Dracula and The Historian

28 Sep

Dracula (1897), not only an incalculable influence on the world of supernatural fiction (and horror movies) but also one of the most famous of all literary characters, was the creation of Abraham (Bram) Stoker, who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1847. As a child Stoker spent many hours listening to his mother’s grim tales of Irish folklore and real-life horrors. We therefore need look no further than his childhood to find the terrifying and haunting images which would later be the mark of much of Stoker’s literary output as an adult. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin (Ireland’s finest academic institution), Stoker in the end disappointed his father’s ambitions for him to become a lawyer and instead became the manager of the famous English actor, Sir Henry Irving. Stoker’s association with Irving brought him into contact with some of the finest writers of the day, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Wilkie Collins and Walt Whitman, but for him the excitement of touring with an actor paled into comparison beside his true passion of writing. Strangely enough it was Irving, with his striking appearance and imposing presence that provided the template for the figure at the heart of Stoker’s life’s work: Count Dracula.

Stoker initially struggled with the name of the central character in the book and up until a few weeks before publication his manuscript was titled simply The Un-Dead as he had no name other than the term “old dead man made alive” for the soon to be famous Count. It was while carrying out research on European folklore and vampire tales from around the world that Stoker ran across the intriguing name ‘Dracula’, meaning “Son of the Dragon”. This name belonged to Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), ruler of the tiny kingdom of Wallachia during the time of the Ottoman Empire who, as his nickname implied, was a man of sadistic temperament. If anything, Vlad’s actions in real life were far worse than anything done by his literary counterpart Dracula in the novel and his greatest pleasure was to impale his enemies on pointed stakes. The stakes were driven into the ground and inserted into the bottom (or, in the case of women, the sexual organs) of the victim, who was allowed to impale him or herself slowly under their own weight. Vlad often had the point blunted to make the agony last longer and it is estimated that he had about one hundred thousand people impaled in this way during his lifetime. When he conquered one city he had all its inhabitants impaled, then gave a feast among the corpses. When one of his own nobles complained about the stench, Vlad sent for a particularly long pole and had him impaled above all the other bodies. He was however a brave and fearless warrior, rightly feared by his people’s enemies, and when he finally fell in battle his head was sent to the Ottoman Emperor as proof that he was dead.

It is this real-life Dracula that provides the inspiration for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, in my view the finest novel based on Vlad the Impaler since the original Dracula. Kostova speculates in her novel that, like the literary vampire, Vlad Tepes has lived for centuries feeding on the blood of the innocent and that he and his ilk have only been kept at bay thanks to the efforts of generations of Van Helsing-like vampire hunters. It is the story of two of these hunters, a father and a daughter, that Kostova follows in her novel over a period of more than forty years, from Oxford to the furthest reaches of Christian Europe and beyond. A story about vampire hunters may not sound particularly original but it is the quality of Kostova’s writing that really shines through. The Historian reads like a 19th century gothic novel (much like Stoker’s Dracula) and is presented in much the same way – through first person narrative accounts, newspaper clippings, journals, letters and other seemingly factual evidence – all of which makes it easier for the reader to suspend their disbelief. Even if you have no interest in vampires or horror (and it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the novel on its own merits if that is the case), The Historian is a riveting travelogue through parts of Europe that few people have ever visited as well as a font of information about this area during the time of Vlad the Impaler. (By the way, if you enjoy The Historian and are looking for more of the same, check out Twelve by Jasper Kent, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when a group of besieged Russian soldiers turn to twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe for help against the invading French, little suspecting that they are in fact vampires. Brilliant.)

Returning to Bram Stoker, whilst he has been immortalised by the success of Dracula, this has been at the expense of his other works, which have been largely forgotten and ignored despite in my view being of almost equal quality on their own terms. I’m therefore leaving you with one of Stoker’s best short stories, The Judge’s House (click to read!), which is of particular interest because it is one of the first tales of its kind to represent a departure from the charm and gentle chill of the Victorian ghost story, as exemplified by M R James. Stoker’s tale instead has a gruesome and fascinating inevitability about it, which not only makes it a gripping read but in its more direct visceral force takes it into the realms of horror and looks forward to the kind of supernatural fiction created in the 20th century by such masters as Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert and Stephen King.

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