PsychoGeography #51: Count Dracula, I presume

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The Independent Online

At the church of St Mary's, high on the hill above the little fishing port of Whitby, the elderly couple running the gift shop had sorry words to say about the Goths.

At the church of St Mary's, high on the hill above the little fishing port of Whitby, the elderly couple running the gift shop had sorry words to say about the Goths. "Yairs," the man said, "they light fires in the churchyard and smash bottles against the gravestones."

"They broke a window last week," his partner put in.

"Sometimes," the fellow resumed, "you can see their shadows on the walls of the church. Huge black shadows cast by the floodlights. I see 'em from down in the town."

This sounded a bit more like it; after all, any old churchyard can be subjected to a few teenagers in black Lycra and kohl chucking Bacardi Breezer bottles about the place, but the topography and literary resonance of Whitby positively invites this vast open-air Noh play. My friend Nicky, who was showing me around St Mary's, told me that there's a sign in the vestibule which reads "Please do not ask questions about Dracula as he is not a historical character"; which rather begs the question of whether Jesus Christ himself had a birth certificate. After all, Count Dracula may not have been a historical character, but he's definitely Whitby's most famous visitor.

He arrived by ship in a dreadful storm, then leapt ashore in the guise of a giant dog or wolf. Mina, the tremulous love interest of the novel, had been sitting for months on a bench outside St Mary's, staring out to sea and hoping for the return of her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, who'd gone to order the Count's affairs in Transylvania. (A nice role-reversal in which a lawyer ends up having blood sucked by his client.) Often, during her vigil, she'd encounter various old geezers who'd spin her - in phonetically-rendered Yorkshire dialect - this or that yarn about the town and its environs. In Dracula, Bram Stoker makes great play of the vertiginous site of the church, with the picturesque ruins of the Abbey as its backdrop, but nothing can do justice to the reality. The enormous breakwaters of the harbour curl parenthetically out into the North Sea, and are tipped by further, colonnaded groynes, so that from above, the port resembles a giant crab claw snapping at the waves. On the day I visited the weather was clear and the sun beat down, but despite this Kettleness, the headland in the distance, still managed to lower. On a stormy night the view must be irresistibly Gothic - even if you aren't a Goth.

Then there's the church itself. Foursquare, faced with long courses of the vernacular stonework, once inside you find yourself in a maze of shoulder-high enclosed pews. The walls are studded with austere plaques and mock-catafalques, while in the dead centre of the cluttered space there rears a three-decker pulpit, with, attached to it, a bizarre system of ear trumpets installed for the deaf wife of a 19th-century vicar. Even in August St Mary's had a peculiar chilly feel to it, while outside, the long lines of near-identical tombstones were half buried in waving, thigh-high grass. The tombstones' tan sides are eroded by the salty winds into weird warty patterns, while their tops are stained black, so that at a glance they resemble nothing so much as decayed teeth gnawing the sky. Frankly, if the good burghers of Whitby want to play down the undead associations of the municipality, these carious examples of grave furniture will have to be extracted.

Not that they seem to want to do this. Whitby currently hosts two conventions of Goths every year, and as we drove through town I noticed a couple of guesthouses dubbed, respectively, The Bat Cave and The Dark Tower. Nicky, and her husband Con, who have a castellated property in the area and some land, are subject to joking that they may open a theme park called Draculand. This isn't so much a humorous riff as a distinct inevitability. After all, more than a hundred years after its publication there's no sign of the vampiric industry spawned by Stoker slacking off in the least, and if my friends don't draw up a business plan, some other sanguine entrepreneur undoubtedly will.

What seems to be lost amidst all the Gothic effects of dry ice and bloodsucking is quite how resolutely English the Dracula myth is. The whole plot of the novel hinges on the Count upping sticks and moving over here from Eastern Europe, like some proto-economic migrant. Draculand could reclaim the haemoglobin-chugger and make him one of our own. Of course, Dracula's actual UK residence wasn't in Whitby at all, but at Purfleet near London. However, the current administration - in all its wisdom - have already concocted elaborate plans for their own Draculand on this site. They call it the Thames Gateway.