Join me – if you dare – as I track the King Vampire down to his Transylvanian lair…
Do you know what the place is? Have you seen that awful den of hellish infamy – with the very moonlight alive with grisly shapes, and every speck of dust that whirls in the wind a devouring monster in embryo? Have you felt the Vampire’s lips upon your throat? – Bram Stoker, Dracula
Dracula. This musical name has become synonymous with evil, vampirism, and dark Carpathian castles. By one of the occasional ironies of literature, Dracula – not an especially good novel in terms of its literary merits – has achieved something that many a better book has not: it has catapulted one of its characters into the stratosphere of general public awareness. You might not have read Dracula, but you’ll almost certainly be aware of its vampiric villain.
While most of us are familiar with Bram Stoker’s toothy, garlic-hating Count, however, far fewer people know much about the historical figure of Dracula, aka Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler. For their peace of mind, that might be just as well: the real Dracula’s exploits make Stoker’s bloodsucking vampire seem like a loveable rogue.
Cast your mind back to the mid-fifteenth century, if you will. Europe is cowering as the Ottoman Empire comes knocking at its doors. Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Dracula, one of the very few to even attempt to include any background information on the historical figure, conveys this with marvellous drama:
“From Transylvania arose a knight” – well, from Wallachia actually. One of the first surprises awaiting students of Dracula is that, though he certainly had Transylvanian links – he was born in Transylvania, and returned there periodically throughout his life – he was in fact the ruler of neighbouring Wallachia. Dracula’s father, Vlad II Dracul (from which the diminutive “Dracula” came) ascended to the Wallachian throne in 1436, when Dracula was about five, but this must have been a mixed blessing for the young prince. Later, he would be held as a political hostage by the Ottoman Turks, an experience which probably left him psychologically scarred. Dracula himself eventually came to the Wallachian throne, and had the satisfaction of becoming a considerable thorn in the Ottomans’ side, but his victory came at a great cost. By the end of his brief, troubled, interrupted reign, he had killed vast numbers of people, frequently by his favoured method of impalement, which in turn gave rise to his chilling moniker: Vlad the Impaler.
To what extent did this historical figure influence Bram Stoker, though? It’s a hotly debated topic. We know from Stoker’s own jottings that, though he never visited Transylvania, he’d certainly done his homework. His notes are full of information about Transylvania, vampire lore, and Eastern European mythology. Yet the fictional vampire Count he created bore little resemblance to the historical figure, though in one notable scene in the novel Dracula alludes to his family’s past as fighters against the Turks:
“When was redeemed that great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the Crescent; who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground! This was a Dracula indeed.”
Yet, though he’d certainly read something of Vlad III’s life, there’s little evidence that Stoker was particularly well-acquainted with the life of the historical personage. Stoker’s notes, usually rather detailed, make no reference to Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the prototypical vampire Count had already taken shape in Stoker’s imagination before he acquired his famous name. The vampire, after all, had already entered the English literary scene by the time Stoker began work on Dracula, courtesy of John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Furthermore, Stoker’s novel was originally set in Austria, and featured a rather less impressively-named Count Wampyr. A narrow escape, you might think: it’s hard to imagine that a novel called Wampyr would make such a mark on the human consciousness.
Why then did Stoker settle on the name Dracula? According to his own notes, “DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL.” A name with diabolical associations was, of course, perfect for a vampire. Like many fictional creations, then, it’s reasonable to assume that Stoker’s Count Dracula was something of an amalgamation, a blend of various attributes and influences.
It doesn’t matter, perhaps (though modern Romanians are apparently somewhat miffed that a figure they regard as a national hero has been hijacked by this literary imposter). Dracula has taken on a life of his own, at least on an imaginative level, and will probably continue to flit through the haunted chambers of our brains for a long time to come. I don’t see anyone driving a stake through this vampire’s heart any time soon…
Phew. What a marathon of the monstrous this has been – and it’s not even over yet. Next week, just to round things off, I’ll be talking about all things ghostly. After that, I promise I won’t speak of anything supernatural for at least – well, for about another year, actually.