Books: Fangs ain't what they used to be

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The Independent Culture
One hundred years ago this month, Constable & Company first published Bram Stoker's Dracula. Though not an immediate hit, it was a steady seller throughout the rest of Stoker's life (he died the week the Titanic went down, in 1912) and has remained constantly in print. Dracula picked up popularity in the 1920s, adapted for the stage and plagiarised for the cinema by F W Murnau as Nosferatu; and the 1930s, when Bela Lugosi leered over his black cloak in the most famous Hollywood version. Subsequent generations, especially in the cinema, have reworked the character: courtesy of Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Klaus Kinski, George Hamilton, Gary Oldman, the Count from Sesame Street ...

This month sees the publication of a slew of Dracula-related items. Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne's The Un-Dead: The Legend of Bram Stoker and Dracula, from the still-extant firm of Constable (pounds 16.99), is a partial biography that speculates on the specific influences that shaped the novel. W W Norton have a "critical edition" of the original text, edited by Nina Auerbach and David J Skal (pounds 6.95), complete with footnotes and essays that reveal the thriving state of Dracula scholarship. Leonard Wolf's Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide (a US import from Broadway Books) takes a longer and thinner view, yet again assessing how the Dracula legend came to be and what has been done with it. And The Mammoth Book of Dracula (Robinson, pounds 6.99), edited by Stephen Jones, is a collection in which current authors (including me) revitalise or rehash the theme.

Anniversaries are a spur to publishers eager to cash in on slow blips of publicity, but the fascination of Dracula is such that, without exception, these authors and editors have been here before. Haining wrote a Dracula Centenary Book in 1987 (which he reckoned as the centenary of the events of the novel, though internal evidence suggests 1885 or 1893) and Tremayne three Dracula novels (including a prequel, Dracula Unborn).

Auerbach (Our Vampires, Ourselves) and Skal (Hollywood Gothic, V is for Vampire) are respected Dracula scholars, as is Christopher Frayling (Vampyres, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror), one of their essayists. Wolf wrote the pioneering A Dream of Dracula 25 years ago and also produced an annotated edition. Meanwhile, Jones edited The Mammoth Book of Vampires and wrote The Illustrated Vampire Movie Guide.

Clearly, the hypnotic fascination of the vampire theme is such that writing a single book is never enough. This serial authorship recalls Charlie Chan's dictum that "murder is like a potato chip, you cannot stop at `just one'". Alternatively, the Dracula business is such a cash machine, even after 100 years, that it is an irresistible temptation to keep worrying the wound, as authors and publishers continue their leech-like predation on the book-buying Dracula public. It is perhaps more surprising that, though each of these books has its strength and weaknesses, they are all worth reading.

The last big fad of Dracula scholarship, popularised by Radu Florescu and Raymond T McNally's In Search of Dracula, was the link between Stoker's character and the historical Vlad Dracula, charmingly aka The Impaler. This odd but interesting sidetrack appealed greatly to the fans' need to believe that there was a real Dracula, and has been used by a series of fictions, from novels by Tremayne and myself to the Francis Coppola film, Bram Stoker's Dracula. The fact, however, is that Stoker just liked the sound of the name (which improved on his first-draft villain, Count Wampyr) and then tossed in a few - mostly wrong - historical details to suggest the vampire's great age.

The current flood of scholarship has tended to look away from the Vlad connection and even middle European vampire folklore. Now, the favoured approach - taken by Haining & Tremayne, Frayling and Wolf - is to examine the minor but potent 19th-century tradition of vampire literature, from Dr Polidori's The Vampyre through the penny-dreadful Varney the Vampyre to Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, and then delve into the character and circumstances of Stoker himself. Dracula is one of those books that synthesises what has gone before, incorporating bits from all three earlier vampire tales - not to mention poaching a structure from Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. It adds and overhauls so much that it now seems a beginning rather than a culmination.

Tremayne and Haining concentrate on Stoker's background: his Irish heritage, the books he read, places he visited (Castle Dracula turns out to be Cruden Bay in Scotland). Wolf and Skal delve into Stoker's psychology, tentatively concluding from a letter he wrote to Walt Whitman, his lifelong devotion to his employer Henry Irving (playing Renfield to Irving's Dracula) and a few biographical parallels with Oscar Wilde (who had proposed to the woman Stoker married) that the author was a closeted homosexual, and that the book is awash with homoerotic subtexts.

Though this evidence is convincing, nothing conclusive is offered (the novel has a lot of seethingly perverse heterosexuality). In any case, the theory fails to provide a definitive reading of a text so complex that a single approach simply can't unpick the lock.

Of course, Anne Rice and others have added new images to the vampire genre Stoker popularised. The most recent wave of Goth fiction includes the clubbing undead of Nancy Collins (Sunglasses After Dark), Poppy Z Brite (Lost Souls) and the latest, Todd Grimson's Stainless (Quartet, pounds 9). Several contributors to The Mammoth Book of Dracula offer a tired, gentlemanly, withdrawn Count, appalled by the horrors of the 20th Century (though Stoker's character would have revelled in them), which suggests that the centenary has conferred a certain respect but also a sense of obsolesence.

We have had Dracula the Monster, Dracula the Lover, Dracula the Comedian and Dracula the Hero. Now, we may have to face the possibility of Dracula the Redundant. Certainly, it is hard to conceive of much of a need for more books about Bram Stoker and his creation, though, of course, Count Dracula has always displayed an uncanny ability to renew himself with each return from the grave. It would be a mistake to assume him gone forever, or even that his momentary enfeeblement in the shadow of the millennium will see him finally banished.