Luke Evans in Dracula Untold.
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What the historical inaccuracies in “Dracula Untold” tell us about the rise of Islamophobia

The vilification of Islam has reached such heights that when the Muslim Sultan Mehmet II is cast opposite history’s bloodiest psycho-tyrant, it’s Dracula who emerges as the tragic hero.

This week I saw Dracula Untold in Istanbul, with an Italian Turkologist who shares my enthusiasm for vampire movies. It was past 10pm when the credits rolled, and the audience was disgruntled. Outside, Istiklal Street was still booming. An armored police van drove passed us, weaving through indifferent crowds. “That film was very anti-Muslim,” said my friend. I’m the Muslim one in our relationship, but I was trying to shrug it off, because frankly what else is new?

I do love a good villain, and take some pride in that black-eyed madness the historical Turk is infamous for. So, far from having an objection to my forefathers being cast in a nefarious light, it actually took some effort to reign back the gleeful cackling every time Dominic Cooper’s Mehmet II came on screen. That said, my issue is one of historical accuracy, and contemporary significance.

Admittedly, Hollywood is no genius when it comes to accurate representation. If it’s not a larger-than-life action flick where America is saving the world from aliens, chances are they’ll get it all wrong. But why Turks? And why now, when all eyes are on Turkey, and the country teeters unwillingly on the frontline of impending war? In the current climate of global political tension and escalating Islamaphobia, what political statement does Dracula Untold make in pitting our vampire hero against the armies of Mehmet II?

The film’s generous use of the word “Turk” was interesting. To call an Ottoman a Turk is like calling a Roman an Italian. True, the Ottoman sultans were of Turkic origin. But the empire was much too big, much too ethnically diverse to be called Turkish.

In the Age of Enlightenment, “Turk”, “Moor” and “Mohammedan” were interchangeable terms which basically meant Muslim. When an Englishman adopted the Islamic faith (and records hint that there was an influx of “apostates” during the Jacobean period) he was said to have “turned Turk”. Europe wasn’t merely compromised by the economic and military might of the civilised Muslim world. It was compromised by the reality of Islam as a fast-spreading faith which bore alarming similarities to the Judeo-Christian revelation. It was appealing. Glamorised even, by wealthy, cultivated Muslim travelers hailing from exotic lands. The wide use of “Turk” then, was an attempt to tribalise the Islamic faith and associate it with foreign, potentially threatening powers, which were the common enemy.

I’ll fill you in on some more history. Vlad Dracul II of the house of Draculesti sought support from the Ottoman Sultan in his claim to the Wallachian throne. To put him on it, the Ottomans waged war with Dracul’s enemies. In return, Dracul willingly offered them not one, but two of his sons: Vlad Tepes Dracula and Radu cel Frumos – aka Radu the handsome.

While Vlad Tepes went on to become the progenitor of the vampire myth, his brother would remain loyal to the Sultan, and his childhood friend, Mehmet II. A skilled and celebrated general, Radu proved invaluable in the conquest of Istanbul. And when Vlad Tepes started wreaking carnage across the Balkans, Mehmet II dispatched Radu to quell his brother’s blood-thirst. Vlad’s insurrection was not dissimilar to the terror tactics of the so-called Islamic State. He killed indiscriminately: Men, women and children; Turks and Bulgarians; Muslims and sympathising Christians alike were put to the stake. He boasted of his cruelty to the horror of his foes and allies. And having been raised among Muslims, he had the advantage of disguise. During their guerilla attacks, his men were dressed in Ottoman uniforms. He talked Turkish, walked Turkish and burned villages to the ground.

The brothers battled long, but Radu was victorious. Vlad Tepes fled to Hungary, where he sought sanctuary with the Corvinus clan. But frankly they’d also had enough of his grizzly antics, so they imprisoned him on charges of treason. True story.

Fast forward to the 21st century. In Dracula Untold, Mehmet II seals his demands on Vlad with a bloody thumb-print, and the scene’s final shot is of the Sultan’s thumb on an imperial edict, alongside a stamp bearing the name of God in Arabic script. The Sultan’s cruelty then is the will of the Muslim god, who is out to get your children. Today, vilification of Islam has reached such heights, that even when the Sultan is cast opposite history’s bloodiest-psycho-tyrant, it’s Dracula who emerges as the tragic hero.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder