Dracula Extrapolated: Count Chocula

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.

Normally with this blog feature, I engage in serious comparative analysis. This time around, though, I thought some Halloween fun was in order.

 

What if Dracula was transformed from a serial bloodsucker into a breakfast cereal?

In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula famously emigrates from Transylvania to London; in 1971, General Mills delivered the iconic vampire figure to the American kitchen table. That year marked the debut of the chocolate-flavored puff-and-marshmallow mashup, Count Chocula.

A clever bit of branding, for sure, but is there any real connection between Count Dracula and Count Chocula beyond comparable cognomens? At first glance, the answer would appear to be no. Count Chocula seems to draw more from the Universal film adaptation than the Stoker source novel: in TV ads for the cereal, the vampire’s voice is an obvious Bela Lugosi impersonation. A 1987 commercial even has Chocula encountering his Universal monster precursor (via spliced-in film footage). The scaredy Count ends up fleeing in terror from Lugosi–as a mascot marketed to kids, Chocula exhibits more cartoonish cowardice than the Gothic ghoulishness of Stoker’s original character.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of indebtedness. Consider Jonathan Harker’s description of Dracula upon first meeting the Count in the second chapter of Stoker’s novel. Harker notes Dracula’s “aquiline” nose; his “massive” eyebrows, “almost meeting over the nose”; his “peculiarly sharp white teeth”; his “extremely pointed” ears”; his “broad and strong chin.” These various traits can be seen to inform the depiction of the character drawn up for the cereal box. So maybe cereal eaters for the past half-century have been sinking their teeth into a bit of Stoker homage after all.

***

Finally, here are a couple of enjoyable videos. The first delves into the history (not devoid of controversy) of the General Mills monster cereals, and the second compiles the commercials for the product that have aired over the years.

Dracula Extrapolated: “The Eight People Who Murdered Me”

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 Lucy could compose her diary posthumously?

In her Stoker Award-winning 2019 story “The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt from Lucy Westenra’s Diary),” Gwendolyn Kiste scripts a radical, critical reworking of Stoker’s Dracula. Seizing on the character of Lucy (whom Kiste feels was too-soon discarded by Stoker’s narrative, and too easily forgotten by readers), Kiste allows Dracula’s first female victim (upon arrival in Whitby) to give her version of events. As signaled by the story title, undead Lucy’s diary provides a roll call of the culpable:

1.You

Dracula is never mentioned by name in Kiste’s story, but he is the primary addressee of Lucy’s exposé (“The teeth in the neck gambit obviously starts all of this,” Lucy begins. “Don’t think I’ll forget that. Don’t think for one moment you’re going to get off too easily. You might not be the only one to blame, but you’re still mostly to blame.”). Lucy recounts in full detail her first encounter with Dracula, his seduction and bloodsucking of her. Having ventured out into the night to escape a party hosted by her mother, Lucy doesn’t question the stranger’s intentions because he seems to represent an attractive alternative: “You look like an answer–an escape from the everyday, the humdrum of parlors and suitors and a future where I’ll surrender my name and freedom in exchange for a title.”

 

2.My Mother

Lucy’s dissatisfaction with her status in late 19th Century English society (which limits her future to marriage and domesticity) is clear in the above quote. It also leads her to indict her own mother, who has failed to prepare her for adult life–to warn her about, and protect her from, the domineering natures of men (“She could have stitched crosses into all of my corsets and brewed me vervain tea until my blood was brimming with it and you wouldn’t have wanted me.”). Dracula represents a supernatural extreme, but the pointed, parenthetical comment with which Lucy closes this section takes issue with men in general: “My father with his bulging bank account and dirty fingernails is beyond mention. Sometimes, men can be far crueler than monsters.”

 

3.My Best Friend

Here Lucy targets Mina, who slept through Dracula’s invasion of their shared bedroom. Yet in this section Lucy really speaks from sense of regret (that the two young women gave up on their dreams, and failed to flee “this city of death”) and guilt over her own fatal mistake: “Mina isn’t like me. She wouldn’t go walking at midnight, and she would never have listened to your lies. That’s why she’ll survive. Proper young ladies like her always do. They learn from my example how not to die.” Through Lucy’s expression of internalized blame, Kiste critiques the sexual politics of a horror narrative such as Stoker’s–the notion that the “bad girl” must suffer for her perceived transgressions.

 

4.My Fiancé

Lucy rues the rules of courtship, the requirement to choose a suitor and accept someone’s invitation to a “matrimonial funeral.” She laments the obtuseness of her suitors (“Nobody notices that my skin has gone pale, my eyes receded, and that perhaps I’m more in need of a passable doctor than an eligible bachelor”) and the vampiric effects of their pursuits (“They wear me down and wear me thin until I close my eyes”).

 

5.The Out-of-Town Doctor

The “worst of them,”  according to Lucy. The scientifically-minded Van Helsing treats her like “a specimen in ajar.” He also directs the actions of the other men in Lucy’s life. Kiste obviates the sordidness of the Crew of Light’s attempt to save Lucy in Stoker’s novel: “The men pin me to the mattress. one after another, right down the line, their starched shirts unbuttoned, sweat beading in the curves of their upper lips, they pump their blood into my body, filling me up with them. A transfusion, they call it, although I’ve got another word for it.”

 

6.Myself

The essence of this section is captured by Lucy’s opening disclaimer: “For what it’s worth, I don’t believe this one. I won’t believe it, no matter how many times they tell me I should have known better.” Yet as Lucy continues to insist that she won’t “blame myself for what wasn’t my fault,” she suggests that the constant disapproval of those surrounding her has positioned her to do just that.

 

7.The Faceless Mob

Kiste invokes the angry-villager trope here as she rewrites the famous scene of Lucy’s staking in Stoker’s novel. First, Kiste establishes Lucy’s innocence by veering from Stoker’s “bloofer lady” plotline: “I haven’t left this tomb. Nestled here in an ivory dress meant for a wedding altar, I’ve been quiet and calm and nothing like you. I haven’t gone into the night and indulged this hunger that writhes inside my belly, the dubious gift you’ve given to me.” Lucy puts the lie (“They’ll say they were brave men who had no other choice”) to what the men record in their journals about their dispatching of her in her crypt. These cowards won’t even “dare to show their faces” as they resort to immolation (rather than the impalement employed in Dracula): “Instead, packing fodder waist-high around my tomb, they barricade me in and set me alight from the outside.”

 

8.No One at All

Don’t be misled by the section title: Lucy doesn’t conclude by disavowing her previous claims. Instead, she works to undercut Dracula’s mythic status by appropriating the resurrection to which he has been privileged: “In the legends about you, no one ever seems to question how you can always rise again. It’s easy to believe that a man of power could conjure himself from dust. But nobody expects the girls you destroy to do the same. We’re meant to be lost. Death is our birthright and our destiny.” But Lucy defies that fate, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of her crypt, fired with the desire to be recognized: “I won’t be a conquest or a footnote or an afterthought, and I won’t be the one who’s forgotten.” She aims to give painful reminder to the Crew of Light (“Since I don’t know which of them visited my crypt, it only seems fair to blame them all”). The first leg of Lucy’s vengeance tour, though, will take her to a certain “castle in the mountains,” where she plans to draw to a macabre close the dance that began on that fateful night when she first met Dracula in Whitby.

 

By centralizing Lucy, giving her a greater voice and the control over her own narrative, Kiste transforms Stoker’s character from a cast-aside victim into a feminist heroine. “The Eight People Who Murdered Me” is a tour de force of a story, and also serves as a forerunner of a more extensive revision of Stoker’s novel, as we will see in the next installment of Dracula Extrapolated.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Dracula Untold

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 Dracula deliberately chose to become a bloodsucker, but for noble reasons?

Hollywood has a long history of romanticizing Bram Stoker’s gruesome vampire, transforming him into a debonair yet debauched Gothic hero-villain. But 2014’s Dracula Untold (less a horror vehicle than a dark fantasy action film) skews Stoker’s original characterization even further, by making Dracula the actual protagonist of the piece. A brave (if sometimes ferocious) warrior, a devoted family man, and determined defender of his countrymen, he is clearly cut from heroic cloth here.

Fresh from starring in The Hobbit films, Luke Evans portrays the Transylvanian prince Vlad (Drscula Untold perpetuates the error of equating Stoker’s fictional creation with the historical Vlad the Impaler), “Son of the Dragon. Protector of the Innocent.” That latter title is put to the test, by the imperial evils of the Ottoman Turks. Unsatisfied with tributes of silver, the sultan Mehmed demands the surrender of 1000 Transylvanian boys (who will be enslaved and trained as fighters for the Turks). For good measure, Vlad’s own son Ingeras must be given to Mehmed to raise. Vlad violently refuses, sparking a war with the empire (which is already geared to march across Europe).

To save his homeland and its inhabitants from an imminent bloodbath, Vlad seeks out a monster previously encountered atop Broken Tooth Mountain. This “Master Vampire” (chillingly embodied by Charles Dance–Tywin Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones) has been trapped in a cave there by the same Faustian bargain that granted him his dark powers. He agrees to let the desperate Vlad taste-test the vampiric lifestyle, but is careful to spell out the conditions of the transaction: “If you can resist [drinking blood] for three days, you will return to your mortal state.” If not, Vlad will become “a scourge on this earth, destined to destroy everything [he] hold[s] dear” (and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison, to take vengeance against the demon that tricked him long ago).

Vlad takes unholy communion, goes through his momentary death throes, and is reborn as a nosferatu superhero. He now has the promised “strength of a hundred men. The speed of a falling star. Dominion over the night and all its creatures. [The ability] to see and hear through their senses. Even heal grievous wounds.” The Turk-decimating Vlad practically forms a one-man battalion, someone who also possesses the neat ability (the film makes fine use of CGI) to morph into a horde of bats.

The premise of Dracula Untold incites some interesting narrative conflict, as Vlad has to fight not just the Turks but also time (his battles each night must be won by sunrise) and his own unnatural urges. Even as he leads his people in rebellion against the Turks, he struggles to keep his vampiric traits secret from them. When he fails to do so, his countrymen–with classic cries of “Kill the monster!”–put his tent to the torch. This angry mob scene concludes with a unique twist, though, as the not-so-easily-dispatched Vlad emerges from the fiery ruins to verbally chastise the ungrateful uprisers.

Of course, Vlad can’t quite make it through the requisite three days of fasting, but even his eventual slaking of his terrible bloodthirst is given a heroic spin. His dying wife (who was tossed over a cliff by Mehmed’s minions) convinces Vlad to drink her vital fluids, so he will be strong enough to go rescue their son (who has been captured by Mehmed). This sets up a climactic swordfight with the sultan, who cleverly levels the battleground by strewing silver coins (a baneful drain on Vlad’s vampiric powers) beneath his feet. Nonetheless, the undead swashbuckler overcomes adversity and emerges victorious (with the villainous Mehmed suffering some satisfying bloodshed).

For Dracula purists, Dracula Untold might steer Stoker’s original storyline too far off course. Still, the film (directed by Gary Shore, from Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script) deserves credit for its commitment to offering a new take on the hoary figure. Fast-paced and filled with frightfully-framed fight scenes, it’s a quintessential popcorn flick. Entertainment-hungry viewers won’t regret gnoshing on this one one bit.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Blacula

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 Dracula was given the blaxploitation treatment?

While Bram Stoker’s Dracula–which concerns the invasion of London by a horrid Eastern European other–probes British colonialist fears, it steers relatively clear of issues of race (regrettably, Stoker resorts to racial caricature in his objectionable portrait of the African manservant Oolanga in his later novel The Lair of the White Worm). Race is made much more overt, however, in a 1972 cinematic variation, the punningly titled Blacula.

Truth be told, the film deals loosely with the Stoker source text. Its closest intersection comes in an opening sequence set at Castle Dracula in the year 1780. The African prince Mamuwalde has traveled there with his bride Luva to enlist the Count’s support in eradicating the slave trade. Behaving less like a Transylvanian nobleman than a southern plantation owner, the lascivious Dracula instead offensively offers to purchase Mamuwalde’s “delicious wife.” Called an animal by the outraged Mamuwalde, the racist Dracula retorts: “Let us not forget, sir, it is you who comes from the jungle.” To no surprise, a scuffle ensues, and Mamuwalde ends up bitten by the Count, cursed with the name “Blacula,” and sealed inside a coffin.

And there he remains for nearly two centuries, until a pair of gay interior decorators on a buying trip in Transylvania purchase the coffin and have it shipped to the U.S. A basic redux of Dracula thus unfolds, with Stoker’s novel of vampiric predation recast with black actors and restaged in 1970’s Los Angeles (a distinctly American urban scene marked by nightclubs and taxicabs). The film, though, gets tangled up in a romantic plotline seemingly borrowed from Dark Shadows, as the resurrected Mamuwalde believes the character Tina is the reincarnation of his beloved 18th Century bride Luva. Other than an offhand remark that the L.A.P.D. doesn’t investigate some strange murders too diligently because the victims were minorities, Blacula (which was directed by an African-American, William Crain) makes little use of its updated milieu, and provides scant commentary on the matter of black lives during that time period.

By no means can this subgenre flick ever be mistaken as high art. Blacula features hammy acting (although William Marshall does give a regal performance as the title neckbiter) and lousy, low-budget makeup effects (vampire minions sport garish greenface). The film is also terribly dated; the N-word is prevalent, and homosexual slurs are casually employed. But in its transplanting of the classic vampire narrative onto American soil, Blacula stands as a notable transition piece (that both looks back to Dark Shadows and anticipates Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot). A reboot reportedly is in the works, and needless to say, it will be quite interesting to see what kind of statement such a vehicle might make in the present era of more socially conscious horror filmmaking.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Dracula A.D. 1972

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 Hammer modernized its Gothicism and restaged Dracula in contemporary (i.e. early 1970s) London?

As signaled by its title, Dracula A.D. 1972 (the seventh installment in Hammer Film Productions’ Dracula series) presents an update of the studio’s typically Victorian-age vampire Gothics. The film opens in the year 1872 with a terrific action sequence, as Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) battles Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) atop a runaway carriage and then successfully stakes the vampire with a spoke from a broken wagon wheel. From here, though, the plot fast forwards a full century, centering on the revels of a circle of modern London hipsters (which includes Lawrence’s great-grand-daughter Jessica). The group’s leader is an enigmatic figure named Johnny Alucard, who talks his “friends” into finding new kicks by taking part in a black mass conducted inside a condemned church. Alucard, though, has an ulterior motive: he is a disciple of Dracula (think Renfield by way of Alex in A Clockwork Orange) seeking to resurrect the Count from his nearby grave.

When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1898, it dramatized a host of then-current anxieties (such as the rise of the New Woman and the foreign invasion of the imperial homeland). Similarly, Dracula A.D. 1972 exhibits a concern with the contemporary youth culture in all its perceived lawlessness and licentiousness. The hipster characters here check all the negative boxes, indulging in alcohol and drugs, sex and Satanic ritual. Anticipating slasher morality, however, the film has the sinners pay for their transgressions. Johnny Alucard preys on the group, by delivering its most nubile members up to Dracula’s lusty thirst and (after being vamped as a reward for his service) also by directly tapping necks himself. Jessica represents the prize catch: she is to be brought to Dracula, who will then turn her into his undead bride as he carries out his vendetta against the Van Helsing family.

But aside from employing a generational-enmity storyline, the film takes scant advantage of its updated time period. Dracula (who remains on the grounds of the ruined church while Alucard roams around London) never interacts with the modern urban setting and thus exhibits zero culture shock after awakening in a new century. The Count is the consummate (deadly) stranger, but doesn’t struggle to adjust to a strange land; he appears right at home in the Gothic ruins he haunts. The opportunity to offer something more than another redux of the vampiric seduction plot is disappointingly wasted.

While featuring some strong scenes (particularly those in which Jessica’s occult-scholar grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing [Cushing] squares off against Alucard and Dracula), the film forms one of the weaker Hammer swings at Stoker adaptation. It was not well received by critics, but did leave quite a mark on some notable creators. Tim Burton has professed his love of the film (he splices a clip of it into Frankenweenie; also, the rousing carriage-top battle that opens the Hammer film gets a scenic echo in Sleepy Hollow). And writer Kim Newman has numbered Dracula A.D. 1972 among his favorite vampire films. So it’s no surprise that “Johnny Alucard” plays a key role in Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels–an exemplary effort of Dracula Extrapolation that I will certainly make the subject of a future post.

 

Dracula Extrapolated/Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#15

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

[And here’s a countdown post that doubles as the latest installment of the “Dracula Extrapolated” feature.]

 

15. “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” (1994)

What if Quincey Morris transported Lucy Westenra’s coffined corpse to West Texas?

That’s the premise of this piece first published in Poppy Z. Brite’s vampire erotica anthology Love in Vein. But the rough and tumble Texan isn’t simply mourning his lost love, nor is Quincey just looking to bury Lucy in American soil. His intentions gradually clarify as the narrative cuts back and forth between past events in Whitby, England, and Quincey’s present, unwelcomed return to his hometown. “Do Not Hasten” is conscious of Stoker’s Dracula and overtly dismisses the novel as a distortion of reality: “that tale of mannered woe and stiff-upper-lip bravado was as crazy as the lies Texans told about Crockett and his Alamo bunch.” Indeed, a great part of the story’s appeal derives from its variations on the characters (e.g. Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood prove to be villains here) and iconic scenes of Dracula. Stoker never seemed to know quite what to do with his cowboy hero (his working notes for the novel point toward an expanded role), but the same cannot be said for Partridge’s take on the darkly driven Texan.

 

 

Dracula Extrapolated: ’Salem’s Lot

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 Dracula descended upon rural Maine?

In his biography of Bram Stoker, David J. Skal quotes writer Ralph Milne’s Farley’s claim that Stoker told him he “planned to bring Dracula over to America in a new story.” Skal continues: “Another reason to suspect Stoker considered a sequel is a press clipping, included with his notes, titled ‘Vampires in New England’ and dated 1896–too late to be of use in Dracula, but of great potential utility in a follow-up book set in America.” If Stoker was actually entertaining the idea of an American-set sequel to Dracula, he never did get around to dusting off the (only seemingly vanquished) Count for another bloodletting tour. The absence of such a narrative might be one of the most regrettable turns of genre history, if Stephen King hadn’t filled in this vampiric void with his 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot.

King, in his afterword to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of ’Salem’s Lot, cites Dracula as “the first fully satisfying novel I ever read, and I suppose it is no surprise that it marked me so early and so indelibly.” Nowhere is the mark of Stoker’s vampire novel more evident than in ’Salem’s Lot, an extended act of literary homage that lifts the central plot of Dracula: an undead predator from Eastern Europe decides to relocate to the Western world and seek out fresh blood, but is opposed by a gathering band of fearless vampire hunters (King’s heroes are clearly aware of Dracula, referencing the “Bram Stoker’s evil fairy-tale” repeatedly upon realization of the vampire epidemic spreading through their town). Major scenes from Stoker’s narrative are paralleled: the staking of Lucy Westenra/Susan Norton; the unholy communion of Mina Harker/Father Callahan, forced to drink the king vampire’s blood; the climactic race against sunset to locate the archnemesis’s coffin. King’s head vampire Kurt Barlow clearly hearkens back to Stoker’s Count Dracula. This isn’t “Bela Lugosi’s corny Valentino imitation” (as King writes of Universal’s Dracula in Danse Macabre); nor do we get a romantic/sympathetic vampire figure like Barnabas Collins of the Maine-based Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. No, Barlow is cruel and cunning, savage and utterly evil (e.g. his boasting threat that he not only intends to kill Mark Petrie’s parents but also to emasculate the adolescent prior to vamping him: “you shall enter my church as choirboy castratum“).

What distinguishes ’Salem’s Lot, though, is not so much its carryover from the 1897 precursor novel but rather its points of departure. King does not merely rehash Dracula; he re-maps it by setting it an American small town instead of the urban sprawl of London. This transplanting is crucial, since the rural and isolated situation of ’Salem’s Lot enables Barlow’s scheme of finding a new feeding pen/breeding ground to take root. Unlike in a big city, horror can propagate virtually undetected, as King’s protagonist Ben Mears notes; “A person from out of town could drive through the Lot and not know a thing was wrong. Just another one-horse town where they roll up the sidewalks at nine. But who knows what’s going on in the houses, behind drawn shades? People could be lying in their beds…or propped in closets like brooms…down in cellars…waiting for the sun to go down. And each sunrise, less and less people out on the streets. Less every day.” Barlow himself articulates the advantages of the Lot over the metropolitan:

“I might have bypassed a rustic community such as this,” the stranger said reflectively. “I might have gone to one of your great and teeming cities.  Bah!” He drew himself up suddenly and his eyes flashed. “What do I know of cities? I should be run over by a hansom crossing the street! I should choke on nasty air! I should come in contact with sleek, stupid dilettantes whose concerns are…what do you say? Inimical?…yes, inimical to me. How should a poor rustic like myself deal with the hollow sophistication of a great city…even an American city? No! And no and no! I spit on your cities!”

Count Dracula lacked such foresight, and unlived to regret it. In his introduction to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of Salem’s Lot, King writes: “Stoker was clearly fascinated by modern inventions and innovations, and the underlying thesis of his novel is clear: in a confrontation between a foreign child of the Dark Powers and a group of fine, upstanding Britishers equipped with all the mod cons, the powers of darkness don’t stand a chance.” By contrast, King (as he admits in the afterword to the 2005 edition) “wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula” and its Victorian optimism. Indeed, King’s original intention was to have Barlow “emerge completely triumphant over the puny representatives of the rational world arrayed against him.” Of course, the finished novel does not play out quite so direly. But while Barlow is ultimately destroyed just like Dracula, his nosferatu progeny continue to overrun the Lot, and their eradication is not guaranteed at book’s end (as Ben attempts to smoke them out and send them running by setting fire to the town).

This isn’t the only reason, though, that King’s novel forms a more ominous version of Dracula. For all its sexual suggestiveness, Stoker’s book is remarkably conservative: the dark stranger, the foreign invader, ends up forcibly expelled from the heart of the British Empire. King, meanwhile, suggests that the corruption in ’Salem’s Lot predates the vampire’s arrival. Rife with dirty secrets and sordid scandals, the “town knew about darkness. […] There is no life here but the slow death of days and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take.” Barlow acknowledges that it wasn’t just his correspondence decades earlier with local occultist Hubert Marsten that drew him to ’Salem’s Lot. He finds the town’s collective neck particularly ripe for the pricking: “The folk here are still rich and full-blooded, folk who are stuffed with the aggression and darkness so necessary to” a creature such as himself. In the highlighting of inherent darkness, embedded in ’Salem’s Lot long before something wicked that way came, King’s novel shows that it is no mere clone of Stoker’s, but also traces its literary lineage back through the American Gothic of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the Yoknapatawpha Saga of William Faulkner.

The final word here on this subject ought to go to Clive Barker, who (in his introduction to the 1991 Stephen King Collector’s Edition of ’Salem’s Lot) provides a perfect gloss of King’s novelistic endeavor:

It is not, finally, the vampires that kill ’Salem’s Lot, but rather a corruption in the town itself, or more accurately, in its people: a number of little sins that allow the greater villainy its hold upon the town’s soul. Perhaps it’s this, more than any other element, which so distinguishes the book for me: the sense that ’Salem’s Lot is complicit, by dint of its apathy and obtuseness, in its own destruction. The novel, after all, is not named after the vampire, but after the meat upon which the vampire feasts.

 

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Love at First Bite

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 Dracula emigrated to New York City?

Central to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the Count’s decision to abandon his castle in Transylvania and set his deadly sights on England. Such horrific relocation has provided a template for many subsequent vampire works, but not all of them are concerned with a specifically British invasion. The American comedy film Love at First Bite (1979) imagines a transatlantic Dracula. When the Count, along with his loyal if bumbling manservant Renfield, is evicted from his Gothic abode by the Communist government of Romania (so gymnasts such as Nadia Comaneci can use the place as a training facility), he chooses to become an expatriate exsanguinator. The eviction gives him the impetus to travel to America and pursue New York fashion model Cindy Sondheim, whom he has identified as the reincarnation of his beloved Mina Harker.

Since Love at First Bite is a vampire comedy, Dracula’s coming to America leads to some hilarious developments. After a baggage claim mix-up at the airport, the Count’s casket lands in the middle of a black funeral ceremony. His bat-flight into the apartment of a poor, starving Latino family quickly goes awry when the New Yorkers deem the intruder a “black chicken” and hungrily chase after him. When Dracula has to resort instead to taking a nip from a stereotypical wino, he gets terrifically tipsy, and ends up with a queasy stomach and bloodshot eyes (lamenting his nightcap, Dracula says the soused donor tasted “like the Volga River at low tide”).

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula plans his move to England with fiendish precision, but here in Love at First Bite he engages in a romantic lark. Accordingly, he is quite unprepared for what he encounters in the new world. This fish-out-of-water (bat-out-of-sky?) element propels much of the film’s plot, and because the Count is presented as more debonair than debased, he forms a sympathetic lead, not the frightful foreigner of Stoker tradition. Dracula is just an exaggerated version of any disoriented visitor to Manhattan, overwhelmed by the course of life in the big city.

Love at First Bite spoofs the Universal film Dracula more than Stoker’s book, as star George Hamilton affects the attire and accent of Bela Lugosi. The film’s transplanting of a classic storyline also works as a sendup of American modernity, by drawing extensively on the popular image of late 70’s New York City. The Big Apple is represented as an urban jungle, rife with street crime (in an early scene, Dracula makes like a nonlethal, nosferatu Charles Bronson when accosted by a group of hoodlums in Harlem) and subject to sudden outbreaks of chaos (the mass looting that transpires during the borough-wide blackout that forms the backdrop to the film’s climax). It’s a city of illicit subway trysts and discotheque glitz; narcissism and hedonism abound. Casual drug use is depicted, and inspires one of the film’s best lines. When Cindy offers Dracula some booze and a marijuana joint, enthusing that the latter is “really heavy shit,” Dracula evocatively responds: “I do not drink…wine. And I do not smoke…shit.”

This film proves that not all Dracula stories need be dire retellings. Hamilton is delightful as the undead Count, a dashing figure who dashes off a slew of deadpan jokes. Arte Johnson (who has the Dwight Frye cackle down pat) is hysterical as the insect-dieting, scene-chewing Renfield, and Richard Benjamin provides supreme silliness as the obsessive offspring of Van Helsing, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg. From I Am Legend to Salem’s Lot and The Strain and the film/TV adaptations thereof, there have been plenty of (American-set) extrapolations of a vampire plague–the very epidemic of terror that Stoker’s heroes risked their lives to avert. Love at First Bite‘s Dracula Abroad storyline takes a decidedly more laughing approach, and remains quite enjoyable four decades after its cinematic release.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: “Abraham’s Boys”

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.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: “The Lady of the House of Love”

The second 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. Tonight, I take a look at Angela Carter’s Gothic/erotic fairy tale, “The Lady of the House of Love” (first published in 1975; collected in The Bloody Chamber).

What if Dracula’s daughter were a reluctant vampire, bloodthirsty but love-craving?

The eponymous vampiress of Carter’s lush tale is “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler, who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania” (“The Lady of the House of Love” first appeared only three years after Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula mistakenly conflated the historical Wallachian ruler with Stoker’s fictional character). Her “habitual tormented somnambulism, her life or imitation of life” recalls the nocturnal and postmortem ventures of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. But the Countess Nosferatu (as Carter later titles her protagonist), with her unnatural beauty and her entrapment in a rotting, cobwebbed chateau, links most closely with the kept vampire women (the Count’s wife and daughters?) at Castle Dracula. The very “voluptuousness” with which the Countess feasts echoes Jonathan Harker’s diaristic depiction of the female vampires.

But Carter arguably establishes such a parallel to signal a deviation. When the vampire women speak of love to Dracula, perversion of the notion is easily discerned. Likewise, their sexually-charged advances on Jonathan point to nothing more than a wicked toying with their food. Dracula’s women revel evilly in their vampiric condition, whereas Carter’s Countess bears a “horrible reluctance for the role” of bloodsucking seductress. Harrowing as her dietary needs might be, the Countess is presented as more of a heroine. She’s “haunted” by her own uncanny kin, her “demented and atrocious ancestors” who form portraits of grim circumscription: “The beastly forebears [pictured] on the wall condemned her to a perpetual repetition of their passions.” The Countess genuinely yearns to be human, to be cured “of her disorder, of her soulnessness.” She hopes that love can one day free her from her frightful fate, from “the timeless Gothic eternity” of her vampirism.

Opportunity appears to knock in the person of a young British soldier who wanders into the nearby village and is ushered into the castle by the Countess’s human governess/procurer. Could he be more than the Countess’s next meal, and instead the incarnation of the Lover prophesied by her Tarot cards? The climax of the story is no doubt ambiguous (in no small part because the events on the night of the Countess’s and the soldier’s encounter are never fully related). Perhaps the soldier rescues the Countess by virtue of his gentle attentiveness to her: “in himself, by his presence, he is an exorcism.” The “Sleeping Beauty” (as the Countess repeatedly fashions herself) might at last awaken from her darkly enchanted state. Yet when the soldier arises the next morning, he seems closer to a Professor Van Helsing than a Prince Charming:

Then he padded into the boudoir, his mind busy with plans. We shall take her to Zurich, to a clinic; she will be treated for nervous hysteria. Then to an an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist, to put her teeth into better shape. Any competent manicurist will deal with her claws. We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is; I shall cure her of all these nightmares.

Ultimately, the soldier doesn’t seem to recognize the Countess for who/what she really is, and instead seeks to mold her to his vision of feminine beauty and well-being. His paternalistic plans sound like a fate worse than undeath. The soldier soon discovers, though, that the Countess has since perished (after she deliberately drew the curtains and let the sunlight beam into her boudoir). He has been left with a “souvenir,”  a withered rose that serves as a highly symbolic stand-in for the Countess herself. The soldier subsequently rejoins his regiment, and attempts to “resurrect” the rose by placing it in his water-filled “tooth glass.” That evening, he witnesses an amazing revival: “a glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendour.”

At first, this ending might be read negatively: the Countess is (figuratively) reborn only to be reinscribed, to reprise her vampiric existence and resume the cycle of predation she loathes. Liberation, however, could be at hand at last. Stoker’s vampire women are abandoned/imprisoned at Castle Dracula (at least until Van Helsing destroys them), but Countess Nosferatu gets to move beyond her lonely chateau and the “huge, spiked wall” of corpse-fed roses that “incarcerate[d] her in the castle of her inheritance.” If the solider falls short as the lover the Countess envisioned, he nevertheless succeeds in carrying her a long way from her decadent Romanian home. Carter’s story abruptly concludes with the single-sentence paragraph “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.” The line suggests more than the soldier’s march to his likely death in the trenches of World War I. France is also a romantically-renowned country, and thus furnishes promising soil for the transplanted Countess. While Stoker’s narrative is driven by the terror of homeland invasion (by an emigrating king vampire), Carter’s answer to Dracula strikes a much less ominous note as it hints at the founding of a new, truer House of Love in the Western world.