I love literary synchronicities, that tendency for oddly meaningful coincidences to occur in conjunction with books and authors. Everybody is familiar, for example, with the famous phenomenon of “just the right book,” in which a new book, author, article, or essay will spontaneously pop up in a person’s life and prove to be just the thing that he or she was looking for or needing to read at that exact moment.
So maybe it’s a fortuitous sign that a minor event of this kind accompanied my recent decision to finalize and publish, at long last, the following interview with Dracula expert Ian Holt, who, working with Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker, co-authored Dracula: The Un-Dead, the official, Stoker-family-sanctioned sequel to Dracula published in 2009. It’s been many months since John DeNardo here at SF Signal gave me the welcome assignment/opportunity to interview Ian. It’s also been many months since I actually conducted the interview via an hour-long phone call. Soon after Ian and I spoke, I went on cyber-sabbatical, withdrawing from all of my online activities and going into hibernation for five months. So the recording just sat there untranscribed, with a truly fascinating conversation lying dormant (“sleeping the sleep of the undead,” as Charlie Brewster might say) in a digital coffin.
Currently I’m several months into the resumption of my online life — which accounts for, among other things, my presence right here and now to resurrect my Stained Glass Gothic column — and a couple of weeks ago it hit me that it’s high time I pried open that digital coffin and awakened that slumbering vampiric interview. And no sooner had I made this decision and dived into the necessary task of transcription than I stumbled across, or rather was presented with, the news that “The private notebook of Bram Stoker has been discovered in an attic on the Isle of Wight, offering cryptic clues into the origins of the author’s most famous work, Dracula.” The notebook was found by Stoker’s great-grandson, Noel Dobbs, who sent photos of its pages to his cousin Dacre. This information all came to me from a Guardian article published on October 18, 2011 — the very day when my transcribing work had brought me to the point in the recording where Ian was talking to me about Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula, which are held by the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
Literary synchronicities. Gotta love ’em. On a more minor note, there’s the additional fact that Ian told me a few things about Episode 50, the supernatural horror movie that he was then in process of producing from a screenplay that he had co-written. Right before sitting down to pen this introduction, I went and Googled the movie to check its current status. Turns out it was released just last month. As Earl Bassett famously asked in the original Tremors movie, “Is there some higher force at work here?”
Ian is widely recognized as a Dracula historian and vampire expert. He was personally mentored in the field of Dracula scholarship by Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, authors of In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires, the 1972 classic of literary-historical scholarship that first unearthed the true relationship between Dracula, the literary character created by Bram Stoker, and Dracula, the fifteenth-century Romanian ruler and war hero popularly known in the West as Vlad the Impaler. Ian has spoken at major Dracula-and-vampire conferences around the world, and has conducted first-hand research in Transylvania, where he once stayed at the ruins of Vlad Dracula’s castle. He has even advanced an original and controversial theory about how Dracula might have been partly responsible for Europe’s discovery of America. (He talks about this in the interview below.) The idea for the official Dracula sequel originated with him, and he spent years convincing the Stoker family, who were still smarting from the legendary copyright battles surrounding Dracula and Nosferatu, to get behind the project.
As he and Dacre explain in several pages of extensive notes at the end of their novel, they chose to depart freely from Bram Stoker’s original vision and tone on the grounds that Dracula has now evolved from a specific literary character into a mythic figure owned by the culture at large, where his nature and memory are shaped as much by the movies as by the source novel. Reviewer Michael Sims, writing for The Washington Post, summarized the result in words that would be hard to top for their accuracy and concision, so I’ll quote them:
In this sequel, it has been 25 years since the “death” of Dracula, and the ragtag band of vigilantes who dispatched him are being murdered in uncomfortable ways. Who could the villain be? Quincy Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina from the original novel, is about to inherit the family troubles. Along the way, while trying to become an actor, he meets a theater manager named Bram Stoker, who in writing an adaptation of his novel must wrestle with a mysterious European who thinks he knows better how to play a vampire.
Stoker and Holt dump everything into their furiously boiling kettle of clichés — bucketfuls of gore, creepy sex, a torture scene that comes across as lesbian vampire porn. They toss in Jack the Ripper, DNA, a plot twist borrowed from “Star Wars,” an ancient religiously motivated conspiracy and even the Titanic. They name some characters after actors who played Dracula (watch for references to Christopher Lee, Louis Jourdan and Frank Langella). And they work in a historical figure often mistakenly associated with vampires, Elizabeth Báthory, who tortured and murdered countless young women and whom legend credits with bathing in the blood of virgins to prolong her youth.
Having read the book myself, I can personally tell you that while it’s loaded with information drawn from hard-core Dracula scholarship, and is written in full knowledge of and homage to the original novel, its sensibility is much more closely aligned with the likes of the Van Helsing movie than with anything Bram ever conceived. And this makes for a heady combination indeed. Here’s the official book trailer:
And here’s Ian’s and my conversation. As you’ll see, it went all over the place, and touched on, and sometimes delved deeply into, such worthy topics as the nature of evil, the question of supernatural reality, the conflicting historical memories of Vlad Dracula that persist in the Eastern and Western European traditions, the Vlad Dracula materials housed in the Vatican archives, Bram Stoker’s lifelong unhappiness, the possible influence of one of his nightmares on the writing of Dracula, Ian’s and Dacre’s motives in changing the Dracula mythos, the divided response among their readers, the relationship of vampires to religion, and the true secret of the vampire’s enduring appeal as a fictional character.
MATT CARDIN: Thank you for your time today, Ian. I’ll start us off by explaining that Stained Glass Gothic, my column at SF Signal where this interview will be published, is specifically about religion, spirituality, philosophy, and the paranormal as they cross over with fantasy, horror, and science fiction. So that’s my area of interest, and that’s the context for the interview.
IAN HOLT: That’s exactly my interest as well. And you know, the new movie Episode 50 that I’m working on covers the same ground. Every time I watch those Ghost Hunters shows, they always stop the conversation at the evidence. And that’s disappointing, because if they’re really capturing evidence of ghosts, if those are really ghosts and not just some kind of magnetic interference, then that’s proof of spirituality, God, and the afterlife. But they don’t want to have that conversation on the show.
MC: It’s interesting that you’d say that, because it’s where my own thought has been going for the past few years, too. The very thing that’s interesting about these issues is not necessarily whatever kind of empirical scientific evidence one can find, but, like you said, the question of what it means for human life at large. That’s the more interesting conversation to have.
IH: The real scary thing is that if there’s anything to the Book of Revelation — and, you know, people say “In the end days, the dead shall walk the earth” — well, we always assumed it was going to be zombies and stuff. But if you watch the Ghost Hunters shows, the evidence they’re catching sort of hints that the dead are walking the earth right now, and that’s our evidence of it. So, are we in the end times? Are all of the ghost sightings like road signs to Armageddon? On the surface, the ghost hunters just get their asses kicked every time by a ghost, but what’s deeper is the question of what the evidence they’re capturing actually means. That’s what the real scare is, because it’s like an interactive movie that forces you to ask yourself, “Do I have to be a good person because I might go to hell if I don’t? Is that purgatory, walking the earth as a ghost to cleanse myself of my sins?” Or you can take it according to whatever you believe in: the Bible, Kabbalism, or whatever. And of course that was the same question Dacre and I asked in The Un-Dead, too: What is the nature of evil?
MC: So let’s talk about that. How did you and Dacre go about trying to get at the subject of the nature of evil in Dracula: The Un-Dead? And what set you off in a certain direction to try and do that in the first place?
IH: There’s a long backstory to the whole thing. The way it came about was that I studied with Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, who wrote In Search of Dracula. They did all of the original research on Dracula, and during their research they managed to get access to the Vatican archives. And if you’ve seen Angels and Demons, you know how hard that is.
What they knew at the start was that Bram Stoker was very anal. Everything is precise in his book. The time tables for the trains are all real, along with everything else. He was very meticulous about those things. Yet all of a sudden, out of the blue, he created a fake history for Vlad the Impaler. And that was because no one in the West knew the real story. I mean, in 1897 we knew that Vlad impaled people, but we also had the wrong translation of his name, Vlad Dracula, as “Son of the Devil” when it really means “Son of the Dragon.” But in Eastern European Orthodox culture, the dragon, because of the seven-headed dragon in the Book of Revelation, is a symbol for the devil, so they assumed “dragon” means “devil.” And Bram heard that, and he said, “That’s going to be the name of my character!”
Since then, there’s been a lot of research, and we found out the true history of Vlad the Impaler. We know his whole story now. And we know, for example, that he’s not related to Attila. You know, there’s that great line in Bram’s novel: “The blood of Attila flows in these veins.” Bram just made that up. There’s no real connection between Vlad and Attila. So when I traveled to Romania, and I went to research Dracula — not for Un-Dead, but just as part of my studies — I found out that the Romanians look at Vlad as the father of their country. He’s their George Washington. And they excuse his crimes, all these impalements and other things that he did, by saying, hey, he had only forty thousand men in his army, and he had a Turkish invasion force of three hundred thousand men coming down on him from the Ottoman Empire. And he did what he had to do. Remember, Wallachia or Romania was the gateway to Christian Europe, and Vlad was the only thing standing between the Ottoman Empire and all of Christendom. The fall of Constantinople had happened just a few years earlier, so the danger was real and great. He knew that Muhammad, the Ottoman sultan, was very superstitious, so he did all of these things to scare Muhammad and his army. Vlad actually created guerilla warfare. The tactics the Russians used to defeat Napoleon and later Hitler, the whole “scorched earth” approach, that was all created by Dracula.
The Turks would sleep two men in a tent, and Vlad would have his men sneak into a tent and slit the throat of one man during the night. The other guy would wake up in the morning and see his bedmate dead with his throat cut. And then that guy would never sleep again. Vlad poisoned all the wells, burned all the fields, poisoned the rivers. He did everything he could to instill utter fear. So his enemies ended up not sleeping, not eating, and by the time they got to Targoviste, the capital of Wallachia, and saw the famous “forest of the impaled,” made up of forty thousand impaled Turkish prisoners, well, Muhammad took one look at it and said, “This land is cursed. No man can live and do such evil, unless God has a great purpose for him.” And he took his three hundred thousand men, turned tail, and left. So Dracula saved all of Christendom.
And he was ordained by the Pope as Captain of the Crusades. Now, for an Orthodox Christian to be given this title by the Catholic Pope, when the Catholics viewed the Orthodox as heretics, represents quite a feat. So how can we in the West justify viewing Dracula as a monster when people in the East think he’s a hero? So there’s the answer to your question: This is exactly what calls into question the nature of evil when it comes to the Dracula story. It also calls into question whether evil is a ubiquitous force controlled by Satan and hell or, instead, something that comes from man. Is evil maybe in the choices we make? One of the big questions for us when we wrote The Un-Dead went back to the way Bram wrote his novel. He wrote Dracula through the letters and journals of the victors. You know, to the victors go the spoils. History is written by the winners. Well, what would Dracula himself say? How would he tell the story? So in our book, Dracula has the chance to convey his own point of view.
[SPOILER ALERT: The following question and answer reveal and discuss a major plot secret from Dracula: The Un-Dead.]
MC: You know, as you’re talking about Vlad and the impalements and all of that, I’m flashing on the point in The Un-Dead where Quincy Harker, Jonathan and Mina’s grown son, is walking along with Basarab, the famous European actor that he’s become infatuated with. Quincy mentions something about all of that ancient history, about Vlad and the impalings, and you and Dacre have Basarab, who’s actually Vlad in disguise, turn around in a total fury and say, “That’s a myth that was propagated by Dracula’s political enemies!” Help me understand that. What’s going on in that scene?
IH: There are two schools of thought on Vlad, and this is a bone of contention between historians in the East and the historians in the West. Eastern historians believe that Vlad actually called himself Vlad the Impaler. But when Raymond McNally went to the Vatican archives to look at Vlad’s letters — which the curators haven’t even seen, because nobody has ever gone in to look at them except for Raymond — he found that Vlad never signed any of them that way. It was always “Vlad III” or “Vlad Dracula,” with “Dracula” meaning “Son of the Dragon.” Dracul means “dragon” and the suffix -a means “son of.” His father’s name was Dracul, which was a name taken in honor of the Wallachian order of knights. When a person became Prince of Wallachia, he had to swear loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire, so he would join the Order of the Dragon, which was a Christian order that was sworn to protect Christendom, regardless of denomination, from all invaders. So the name “Dracula” honors both Vlad’s father and the Wallachian order of knights, which Vlad also joined himself, to swear that he would never join with the Muslims against Christian Europe.
So he used the name Dracula, and he used the name Vlad III, but never once did he sign anything as “Vlad the Impaler.” When you go to Targoviste and you see the wall of the names of princes, it says Vlad the Impaler. But Ray always said, “Who would call himself that? You’d have to be a little insane.” And Dracula may have been many things, but he wasn’t insane. He was very cold and calculating, but he was as sane or insane as somebody like, say, Stalin. If Stalin was insane, then so was Vlad. They both believed they were building a modern country out of fields and grass, and they did certain things that advanced the country by centuries within just a few years, and it was brutal, but you can say it pretty much had to be done to protect the country.
So what happened — and it’s a little complicated — was that the Saxons were sent to Wallachia as merchants to sell goods for the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor used them that way to control the markets, to keep the Wallachian businessmen from getting too powerful. It was a political thing. But he sent them with the order that they didn’t have to pay taxes. When Vlad took over, he said, “You don’t sell goods in my country and not pay taxes.” He was raising an army at the time to protect the country from the Muslims, who were putting together their three hundred thousand man force. And when the Saxon merchants refused to pay the taxes, he rode into town with his army and impaled all of them. So the Saxons went off and wrote a bunch of pamphlets denouncing him. And today, since we in the West are closer to Saxons and Germans than we are to Romanians, their history has taken weight with us. You know those famous woodcuts of Dracula dining in a forest of impaled bodies? I’m sure you’ve seen them.
MC: Yeah, I know them well. I read a lot about Dracula as a kid, and those woodcuts were in all of the books.
IH: Those woodcuts were all produced by the Saxons, and it’s that story of Dracula that has come down to us, and so that’s where the idea of Vlad the Impaler came from. It was used as a derogatory name.
So that’s the origin of the scene you mention in The Un-Dead. I know firsthand that Ray saw those signed documents in the Vatican archives, so I’m using that scene to make clear that Vlad didn’t call himself the Impaler. That was a derogatory name used against him. He personally believed that he was doing something good. Have you ever heard of the Easter Massacre?
MC: Yes, I think I’ve heard of it. But it’s just an empty term for me. I can’t recall what it refers to.
IH: It’s another example of Vlad being a Robin Hood in the East while people consider him a maniac in the West. The boyars, the Romanian nobles, had turned against Vlad’s father, Vlad II — and let me actually make the picture bigger for you. Remember the war in Kosovo that we fought in 1992? What that was about was that Dracula’s father and Janos Hunyadi, the Great White Knight of Hungary, who was the captain of the Crusades before Vlad, went to war against the Muslims. And they were losing, and Vlad’s father made peace with them. A great Muslim leader had been killed, and Vlad II said, “Okay, we’ve had our victory.” It was a political victory, like in Vietnam, where we thought we could declare victory and then go home. To make peace, he decided that instead of killing the Muslim farmers who weren’t soldiers, if they would agree to live by the laws of the land and not make war against Wallachia or Kosovo, then they would be allowed to stay in Kosovo. Centuries later, the Serbs, who fought with the Hungarians, said, “Look, we want these Muslims out of here. They don’t belong here. Vlad’s father should have kicked them out.” And that’s what the war in 1992 was about. It was a five hundred year old war. So Dracula’s influence down through history is huge.
MC: You’re right: You did make the picture bigger for me. So Vlad Dracula and his father were both major heroes in Eastern Europe.
IH: Yes. And a major part of the story is that Vlad’s motivations for the things he did that made him be remembered as a monster in the West were totally understandable. His father did a good thing by trying to make peace, and the nobles killed him for it. Once he made peace with the Muslims, the nobles said he was possessed by Satan. In Hungary, Janos Hunyadi wanted to kick him off the throne. The nobles didn’t want to pay the taxes and fealty to the Ottoman Empire, because they were too cheap. So they joined with the Hungarians and killed Vlad’s father, and they took Mircea, Vlad’s older brother, and buried him alive. And they put somebody else, Vladislav II, on the throne. So when Vlad took power, the first thing he did was to impale all of the nobles who had killed his father. This was vengeance, pure and simple. This was not a matter of, “Oh, I think I’ll just impale everyone.” He actually said to them, “Why is it that in my lifetime there have been ten rulers of Wallachia? It’s because of all your treacherous intrigues! You’re all traitors. So you’re all impaled.” Then he took their land and money, and he gave it to the most loyal sharecroppers. He raised up the poorest people in the land to be nobles, and he created a loyal noble class. So there’s the Robin Hood thing again, because he made the poor rich and took the money from the evil rich people who had their foot on the throat of the sharecroppers, who always had to leave their families and farms and fight in wars for the nobles. Not fight for the country, but for the separate nobles, who each had their own little fiefdoms and were fighting among themselves for land and money and power while the poor got nothing.
So the poor looked at Vlad as a huge hero. In the West, we don’t know that backstory. We only know that he came to power and impaled five hundred noble families, including men, women, and children. But of course, at that time, you had to do it that way. You had to kill the children and the wives, too, because otherwise the children would grow up and seek revenge. We saw that at the beginning of Godfather II. It’s an ancient tradition. That’s the way the world was then, but we look at it through today’s eyes and we say, “Oh, my God, what a terrible person.” But in Vlad’s time, it was just standard practice if you wanted to survive. It’s right out of Machiavelli.
MC: That all leads my brain off on a different tangent. As you were talking, you flashed forward to the twentieth century and talked about Kosovo, and then you went back to fill in the backstory from centuries earlier. Then you talked about the kind of revisionist version of Vlad’s story, the “true story” that you and Dacre get at in The Un-Dead. Now, you ended the novel on a note that obviously opens is up for a sequel, and that’s pretty tantalizing with its hints of where another book might end up going both plot-wise and geographically. Do you and he have plans for a sequel? Are you working on a sequel? I’m particularly curious to know if you have further plans for doing more of what you were just talking about: trying to give a revisionist history, to show the “true story” behind the image of Dracula that we have developed.
IH: Yes. After all of those long answers, this one’s a short one: Yes. We’re not starting yet, but we do have our eye on a sequel for 2012, which is the hundredth anniversary of Bram’s death. Well, our publisher has an eye on it more than we do at the moment. I’m working on a movie and a vampire reality series, and a couple of other projects. And we have plans for an Un-Dead movie. One of the reasons that I wanted to produce Episode 50 is that I made a promise to the Stoker family. I promised them that this time, any movie made from the new book will be done as it’s written, without taking away from it like Hollywood has done with things like Dracula 2000, and David Niven, and Dracula’s Dog, and all the things that have been done since the family lost the copyright. So to that end, I’m building my producer credits, because I’m probably going to produce or co-produce the Un-Dead movie. So, yes, we’re looking at doing a movie, and when we have a story and the time is right, we do want to do another book.
There’s so much more to do, because the character of Dracula that Bram presented is only a small facet of who Dracula was. There’s so much in that personality and archetype to explore. Psychologically, this is a guy who grew up in captivity. He was ransomed by his father to the Muslims. He watched his brother get raped before his eyes. He was brutalized as a child. He saw his brother buried alive. He survived things that, today, would drive most people insane, and he came out of it and became a great military leader and created a country. Before that, no one enforced the borders. There was no constitution or anything like that, no standing army in Romania. He created a country. And like I’ve said, he was an Orthodox Christian who became captain of the Crusades. This was all extraordinary.
Now, here’s a theory that a lot of people have, and it’s not proven, but I happen to subscribe to it: When Vlad was named captain of the Crusades, the Pope in Rome was thinking this was the time to attack the Muslims, specifically because the Muslims were all afraid of Vlad. They thought him to be the Christian God’s chosen warrior. Now, this was right around the very same time that Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain decided to attack the Moors. A new crusading spirit was developing. And I think it was the Pope’s drum-up to a new Crusade that led Ferdinand and Isabella to attack the Moors when they did. This time they defeated them, and the spoils funded Christopher Columbus’s expedition. So some people feel that, in this way, Dracula is responsible for the discovery of America. Now wrap your brain around that one!
MC: Wow. I hadn’t heard that before. So how much of that theory is original to you? Did you connect some or most of those dots yourself?
IH: Well, all I’ll need to prove it is to get back into the Vatican and find just one letter from anybody in Western Europe saying, “With Dracula as our leader, we will defeat the infidels” or something like that. I just need to show there was some kind of spirit like this rising up. I can’t imagine that nobody knew Vlad was named captain of the Crusades. And why would the Pope name him to that position and bring him out of retirement, basically, by putting him back on the throne in Romania after being held in Hungary for seven years in prison, at 40 years old, unless he was planning another Crusade? And if he was, he would have to drum this up. And it just seems funny that at the very same time, Ferdinand and Isabella, having lost three other attempts to conquer the Moors, would all of a sudden launch a huge campaign. Why were all of these things happening? There had to be a build-up to another Crusade, and if there was, then Dracula was responsible for it, because he defeated that three hundred thousand man invasion force and everybody got excited.
And then he took the Catholic mass. Why would he do that and risk turning his own people against him unless he thought there was going to be another war against the Turks, and so he had to do it? So it all just makes sense. But nobody wants to say Dracula was responsible for the discovery of America. It frightens us, because in the West we think he’s such a monster.
MC: Yeah, that really is pretty provocative. A Dracula-centric theory of the last six hundred years of geopolitical history. I like it!
IH: Yeah! And even if it’s not exactly true, well, we still have to understand how truly influential this man was. A lot of people say, “Well, why couldn’t you just leave it with Count Dracula, this other character, this made-up character?” The answer is that Bram was so anal that if he were writing today and had access to the information we now have thanks to Radu and Raymond’s research, he wouldn’t have made up a Count Dracula to begin with! He intentionally called him a “Count” to separate him from the real-life Prince, because he didn’t have the real historical information.
MC: So you’re saying the gaps in the information that was available to him were what allowed him to imagine into existence what has now become this cultural archetype of “Count Dracula.” Am I reading you right?
IH: Yes, you are. Because Bram didn’t have all of the real information, he couldn’t be factual, so he created a fictional character. If he were writing today, he would have given us Prince Dracula, and he would have used the real history. I mean, how could he worry about time tables and train schedules being exact, and about making all of the information on street names and everything else be perfect all over the world, even in the Borgo Pass, and then just out of the blue create a fictional character? It doesn’t make sense. It’s contrary to his nature.
MC: So do you consider it fortunate that he didn’t have that full information? Do you think this let him exercise his imagination more powerfully in creating Dracula?
IH: I do. I think for that book it made for a much more interesting character. And it also allowed Dacre and me to go someplace new with it. Today the character of Count Dracula is so completely clichéd that we simply had to do a new take on him. To the people who are angry at us for changing the character of Dracula a little bit, I say, look, if you liked the first book so much, and you don’t want any change to it, then just go and reread it! You don’t have to read Un-Dead. But if you want a surprise, and you want a new story, well, then read our book. I mean, why aren’t these same people mad at James Cameron? If you look at the characters in Terminator 2, they’re 180 degrees different from what they were in the original Terminator. Just look at Sarah Connor. The point is that if you’re going to do a sequel, the character has to go someplace. Otherwise, you’re just rewriting and rereading the same stuff. You’re just doing it all over again. It’s like Boondock Saints 1 and 2. They’re the same movie! That’s why the second one failed.
MC: But of course, you did something in The Un-Dead that’s a lot more than just changing the characters. The world of your novel resides in metafictional territory relative to the original Dracula. You made Bram Stoker and other real-life people — or at least your fictionalizations of them — inhabit the fictional world along with Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, the vampire Dracula, and all the rest. Kind of like what Brian Aldiss did in Dracula Unbound and Frankenstein Unbound. To me, that’s actually one of the book’s major charms. I guess some people, for reasons like you’re identifying, don’t like it. And that makes me curious: Among the responses you’ve heard, whether in reading reviews or talking to people personally, what’s the proportion of people who really dig it, and what’s the proportion who hate it because you messed with sacred writ or something?
IH: Let me put it this way: 75 percent of the entire population who call themselves Dracula fans have never actually read the book. They’ve seen the movies. And when it comes to our book, about 80 percent of that groups say they love it. The rest think it’s pretty good. But then there’s that other group, the 25 percent who have actually read the original Dracula. And out of them, the split is a bit different. Maybe 60 percent love The Un-Dead while 40 percent hate it. And I love that last group, because they’re so passionate about it. There are like twenty-eight people who follow me around everywhere and tell me how much they hate what Dacre and I wrote. And I do love them, but they’re so uninformed. They say things like, “Oh, you made such a horrible character out of Bram! He’s such a miserable character!” Well, I hate to tell them, but that’s the true Bram! They’re living with a romanticized version of him in their heads, but hey, this is the actual Stoker family that I’m working with. I’m talking with people like Patrick Stoker, who’s almost a hundred years old, and his parents actually knew Bram. It’s still second-hand, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.
And in fact, Dacre and I made Bram better than he was in real life. We cleaned it up. When Irving died, Bram was kicked out of the theater. [NOTE: The references are to London’s legendary Lyceum Theatre, where Stoker served as business manager for over two decades, and Sir Henry Irving, the renowned actor whose career Stoker managed.] There’s actually a picture from that day. A photographer was standing out in front of the theatre, and you see Bram walking out alone, holding a cane, with his head down, and he looks like he was just hit in the head with a brick. He had just found out that Irving didn’t leave him the theatre, and then the board fired him, and everything that he loved was taken away from him inside of a few hours. It was only a few weeks later, on the night of the theatre fire, that he had a stroke. He was bed-ridden for a couple of weeks, and then he died. The guy was miserable his whole life. He wanted to be a writer, but his family made him be a clerk of petty sessions. After he wrote his biography of Irving’s life, the publishers didn’t want Dracula, because he’d already had a hit with a biography, so they just wanted more of the same. His wife wasn’t in love with him. She was in love with Oscar Wilde. Bram was in competition with Wilde his whole life, by the way. Why did he write Dracula? To compete with Wilde’s Dorian Gray.
MC: And of course Dorian Gray was a hit at the time
IH: Exactly. And Dracula wasn’t. So like I said, Bram was miserable his whole life. He almost died as a child, and it so haunted him that they had thought he’d never walk. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why he liked the title Dracula. In Gaelic, there’s a term, droch-fhoula [pronounced “droc-uhlla”], that means “bad blood.” Bram knew this term, and when he first heard the name Dracula, it sounded to him like the Gaelic word. And of course he also got the wrong translation of “Dracula” as “Son of the Devil.” So that’s how he came up with the title for his novel. The original title in his notes, which are held at the Rosenbach Museum, is Droch-Fhoula.
The original title of the vampire himself, by the way, was Count Wampyr, or Count Vampire.
MC: I think we can all be glad that was changed.
IH: Yes, we can all be glad he changed that. But basically, this was a haunted guy. He was in his forties when he wrote Dracula, and he was still haunted by droch-fhoula, the bad blood that happened to him as a child. He never knew his book was a success. He died almost penniless. So, to all of those people who think Dacre and I didn’t portray him correctly, well, what do you want us to do? That’s who he really was. But people get mad at me for it.
MC: I have a couple of other things to ask you. One of them is directly related to all of this, and the other is a tangent. Lately, out of personal interest, I’ve been digging further into some things I already knew about the fact that Mary Shelley, according to the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, got her inspiration for the novel from that famous “waking dream.”
IH: Mary Shelley passed through the town of Frankenstein, and stayed at Frankenstein’s castle, and heard the story of Conrad Dippel, the alchemist who lived there, and that’s how she came up with Frankenstein.
MC: Well, yeah. In 1831, fifteen years after the fact, she told the waking dream story, which some people take as a fictional explanation for the inspiration. And Robert Louis Stevenson, factually, experienced a nightmare that was the genesis of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” There’s also the semi-apocryphal story of Bram having a bad dream after getting indigestion from eating a dinner of dressed crab or something like that. And he had a vision of vampiric women that may have been the origin of the famous scene with the vampire ladies who attack Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle. Do you have any line in on this? What are your thoughts about it? Or from your research, what do you know about whether this anecdote is accurate?
IH: Well, who can know anything about that? Who can know if it’s accurate? The way it sounds to me is that they didn’t have websites with porn in the late nineteenth century, and so Bram had a dream. [Laughs] I mean, three women coming on to you in the night?
MC: I see what you mean, of course. You don’t have to be dreaming up the greatest vampire novel in history in order to have that particular dream.
IH: Exactly. And what did Bram eat with this? You know, they say shellfish is an aphrodisiac.
MC: I guess his son joked about it later, and Bram himself joked about it. But it’s one of the stories I just don’t see people talking about as much as the Shelley and Stevenson dreams, although a few people do talk about it. You know, Christopher Frayling did that BBC documentary in 1996, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, and in it he just took the story of Bram’s dream at face value. But others don’t.
IH: We got our story for The Un-Dead from what Bram wrote in the 1901 Atlantic edition of Dracula, where he said that basically, everything that happened in the book is real, and it’s connected to the Ripper murders, and so on. He tried to create a post-modern fantasy back then, and we just picked up the baton. So, you know, a lot of this kind of thing is just promotional stuff. People like these kinds of stories from authors about the inspiration for their books, and the stories just perpetuate themselves over time.
I mean, look at the story that Bram was gay, and that he just gave up everything to follow Irving. Me, I saw The Pope of Greenwich Village when I was a kid, and all I wanted to do was work with Mickey [Rourke] and Eric [Roberts]. And I did! I became friends with both of them, and I’ve worked with them a number of times, and I’m working with them again right now on a sequel to The Pope of Greenwich Village, plus another possible movie. So am I gay because I thought they were great actors and I wanted to work with them? When I saw Mickey do that thing in Barfly where he says “Here’s to all my friends,” I thought he was the reincarnation of Brando. And I’m somebody who studied with [world-renowned acting teacher] Stella Adler. I was in the last class to study with her. So I know acting, and for me to think that of Mickey really meant something. But it doesn’t mean I’m gay. People have read all kinds of things into Bram’s love of Irving as an actor, but as an artist, writer, and actor myself, I totally understand where he was coming from. He always wanted to be a writer, and he saw an actor that inspired him, and he went to him and became his manager and worked with him. There’s nothing gay about it. It has to do with art.
MC: It’s as if the story about Bram being gay is just based on a severe myopia about what we call “the artistic temperament” and what it does to people. He was passionately driven by his creativity.
IH: That’s right. And we have to recognize that language changes over time. If we went out on the town and had a good time, and we said it was “a gay old time,” it wouldn’t mean the same thing today as it did back then. Language back then was different. So for Bram or anybody to talk about another man and say “I have love for him” or “I love him” meant something different than today. It was a term of endearment. In the 1950s people talked about “going steady.” Now that’s something we don’t say anymore. Today we have all these weird terms for a romantic relationship: “I’m seeing him,” “I’m dating him.” Everyone’s afraid to put labels on things, so we create a bunch of different ones. People even said Bram was anti-Semitic because Dracula appears to be a Jew from Eastern Europe, and everybody attacks him, and he carries disease, and rats come with him. But that’s ridiculous. Both Bram and Saul Bellow played on the fear of immigrants. But “immigrant” doesn’t necessarily mean “Jewish.” Dracula has Eastern European features because he’s from Eastern Europe! But if you want to read false meanings into things, you can continually perpetuate this stuff.
So I take that all with a big grain of salt. And back to Bram’s dream, well, who really knows? Maybe his wife was away that weekend.
MC: To kind of draw things toward a close, I want to change tracks for a minute. There’s a new book out titled Encyclopedia of the Vampire. There have been several books like it, several other vampire encyclopedias, but this is a new one, and it’s edited by S.T. Joshi.
IH: I thought maybe you were going to talk about Dracula in Visual Media. That’s a new one from John Edgar Browning. Dacre and I wrote the foreword and the afterword.
MC: No, this is another one. It’s from Greenwood Press, and I wrote three of the entries in it. Two of them are pretty short. One is a brief article about the BBC’s Count Dracula series from the 1970s. Another is about the Fright Night films.
IH: Oh, Count Dracula was great.
MC: Yeah, I loved it, too. The third piece I contributed was much longer. The encyclopedia has several essay-length entries in it, and I wrote the one about vampires and religion. It an essay about how the deep, longstanding connection between religion and the figure of the vampire has played out philosophically and historically and so on. And when I was asked to interview you, I thought, “I’m going to ask Ian about this.” Basically, what I say in my essay is that we see the vampire being intertwined with religion throughout history because the very idea of the vampire is inherently bound up with what you and I were talking about earlier: all those questions of identity and self and survival after death, and the question of good and evil. And so therefore the idea of the vampire has served almost as a “lens” that the human spiritual impulse attaches itself to and focuses itself through. You’ve studied this stuff for years, and you’re recognized as an expert on it. What are your thoughts on this?
IH: I think the vampire is perceived as evil because it’s our inner id. It’s who we want to be. It removes the rule of morality, the rule of law, the threat of punishment. A vampire could go rob a bank, and if the police come and shoot at him, the bullets will pass right through. If he gets put in jail, he just bends the bars and gets out. If the police grab him, he’s got the strength of twenty men, and he’ll take them all on. So there’s no threat of the rule of law, and there’s no threat of morality, because he’s already an outsider, so if they kick him out of society, well, that’s what he already wants. He’s already an outsider because he doesn’t want people to know who he is. So he has no fear of being ostracized and morally condemned. This means he can do anything he wants to do. If he wants a girl, he just hypnotizes her. If he wants a friend, he bites her on the neck. He can do anything he feels like doing, and no one can stop him.
A vampire is the ultimate alpha male, or sometimes alpha female. And that’s who we all wish we could be. He doesn’t age, so there’s no plastic surgery. He doesn’t have to die, so there are no worries about our greatest fear: mortality. And all of that is why the vampire is evil. If you’ve ever seen The Last Temptation of Christ, you know there’s that moment when the devil comes to Christ and says, “I’ll give you the life you want. I’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted. Just renounce your father.” And for those of us who give in and renounce our father and come to Satan, or who take a bite of the apple, well, that’s like the vampire. Think about the seven deadly sins. People who engage in them are called evil. Well, vampires can eat all they want and not gain weight, so there’s the sin of gluttony. Then there’s vanity. Look at how well vampires dress. They’re who we wish we could be. They’re us with no restraints. There’s that little piece of junk DNA in us from when we were animals in the trees and ran with the pack. It’s been proved that we still have that junk DNA, and we don’t know why it’s there, but it’s always within us. That’s the vampire.
MC: When you say that, I think of the movie version of Altered States, where William Hurt turns into that caveman-type character, and then when he comes back out of it after that first night of running around the city on pure animal instinct, he calls it the most fulfilling experience of his life. It’s like what you’re saying is exactly that, but even better, because the vampire isn’t some subhuman monster.
IH: Yeah, that’s right. It takes away the threat of religion and eternity in hell. It takes away the threat of the law. It takes away the threat of being socially ostracized, the threat of the “scarlet letter” and all that. It’s who we could be if there were absolutely no restrictions on us. When we’re driving down the road and the other guy cuts us off, don’t we wish we could just stop the car, get out and go to the other guy’s car, and pull him out and snap his fucking neck? All of us feel like that sometimes, and if you were a vampire, you could do exactly that. So it’s a great fantasy. Think about that scene with Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
MC: You mean the scene in the fast-food restaurant, right?
IH: That’s the one. He basically became a vampire without becoming a vampire. He just decided “To hell with it” and did exactly what he wanted. But of course he had to die in the end. If he were really a vampire, he wouldn’t have to die. If you’re a vampire, Robert Duvall isn’t going to shoot you and kill you at the end of the movie. You don’t have to worry about that.
MC: So vampires are evil because evil is what’s totally amoral, what bursts any boundaries of propriety that we feel in our human civilization.
IH: Yeah! I mean, why do all teenagers rediscover the vampire? The Lost Boys poster says it: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” So, hey, what do I have to go to school for? Why do I need a job? I can just go steal the money and have a great life. Who’s going to stop me?
MC: You know, I feel like this is the perfect place to round off the conversation. It’s like we’ve come full circle. Great stuff, Ian. Thanks again for your time.
IH: Thanks, Matt. Very nice to meet you. It’s been a pleasure.