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Something in the Blood, Part 1

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Arts & Culture

To celebrate the spookiest of holidays, we’re publishing a selection of excerpts from David J. Skal’s Something in the Blood, a biography of Bram Stokerpublished this month by Liveright. First up: the origins of Dracula.

Christopher Lee as Dracula, 1958.

Christopher Lee as Dracula, 1958.

There are many stories about how Bram Stoker came to write Dracula, but only some of them are true. According to his son, Stoker always claimed the inspiration for the book came from a nightmare induced by “a too-generous helping of dressed crab at supper”—a dab of blarney the writer enjoyed dishing out when asked, but no one took seriously (it may sound too much like Ebenezer Scrooge, famously dismissing Marley’s ghost as “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese”). But that hasn’t stopped the midnight snack of dressed crab from being served up as a matter of fact by countless people on countless occasions. While the nightmare aspect may well have some validity—Stoker’s notes at least suggest that the story might have had its genesis in a disturbing vision or reverie—it exemplifies the way truth, falsehood, and speculation have always conspired to distort Dracula scholarship. An unusually evocative piece of storytelling, Dracula has always excited more storytelling—both in endlessly embellished dramatizations and in the similarly ornamented accounts of its own birth process. 

Some Dracula creation myths are easier to believe because they contain partial truths, although they quickly begin to enable improbabilities and impossibilities. For example, it is an undisputed fact that Stoker spent at least seven years working on Dracula, from conception to publication, but this leads to a number of unsupported assumptions. First, that it was his masterwork largely because he spent seven years on it, and that the book is renowned for the endless care Stoker took in its crafting. Second, that a work span of seven years indicates, ipso facto, unusually painstaking and authoritative research, which uncovered, among other things, the grisly true story of a bloodthirsty fifteenth-century Wallachia warlord, Vlad Tepes, “the Impaler,” who was also known as Dracula. The name was not well known outside Romania, but Stoker would make it world-famous as the historical source and embodiment of the vampire mythos. In reality, Vlad’s connection to Stoker’s character was more fortuitous than inspirational, and the author’s research was surprisingly thin, but over time, and especially with the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s misleadingly titled 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Vlad’s story is now universally misunderstood as Stoker’s central source and impetus, and the novel itself as an overheated romance about Dracula’s quest over the centuries for the reincarnation of his long-lost love. The motif appears nowhere in Stoker’s book or his foundational notes.

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Like the unending parade of dramatists and filmmakers who have not been able to resist tinkering and altering and “improving” his story, Stoker initially had trouble recognizing the essential elements that would make his tale click. The reason Dracula took seven years to write was that Stoker had great difficulty writing it, especially cutting through the overload of his own imaginative clutter. The process was twisted, arduous, and constantly interrupted. He stopped to write other books. He questioned himself. He censored himself. He had second, even third thoughts about almost everything. In the end, he wondered if the book would even be remembered.

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Since Stoker’s time, vampires have reliably aligned themselves with changing fashions in sexual and social transgression. In folklore, simply existing outside the tribe in any discernible or annoying way could be enough to stoke suspicions of vampirism or witchcraft. The village idiot, the village drunk, the village whore—all were excellent candidates for supernatural scrutiny and scapegoating, especially when the crop failed or mysterious illnesses transpired. Stoker told an interviewer that he had always been interested in the vampire legend, because “it touches both on mystery and fact.” He went on to explain poorly understood natural phenomena. “A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.” Those prone to hysteria, “through excess of fear, might themselves fall into trances in the same way; and so the story grew that one vampire might enslave many others and make them like himself.”

Almost every culture has some variation of the myth of the hungry dead, and the rules by which these creatures are created and killed are so varied and diverse that no work of fiction could utilize them all and remain coherent or plausible, even taking into account a heavy dose of suspended disbelief. Stoker wisely steered clear of some of the more ludicrous beliefs (for instance, that vampires, seemingly driven by obsessive-compulsive disorder as much as by bloodlust, could be stopped by strewing poppy seeds in their path, which they would be compelled to individually count—a laborious process sure to last until dawn).

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In order to create at least a degree of believability, Stoker judiciously adapted the basics of vampirism as set forth in the accounts of eastern European vampire panics by the French biblical scholar Dom Augustin Calmet in Dissertations sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires. Here he found the time-honored methods of vampire disposal, actually used on suspicious corpses: a sharp stake through the heart, decapitation, and cremation. Variant methods included the removal of the heart rather than its staking. These were all physical measures taken against a physical threat. For the most part, Stoker intended his vampires to be reanimated corpses, not (as some traditions held) the body’s astral projection of its ghostly double, which in its nocturnal wanderings collected blood that was somehow dematerialized and physically reconstituted in the grave-bound corpse.

The 1888 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica presented this view, but Stoker went his own way; he retained the vampires’ power of dematerialization but never raised the conundrum of blood transport. He gave Dracula the ability to shape-shift into a bat (or bat-like bird), a trait not found in folktales, and the additional ability to assume the form of a wolf, something he found in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves. Baring-Gould described the Serbian vlokslak, a vampire-werewolf hybrid, and related the Greek belief that werewolves became vampires after death. Stoker was sufficiently impressed by some of Baring-Gould’s descriptions of werewolf traits that he incorporated them almost verbatim into his description of Dracula. Baring-Gould, for instance, says the werewolf’s “hands are broad, and his fingers short, and there are always some hairs in the hollow of his hand”; Dracula’s hands “are rather coarse—broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm.” Baring-Gould also gave Stoker descriptions of werewolf eyebrows meeting above the nose and sharp white teeth protruding over the lips. A blurred boundary between human and animal forms was especially resonant for late Victorian readers, still reeling form Darwin’s unsettling theories.

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Since so many film adaptations of Dracula have depicted the vampire being incinerated by sunlight, readers are often surprised that in Stoker’s novel the Count walks the streets of London by day, unscathed, although his powers are diminished in the light. In folklore, the vampire, like other evil spirits, retreats into hiding by day but is never destroyed by the sun.

Excerpted from Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote ‘Dracula’ by David J. Skal. Copyright © 2016 by David J. Skal. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.