Author Features / Features / Fiction

The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone

Count Dracula himself may have been laid to rest with a stake through his heart, but for almost a hundred years, homages to Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel have appeared with alarming regularity, in all media. These range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the most ubiquitous of pop icons to some truly highbrow interpretations. Perhaps because Stoker’s book was never all that narratively fleshed out to begin with (so to speak), current adaptations swing broadly between the ends of the spectrum. Still, there is something for everyone. Like the Count himself, they refuse to die.

There are plenty of explanations for the plethora of spinoffs. As Grant Bergland points out in Monday’s profile of Stoker here at Bloom,

The Dracula story continues to be popular, likely because there is palpable nobility, dignity, and solitude in vampires. Often vampiric stories run in tandem with doomed love, tales of passion, and giving in to the forbidden. We all fear death … but we love the idea of somehow living on, somehow cheating it, somehow becoming a person who can do all the things we were afraid to do in our first life. Also, perhaps most importantly, these tales are filled with hunger.

Also the finale of the story itself is ambiguous: Does Van Helsing kill Dracula completely? And is Mina fully free of his curse? Those questions, if posed at the end of a contemporary novel, would clearly signal a sequel in the works. But Stoker never wrote another Dracula book; he only adapted the original for the theater (performed only once, at London’s Lyceum Theatre, in order to secure an English stage copyright), and a short story entitled “Dracula’s Guest”—believed to have been a chapter deleted from the original—was published posthumously.

But fear not! Contemporary authors, directors, comic-book artists, and designers have carried on the Dracula brand since Stoker was barely cold in his grave. From F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic silent film Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) to the writer’s own great grand-nephew Dacre Stoker’s 2009 follow-up Dracula the Undead, the count has reared his sleek head—sometimes in name only—and lent his lonely, vampiric hunger to all sorts of enterprises.

Pop culture is especially vampire-friendly. We don’t really need to rehash the Twilight saga or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, do we? (I still have yet to figure out what, exactly, made Buffy so fiercely popular, but that’s another story.) Film and television have been especially receptive to Dracula; from the 1931 Bela Lugosi interpretation to the George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite, visual media have exploited the Count’s extreme telegenic qualities. And these seem to have been hereditary: 1936 brought us Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter, in 1943 Lon Chaney, Jr. was Son of Dracula, and in Zoltan, Hound of Dracula in 1978, Dracula’s dog had his screen debut— (if the movie poster is to be believed, perhaps a bit less telegenic than the rest of the family). Dracula has put in cameo appearances on Gilligan’s Island, Dr. Who, The Simpsons, and Scooby Doo.

Clearly there’s plenty of lightweight literary vampire fare to be had: Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which was adapted for HBO as True Blood; Terry Pratchett’s role-reversed vampires in Carpe Jugulum; Carlton Mellick III’s The Faggiest Vampire (which bills itself in the subtitle as “A children’s story,” but I somehow doubt it); and Robin McKinley’s YA Sunshine, to name just a few.  But there’s also vampire writing with both literary trappings and enough hooks to keep a more serious reader interested. Although Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series has become its own kind of cliché—wallowing as it does in vampiric moral angst and the ambiguously allegorical sexuality of bloodsucking—back in 1976, Interview with the Vampire broke new ground with its tormented, morally complex vampire clans. If you happened to be, say, a teenager that year, it was well-nigh irresistible for its hearty dose of Judeo-Christian guilt, glamorous disco ennui, and a family that was guaranteed to be weirder than your own. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, too, is satisfyingly good and scary. Octavia E. Butler, giving us the story of her vampire heroine in Fledgling, manages to delve into issues of race, sexuality, and family without ever getting heavy-handed. And British writer Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels, novellas, and short stories is a fun, alternative Dracula history set in the 1890s: Dracula has killed Van Helsing, run off with Mina Harker, and eventually marries Queen Victoria.  The series features Jack the Ripper, along with guest appearances by Sherlock Holmes, Macheath from The Threepenny Opera, Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes, and—in perhaps the weirdest turn—Prince Mamuwalde from the 1972 blaxploitation film Blacula.

As befits a man with a title, a castle, and a cape, Dracula has also spawned some fittingly erudite work as well. Werner Herzog’s film Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring a truly creepy Klaus Kinski (is there any other kind?), paid homage to the original Murnau movie but gave more due to the doomed Count’s tragic loneliness. While recognition of Dracula’s desolate nature—and even a certain compassion for it—has become de rigeur in more recent retellings, Herzog’s wasn’t met with complete approval. In a 1979 New York Times review, Vincent Canby wrote,

Mr. Herzog has done what he set out to do, but when you come right down to it, one wonders if it’s worth the trouble. Dracula, after all, is not Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’s not some profoundly complex character who speaks to us in more voices than most of us care to hear. Dracula is Santa Claus turned mean.

My favorite contemporary interpreter, however, is neither writer nor filmmaker but the artist Edward Gorey. He created an illustrated version of Stoker’s novel, and then went on to design sets and costumes for the 1977 Broadway production with Frank Langella, winning a Tony for Best Costume Design. Gorey created all sorts of promotional work for Dracula as well: posters, t-shirts, pins, a wonderful Playbill cover, even wallpaper. Perhaps best of all is his marvelous Dracula: A Toy Theatre, a die-cut cardboard reproduction of the set complete with three different backdrops, a cast of 15 figures, and furniture. For fans of Gorey and Stoker both, it’s certainly a fine collector’s item. But at $27.95 from Pomegranate Communications, it’s suitable for actually playing with as well. Dracula spinoffs don’t seem to be fading anytime soon, so there’s no reason not to try something in (ahem) a similar vein.

Click here to read more about Bram Stoker.

Bloom Post End

Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.

2 thoughts on “The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone

  1. Dracula is killed at the end of Stoker’s novel by Quincey Morris and Jonathan Harker’s knives. Do your comments about Van Helsing and the stake refer to a movie?

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