Show Hide image

There will be blood: why vampire fiction is so alluring

The immense success of Twilight, both the book and film, proves the vampire genre is still alive and biting.

The New Annotated Dracula

Bram Stoker, edited by Leslie S Klinger introduction by Neil Gaiman

W W Norton, 672pp, £28


Bram Stoker may not have been the most subtle of 19th-century novelists, nor a very profound thinker, but in the field of branding he must surely rank as one of the true greats. Imagine a world in which he had stuck to his original intentions, and called his novel The Undead and named its arch-villain "Count Wampyr". It's a chilling thought. Fortunately, Stoker's meticulous researches into European folklore and history turned up the obscure Wallachian family name "Dracul" - "Dragon" (or "Devil") - and its related form "Dracula", a name adopted by the aristocratic warrior usually known as Vlad the Impaler (circa 1431-1476). The suffix "a" means, simply, "son of", but nowadays, more than a century after the publication of Stoker's book in 1897, any word ending in "ula" sends a quite different, and unambiguous signal: vampires ahoy!

This should not be too surprising, since there have to date been more than 150 feature films in which Count Dracula is the leading character, and countless, otherwise Count-less, movies, television dramas and novels in which he puts in an appearance, from the plodding Van Helsing and Blade: Trinity to the occasionally sublime Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By the end of the 20th century, the more unpredictable outgrowths of Stoker's creation included the blaxploitation hit Blacula and its less successful sequel Scream Blacula Scream, the children's heroes Quackula and Count Duckula (not to mention the cute vampire rabbit Bunnicula, who sinks his fangs into innocent tomatoes), the breakfast cereal Count Chocula, and even a perfectly serious American movie of the mid-Seventies, written by a hearing-impaired actor and conducted entirely in sign language, Deafula.

When a franchise becomes parodied, pastiched and generally diluted to this degree, it is usually a sign that the original creation has lost all its potency, but not a bit of it: at least two (maybe more) expensive Dracula features are now in pre-production. Unless you spend much of your time in a sealed coffin, you may also have noticed that we are in the age of Twilight and its three sequels; these novels by Stephanie Meyer have sold umpteen squillion copies and the film is already by far the most financially successful vampire flick of all time. On the face of it, Twilight, with its high-school setting, its "vegetarian" vampires and its strict absence of major fang action between the Dracula character and the Lucy/Mina heroine, bears not the faintest resemblance to the original Dracula. Examine the case a little more carefully, though, and one or two telling family traits have clearly survived the transition from adult flesh-crawler to teenage bodice-ripper. Let us go back to the original, with the help of some fresh scholarship.

Leslie S Klinger's The New Annotated Dracula is not the first scholarly edition of Stoker's text - its antecedents include Leonard Wolf's The Annotated Dracula (1975) and Raymond T McNally and Redu Florescu's The Essential Dracula (1979) - but, at more than 600 pages of text, notes and illustrations, it is the most handsomely produced by a long chalk and, to put it mildly, the most thorough. Even at £28, this large-format hardback is a bargain. Klinger's research has been remarkable - exhaustive almost to the point of ­lunacy. Most annotated editions are content to clarify baffling passages, note textual variants, translate obscure foreign phrases and carry out other humble but useful tasks. Klinger does all these chores, and then much else besides. Here's an example: some of Dracula's action is set in Purfleet. Klinger's note refers us to the 1894 Baedeker's Great Britain, explains that the place is about eighteen and a half miles from London Bridge, had a population in Stoker's day of about 150, and "received three daily mail deliveries from London, at 7.00 and 8.30am and 7.00pm; outgoing mail deliveries were at 12.35 and 9.50pm". If that sounds like a trifle too much detail, wait till Klinger gets cracking on railway timetables, tides, calendars . . .

At a rough estimate, a good three-quarters of these notes add almost nothing to appreciation or understanding of the novel, though they do have the undeniable fascination of all such compilations of small, hard facts. Want to know the complete history of the early typewriter? It's here. Of the Kodak camera? Ditto. The lifespans of elephants and toads? Present and correct. What "Durham" is? Well, to be fair, some American readers will perhaps find it helpful to be told about that northern city, or Hyde Park, or the history of Exeter Cathedral (". . . in the Geometrical Decorated style, the cathedral was built between 1280 and 1370 . . ."). For British readers, Klinger's provision of detailed information about "a river port and chief town of the newly created county of Tyne and Wear" truly is a case of bringing coals to Newcastle.

Though Klinger is almost unfailingly reliable when it comes to factual detail, he has unfortunately chosen to embed his chunks of information in what he calls a "gentle fiction" - the conceit that Stoker's novel was a prose docu­mentary, derived from real-life accounts written by people he actually knew, and edited by Dracula himself, who wanted to spread the false ­rumour that he had been destroyed. This conceit gives Klinger a useful way of highlighting the novel's fairly well-known inconsistencies of time and place, narrative gaps and ambiguities. However, it was probably a lot more fun for the editor than it will be for most readers.

For most Dracula buffs, then, the real meat of the book only comes once the main text has ended, in a series of excellent appendices that, briskly and reliably, outline the history of vampire fictions before and after Stoker's text. As Christopher Frayling has pointed out, there were four main types of vampire in 19th-century prose, poetry and drama: the Unseen Force, the femme fatale or Vamp, the folkloric monster, and the doomed, aristocratic hero-villain. Stoker's coup was to draw in some measure on all four of these, but particularly on the last. Here, his great inspiration was Lord Byron - or, more exactly, Byron's doctor John Polidori, who wrote the first literary vampire fiction in English ("The Vampyre", a short story) in 1819, often wrongly attributed to Byron himself, and believed by the credulous to be autobiographical.

Before Polidori, the vampire had been a smelly, rotting, nasty thing that attacked your sheep at night; after Polidori - whose blood-sucking character was called Lord Ruthven - he was a toff: aloof, haughty, troubled, often handsome and usually devastatingly attractive to women. The cinema versions of Stoker's book have drawn thirstily on both traditions. In F?W?Murnau's great film Nosferatu (1922) - pirated from Stoker - the vampire is a nobleman, Graf Orlock, but he looks and acts like a vile rodent: the folkloric vampire. In Tod Browning's patchy but hugely influential 1931 Dracula, Bela Lugosi's Dracula always sports evening dress and is, at first, welcome in all the best houses. Lugosi usurped the place of Valentino as a sex-god, and the idea that the vampire is supremely seductive became a staple of popular mythology.

Cut to the present day, and the same class distinctions among the Undead still apply. In 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend, the vampires are horrible, ugly creatures, often mindless: descendants of the folkloric vampire. And while the hero of Twilight may wear torso-hugging T-shirts instead of a cape and white tie, just look at his other defining qualities: aloof, haughty, troubled, aristocratic (well, he has old blood), cultivated . . . and devastatingly attractive to women. A true son of the Count, in fact, and a recognisable chip off Lord Byron's block.

Vampire crazes have come and gone over the past 200 years: in the 1820s, for example, every fashionable theatre in Paris was staging a vampire show, and every bookseller flogging novels about Lord Ruthven. Quite why we are now witnessing another nosferatic craze is a tricky question, but, with Tim Burton currently planning to remake the old vampire soap opera Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp in the role of Barnabas Collins, romantic vamp, it's a safe bet that it will persist for at least a few years yet. And Dracula himself? He is surely good for at least another century or so. As any Hammer film fan will tell you, the Undead simply won't stay in their tombs, no matter how firmly staked.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling