The third installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.
What if Van Helsing was an abusive, delusional figure?
Professor Abraham Van Helsing gets the last word in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Quoted in a note appended by Jonathan Harker (dated seven years after the events of the novel), Van Helsing says of Mina and her son Quincey: “This boy will some day day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.” Van Helsing strikes an adoring note here, and the dossier of documents that comprises Dracula is posited as a helpful educational tool that will one day teach the boy about his family history. Nevertheless, author Joe Hill’s 2004 short-story sequel to the novel (think Bram Stoker by way of the film Frailty) imagines a much darker development.
In “Abraham’s Boys,” Van Helsing is living in early-20th Century America with his two children, Max and Rudy (the family has emigrated to the new world after being forced out of Amsterdam and then England by the scandal over some “terrible thing” the doctor has done). Right from the opening scene, Max, the story’s viewpoint character, paints a frightful portrait of his father. Van Helsing seizes his son by the wrist (Max can actually feel “the bones separating in the joint”) and verbally assaults him : “You disobey in a stupor, without considering, and then you wonder why sometime I can hardly stand to look at you. Mr. Barnum has a horse that can add small numbers. It is considered one of the great amazements of his circus. If you were once to show the slightest comprehension of what things I tell you, it would be wonder on the same order.” Such verbal lashing, though, pales in comparison to what Max’s younger brother experiences soon thereafter: as punishment for breaking the strange curfew imposed on the children (to be home indoors by nightfall), Rudy is beaten by Van Helsing with a quirt.
Van Helsing’s violent, paranoid behavior (bulbs of garlic are hung over the doorframe of the family residence) hardly endears him to his children, who have no knowledge at this point of their father’s supernatural encounters in Dracula. Max believes that Van Helsing is responsible for the death of his mother, a woman who suffered with “a chronic infection of the blood which caused her to bruise at the slightest touch.” A woman, in fact, named Mina, who Van Helsing married after the death of her first husband (and Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting protégé), Jonathan Harker. Max’s feelings toward his parents (beloved mother, dreaded father) appear more than simply Oedipal-fueled; he seems on the mark in suspecting his father of foul deed. When he and Rudy sneak into Van Helsing’s locked study (a sanctum they have been forbidden to enter when their father isn’t there), they accidently break a frame containing a calotype of Mina, and discover a disturbing picture secreted behind it. A “murdered woman” is shown naked and bound to a bed, with a bulb of garlic stuffed like a ball-gag in her mouth, and a wooden stake protruding from her chest. A blurred shape looms in the background, and Max recognizes the figure as his father: “In one hand he held a hatchet. In the other a doctor’s bag.”
This illicit photo cuts to the heart of Hill’s exploration in “Abraham’s Boys”: was Van Helsing understandably traumatized by his experiences in Dracula, or fiendishly transformed by them? The man Max has grown up with is someone “who feared the night as a person who can’t swim fears the ocean. Max almost needed it to be true, for vampires to be real, because the other possibility–that their father was, and always had been, in the grip of a psychotic fantasy–was too awful, too overwhelming.” Van Helsing might claim that his overbearing behavior is an exercise in tough love and that his stringent rules stem from a paternal desire to protect,” but Max and Rudy seem to need shielding most of all from him, not nosferatu. The story’s climax accentuates this, as Van Helsing attempts to teach his boys the grim basics of the vampire-killing trade by having them practice staking and decapitation on the fresh cadaver of their neighbor, Mrs. Kutchner (who died from cancer, not vampirism). The good doctor is working to warp his children more than empower them, and his fixation on vampires loose in America suggests derangement. When a hesitant Max questions why the staked woman in the secret photo didn’t have fangs, he receives an answer that is neither convincing nor comforting: “His father stared at him, his eyes blank, uncomprehending. then he said, ‘They disappear after the vampire die. Poof.'” Van Helsing’s diagnosis of the woman as a “diseased bitch”–just like his determination that Mina was “hysterical” and “in need of firm instruction”–proves dubious at best.
Hill’s story never outs Van Helsing as a murderous madman with 100% certainty, but the unsympathetic portrait of the character pushes the reader toward that conclusion, and Van Helsing’s ironic fate at Max’s hands at tale’s end smacks of comeuppance. Rather than representing a radical revisioning of the Van Helsing depicted in Dracula, “Abraham’s Boys” forces one to reflect back on Stoker’s character (whom feminist critics of the novel have long targeted as the orchestrator of misogynistic violence). The obsessive, if not unhinged, figure in Hill’s narrative points back to the instability hinted at in Stoker’s novel (such as when Van Helsing is subject to bizarre outbursts of laughter). In hindsight, the crypt-invading, corpse-violating Abraham Van Helsing might be viewed less as Dracula’s heroic opponent than as the vampire’s transgressive and savage-in-his-own-way double.