Fangs for the memory: A century of Dracula

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A hundred years after his creator's death, Dracula continues to terrify and inspire. Arifa Akbar looks at our fascination with fiction's first vampire

"Persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset." So wrote The Daily Mail on the original publication of Dracula, on 1 June 1897, which sent a wave of shocked awe across the world's book critics for its farrago of devilish horrors.

"The recollection of this weird and ghostly tale will doubtless haunt us for some time to come," the review concluded presciently. More than a century after Abraham, or "Bram", Stoker published his fifth novel, Dracula continues to stalk our imaginations. The Transylvanian Count was by no means the first vampire in literary fiction but Stoker, an Irish novelist and personal assistant to the actor Henry Irving, did invent a modern-day prototype which later depictions of the undead would try to emulate, for his oxymoronic blend of seduction and repulsion, in literature and in film, from the Hammer horror movies to the current TV series, True Blood and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

Today, Dracula remains a defining creation of Gothic fiction, the consummate creature of the night, the king of unnatural beings, as fiendish as he is charismatic. This month, Stoker's original publishers, Constable & Robinson, will mark the centenary of the author's death on 20 April 1912 by publishing a facsimile edition of the novel.

It is, thus, a timely moment to consider the legacy this formidable creature has left. There have been countless Counts depicted on film over the past century, and the Dracula industry continues apace in the 21st: a new film, Dracula 3D, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Dario Argento (who was behind the cult horror, Suspiria), is scheduled to be released this year; Dacre Stoker, the author's great-grand-nephew, has just co-edited The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker with Elizabeth Miller, based on a notebook discovered in his attic, whose entries offer new insight into the author's mind.

Dracula begins with a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, travelling from Britain to Transylvania to assist Count Dracula in a land transaction. On arrival, he finds himself trapped in Dracula's castle and tormented by unearthly happenings. He escapes, and so begins the Count's journey to Britain to track down Harker and his fiancée, Mina, and a subsequent hunt by the scientist and professor, Van Helsing, in order to kill Dracula. The book is written in quasi-documentary form, including letters, newspaper articles and Harker's journal.

So what has given Dracula his imperishable appeal? Dacre Stoker thinks it is the open-ended nature of its central character that has led to its longevity. Dracula, and the horrors he encapsulates, remain relevant because he – and the text – are so malleable.

"He [Bram Stoker] left a lot ambiguous. The book is not straightforward. The character of Dracula is mysterious. He is only in 30 percent of the pages of the story; his presence is greater because it is created through the minds of other people and you end up wondering: 'Is he a count?', 'Is he a threat?', 'Is he a vampire?'

Dacre Stoker believes this central mystery around Dracula's protean, shape-shifting nature, transforms him into whichever enemy is stalking that particular age: "Someone in France asked me [some years ago] whether I think that Dracula is like a terrorist in the sense that we can't put a finger on who the enemy or terrorist is, but he could pop up anywhere."

It might not only be the mysteries around Dracula that appeal to audiences, but also the intrigue around Bram Stoker himself, thinks Dacre Stoker. Bram may have been associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical order which was a major influence on the development on 20th century occultism (he was found not to be a member but he did attend meetings). Irving, the actor for whom Bram Stoker was a dedicated personal assistant and on whom Dracula is said to be based, was believed to be a Freemason. Bram Stoker was as interested in mesmerism as he was in new technology, and these competing interests were reflected in the struggle between science and the supernatural.

Bram Stoker suffered from a mysterious allergy from a baby until the age of seven, and, in all likelihood, he would have undergone the common practice of blood-letting – surely a traumatic experience for a child. Dacre Stoker believes the many women in white gowns that populate Dracula could well be the nurses that surrounded him in his ailing youth. He further believes that Bram Stoker's brother, Sir William Thornley Stoker, was the model for Van Helsing.

"I have some notes for Dracula," says Dacre Stoker. "[Bram Stoker] wrote two pages on how to do brain surgery on [the character] Renfield; Sir William did these surgeries on mental patients in Ireland..."

It could also be the thrilling tension between Dracula's devilishness and his charm that entrances us. Harker's first meeting with Dracula suggests he is disgusted and beguiled at once. He finds Dracula to be diabolically debonair, both animalistic and aristocratic. Stoker writes: "Within, stood a tall man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere... The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation: 'Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!... The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly shaped white teeth... As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder." It is this duplicity and openness that has perhaps lent the story so well to cinematic adaptation.

Dracula, like the most popular Dickens stories, is perhaps better associated with film now. The novelist Colm Toibin, who has written a new introduction to the reissued novel this month, notes that the films' successes led to a rise in book sales. He writes: "The first American edition [of Dracula] appeared in 1899 but it was not until the late 1930s after the silent films Nosferatu and the film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, that the French and German editions appeared and the novel's fame spread."

Vic Pratt, a fiction film curator at the British Film Institute, says that, as the vampire Count was variously depicted on film, from Max Schreck in Nosferatu [1922] to Bela Lugosi [1931] and later, Christopher Lee in the 1958 film and subsequent Hammer horror series, so new ideas were bolted on to the old literary vampire. Nosferatu was produced while Stoker's widow, and literary executor, Florence Stoker, was still alive. She sued film-makers, alleging that she had neither been asked for permission for adaptation nor paid royalties, and demanded that the film's negative and prints be destroyed. The suit was resolved in the her favour in 1925, though some copies survived to become a critically-acclaimed production. Pratt says this version was a "pure creepy horror" with Dracula as the utterly sinister, bald-headed figure who verges on an un-dead obscenity. It was only when Bela Lugosi starred as Dracula that he inserted a sexiness back into the role.

"Lugosi had played Dracula on stage before the film, and he was seen as something of a sex symbol," says Pratt. It was also Lugosi who created the physical archetype, adds Pratt, with his widow's peak, his pointy eyebrows and his cape: "It is an image that seeped into our consciousness."

Lee's Dracula accentuated the vampire's sexiness further. "Lee brought incredible sexual power to the role. He started to play Dracula in a post-James Bond era. He was well-groomed with a cold, suave, dominant sexuality, and there was a real aristocratic air about him. He was more charismatic but with a tantalisingly cruelty."

There were many other Draculas, from Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine to Gary Oldman and beyond. Yet the Twilight-led vampire resurgence of today, Pratt feels, is neutering the potency of the original Dracula figure.

"The sad thing for me is they water down the initial concept that showed a vampire to be so strong, powerful and chilling. If you make it commonplace or over-familiar by having lots of vampires in a high school, it kills it."

'Dracula' is published by Constable & Robinson in facsimile paperback (£7.99) and hardback (£50)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected