Stiff as a Stoker: 100 years of Dracula
On the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker's deathday, the Culture staff find themselves under the Count's spell.
Bram Stoker’s infamous creation has haunted the imagination of storytellers for centuries. All recognise the Transylvanian tyrant draped in black, coffin bound by day but emerging to bite guests at night. Yet the inspirations for Stoker’s icon are far removed from the Dracula we know and, well, fear.
Vampire legends had been circulating Europe long before Stoker wrote his masterpiece in 1897. In 1885 Emily Gerard described the 'vampire, or nosferatu', as a walking undead 'more decidedly evil' than its benign counterparts, 'in whom every Roumenian peasant believes as firmly as he does heaven or hell'.
A female figure that spurred Stoker’s imagination is that of Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary. Supposedly the most prolific female serial killer of all time, she is rumoured to have killed around 650 women. According to hearsay, she bathed in the blood of young virgins to restore her youth and it’s no coincidence Stoker’s Dracula also appears younger after drinking blood.
Stoker is equally thought to have been inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire thriller Carmilla. This tells of a lesbian vampire who creeps into the bedchamber of her victims in the form of a black cat, leaving them with mysterious chest wounds and unsettling dreams.
The characters of Carmilla and Lucy (from Dracula) bear resemblances in their unusual concoction of feminine fragility and sexual prowess. Stoker used Le Fanu’s sexually progressive vampire to voice Victorian society’s growing concern about the virility of young women. Whilst Stoker may have been aided by historical and literary sources, it was his amalgamation of these ideas into Dracula which resurrected the iconic literary demon whose presence in popular culture remains alive to this very day.
If Dracula were roaming the hinterlands of Eastern Europe today what would he be listening to? Aside from the screams from his victims, obviously, the vast and prolific genre of Gothic rock undoubtedly provides an (entirely bloodless) feast for the ears for any self-confessed incubus, fictional or otherwise.
Typically tackling morbid themes through introspective lyrics, the Gothic rock genre splintered from punk rock in the late 1970s. Artists including The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, with their darker take on punk’s angry, nihilistic drive, were the forerunners; but what remains perhaps most striking is the diversity of the Gothic rock movement.
Influenced by everything from The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and Bowie’s Berlin albums, to J.G. Ballard and 1930s horror films, the cold metallic overtones of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the lugubrious, elongated vocals of Joy Division provide the most recognisable signposts of the Gothic rock trajectory, but it’s possible to see the genre’s scope extend further still.
Deservedly considered a Gothic tour de force, The Cure’s fourth album Pornography (full of portentous, darkly psychedelic opening bass lines) not only encapsulates the mood of Gothic rock; it also sounds uncannily like music Interpol and The Killers would produce more than two decades later.
So less a hard and fast music genre, Gothic rock might better be viewed as an intangible musical ‘state of mind’, which from its nascence in the 80s, has come to permeate large swathes of the contemporary music landscape.
Ever sensitive to the aphotic side of the human soul, Dracula would surely approve.
One of my biggest cinematic shocks in recent years came upon hearing Radiohead’s ‘15 Step’ set to the closing credits of the first Twilight film. What had possessed Yorke to sell one of the best tracks from In Rainbows, an album famously released online for whatever price the downloader wanted to pay, to one of the most commercially successful films of all time?
I’m no Twilight-basher, I enjoyed the awkwardly boring love triangle, Jacob’s pecs, and even Edward performing a caesarean section with his teeth just as much as the next fangirl, but - not to be snob about it - Radiohead just seemed too good for it.
I spent years questioning why Thom Yorke sold out; it’s just too cynical to think that perhaps they regretted releasing an album for free and needed, to quote Alec, a dollah.
It has finally come to me. Thom must have seen in Edward a kindred spirit, someone destined like him to walk the earth only understood by those in the know; in Radiohead’s case, Pitchfork and post-emo angsters, and in Edward’s, his blood-sucking kin and Bella.
I don’t know why I didn’t realise it sooner: ‘I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here’, the melancholic refrain of one of alt-rock’s most famous outcasts would certainly not feel out of place issuing forth from the smouldering yet sullen lips of Monsieur Cullen.
In 1972, during the height of the Blaxploitation craze, William Crane released the bafflingly brilliant Blacula starring William Marshall as a reborn African prince called Mamuwalde. Sniff all you like - the film was a box office hit and spawned sequels like Scream Blacula Scream and Blackenstein. One of the most bizarre adaptations that you can see (if you can find it) is the Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula. Starring cult icon Udo Kier, the film sees a dying Dracula travelling to Catholic Italy in the hope that there are one or two remaining virgins left there unlike, apparently, his native Transylvania. The film is most notable for being unbelievably camp and for its poster which, I’ve discovered, is missing a possessive apostrophe (ANDY WARHOLS DRACULA). Tut tut.
Perhaps most famously brilliant is Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula which stars the inimitable Gary Oldman as a geriatric version of the Count. The film takes a stab at explaining the backstory to the Dracula legend, but is, frankly, better off when it allows Oldman to chew scenery rather than virgins’ necks. Unfortunately it stars Keanu Reeves which, even worse, allows him to speak.
So if you’re looking for a dose of blood, and don’t fancy a trip to Headington, you might be interested in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter which, despite being directed by Timur Beckmanbetov, has released an ‘interesting’ trailer. Though I’m sure it’ll be disappointing. After all it’s no Blacula.
Gays: still not as gay as Twilight’ read the stark white titles of yet another misanthropic meme generated by the masses of mouthy internet tweens. A quick Google search vomits up various images inspired by this mildly offensive, massively outdated trend for making intrinsic connections between glitter, good skin, and chick-flick romance and homosexuality. There are images of wrestlers with faces sweatily buried in their opponents’ beefy behinds, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s gender-bending Dr Frank-N-Furter, of sticky, oily members of the Village People, and of a bejewelled and beshaded gentleman fellating a rainbow-coloured confected penis, each with the title; ‘Still not as gay as twilight’.
The makers of these memes have evidently not been exposed to the heady and hilarious homoeroticism of ‘Here!’ network’s The Lair. More’s the pity. Described in its press release as a ‘sexy vampire soap’, The Lair somewhat graphically regales the viewer with the story of a secret gay sex club upon a mysterious island populated almost entirely by ripped young men. The twist in the tale, is that the workers at this club – the eponymous Lair – are secretly agents of the undead, committing a string of sinister killings. The Lair’s hero, Thom, is an obligatorily hunky young journalist who must sexily sleuth his way to the killer amidst oodles of intense eye contact moments and melodramatically passionate kisses. The virile vampires of The Lair bit the dust in 2009, yet the series continues to loom shadily within the recesses of the internet. Forget the sparkles and vampiric vegetarianism of Twilight; The Lair proves that gay vampires can be far dirtier, and probably want to suck more than your blood.
Light increases and invades the body of the cadaver, little by little, and ends by reaching his face. Hardly is his face bathed with the light, than the eyes of the cadaver open wide and his mouth smiles lugubriously. Lord Ruthven first sits up -- then rises completely and after having shaken his hair to the wind, he deploys great wings and flies off.’
The name Lord Ruthven does not have quite the same cache as his equally aristocratic cousin Count Dracula, but perhaps it should. The above are the stage directions for the 1820 play Le Vampire – one of the first appearances of the mysterious, undead Casanovas we would come to see as vampires. Ruthven first emerged in short story, the character consciously modelled as a supernatural Lord Byron, with subsequent French and Italian playwrights exaggerating his satanic tendencies. Lord Ruthven and his various vampiric derivatives appeared endlessly on stage throughout the late 19th century, well before Bram Stoker put pen to paper – it is this Victorian vampire that gave Stoker the inspiration for his own demon of the night.
But make no mistake, the stage vampires of the Lord Ruthven variety were no literary icons. The ‘vampire theatre’ of Stoker’s time filled the same gap that horror B-movies did in later years; artistically worthless melodramas that fill their audience with cheap thrills and licentious acting.
As much as Dracula builds on this tradition, it was certainly not above it: the stage performance of Stoker’s Dracula precedes the publication by eight days. Perhaps this tradition of theatrical vampires is worth a revival – Twilight on stage anyone?
Given the preponderance of both Gothic architecture and graveyards in Oxford - the two most central being St Mary Magdalene's on St Giles and the Holywell Cemetery, which houses the bones of notable Victorians like Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett - it's a surprise that there isn't more literature which makes Oxford a convenient and cultured centre for the undead. Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy is attempting to readdress this surprising vacuum.
Harkness, Professor of American History and wine blogger, is the author of A Discovery of Witches, the first in the trilogy. In the novel, Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch/scholar, discovers an unholy manuscript in the Bodleian, Ashmole 782, which leads her to meet a vampire-scientist, Matthew Clairmont. Harkness' blog states that her ‘career in fiction began in September 2008 when I began to wonder, “if there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?”’
It is difficult not to see this as the inevitable result of the Twi-mania that has caused an explosion in supernatural-genre writing. As with Victorian sensation fiction writers, those who currently write about the paranormal enjoy large publisher advances and customers quick to try other books within the genre. Harkness' novel - with its prestigious academic setting - is a bid for authentication, a step above the teenage angst of Forks. I cannot agree with Harkness that the employment opportunities of vampires are a matter of interest, but I think she and I agree that our continual fascination with these shadowy figures has not yet been explained away. The real fascination is our enduring allegiance to clichés - to humans who aren't quite human who, despite their mystery, behave as we expect them to.