keen vampire lovers: namely ‘that a large part of their enjoyment derives from the quasi-sexual violence of the Count’s embraces.’ Those embraces, certainly, are the ‘money-shots’ of any vampire movie, and one can hardly pretend they are anything but ‘quasi-sexual’ when the act of biting and sucking on the throat is seen to turn the victim into a slave to the lust for biting and sucking other throats in turn.
The dramatist Christopher Hampton, who has adapted Dracula for the stage, says of the book that it is ‘the late nineteenth-century novel about repression’, one that has ‘lingered for so long in people’s psyches’ because of what Hampton sees as its underlying theme: ‘on the one hand, terror of sex, and, on the other, the fact that sex is quite terrifying. It’s not camp at all…’
True, Stoker certainly plays his story straight. But in the century or so since he wrote it, the myth he helped to create has been too exhaustively mined for us not to see the vampire ‘between quotation marks’, merely amusingly perverse. I am glad, then, that my first encounter with Count Dracula was at an age when I was irony-free, still susceptible to superstitious terror.
That OUP paperback before me has a cover illustration of Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal Studios Dracula, sold to the public on its posters as ‘the strangest love story ever told.’ But for me, on some level, the Count will always be Louis Jourdan, whose candle-lit features graced the cover of the first edition of Dracula I ever owned, back in 1977. This was not Stoker’s text, I should say; rather, a novelisation of a teleplay by Gerald Savory. Jourdan played the titular fiend in the BBC’s six-part adaptation of Stoker which aired in that year, entitled Count Dracula, adapted by Savory and directed by Philip Saville.
Images, indeed whole passages from Saville’s version have lived with me for over 30 years, though I’ve never sat and watched it through since. However, through YouTube, the gift that keeps giving, I can offer you a few selections as below, and relive for myself some of the old black magic in the process. Count Dracula was made with great attention to atmosphere, and considerable visual imagination. Its casting, moreover, was near-perfect – Jourdan unquestionably made out of cold, dark and grave-dust; Bosco Hogan a solid Jonathan Harker; Susan Penhaligon and Judi Bowker adroitly paired as Lucy and Mina – and, for me, the prize laurel wreath going to the ever-superb Jack Shepherd’s just-about definitive Renfield.
Of course, the greatest cinema film made of Dracula – though for legal reasons it’s not credited as such, and for reasons of its director’s genius it departed from Stoker in significant ways – is F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. YouTube has blessed us with this work in its entirety, and I would gladly sit and watch it anytime. Like every film version that followed, Nosferatu made the vampire an erotic figure, in Murnau’s case through the creature’s evident and terrible yearning for love (or should we say ‘gratified desire’?) But above all Nosferatu – through his hideous appearance, incarnated by the actor Max Schreck – renders most potently the notion of Dracula as a pestilence, a fierce foreign demon borne on the air who sets out from his Romanian castle with the intention of infecting the world. In short, Nosferatu could never be mistaken for a matinee idol.
Let me say quickly one of a goodly few things Doctor Forrest owes to Bram Stoker, which is that in my novel a clinical psychiatrist named Steven Hartford is the director of Blakedene Hall, a private clinic for the treatment of depressives, addicts, anorexics and those suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Blakedene is a high-end boutique as therapeutic settings go, for sure, yet any resemblance it and its routines and residents bear to Dracula’s Carfax asylum as run by Dr John Seward – lodging of the ‘zoophagous maniac’ R.M. Renfield – is wholly intentional.
One more debt to confess: I am an avid fan of the manner in which the gothic novel plays with narrative, point-of-view, and diverse/’epistolary’ means of ‘documenting’ the story – as in Dracula with its letters and secret journals, ship’s logs and phonograph recordings. (As Christopher Hampton puts it, ‘[Dracula is] a bit chaotic, but the first seventy pages are absolutely riveting, and the thing as a whole is interestingly experimental, with all the different perspectives on the story…) This to my mind is a way of constructing novels that, like the Count, should never entirely die.


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