Curse of the Vampire: The Road to ‘Dracula’

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The name Dracula brings with it a long and varied history, and fans/scholars of the king of the vampires are well aware of the the historic precedent to the character in the form of Vlad the Impaler. But back in the pages of Castle of Frankenstein magazine (which is actually in the public domain), writer Mike Parry wrote a story titled “Curse of a Vampire,” which tracks the vampire genre prior to Bram Stoker writing his novel in 1897. What follows, in slightly edited form, is that article.

Everyone has heard of Dracula, the infamous vampire count from Transylvania, but how many know his real origin? Many, if asked, would go back only to the 1931 film; others to the earlier German silent version, Noferatu; still others, to the stage play or the Bram Stoker novel of 1897. But his real origin goes back even further — 500 years further, in fact. We must go beyond the foggy, gas-lit streets of Stoker’s London to the legend-shrouded hills of the Balkans.

(Vlad Tepes; Wikipedia)

It is from these Slavic lands that we learn of Skazanie O Drakule Voivodes. The story of Count Dracula. It is related to certain old Russian folk-tales of the 15th and 16th centuries. These are said to be based on true accounts of the nefarious practices of a certain Prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad the Impaler. This Vlad was the terror of his country between 1445 and 1452. In two Turkish manuscripts of the 16th century he is described in such terms as “stogoica,” “Ordog” and “pokol,” which meant vampire and sorcerer. In one article on Dracula, the theory was proposed that the name was derived by Stoker from the Latin Draco, meaning dragon or devil. This is not entirely wrong. The truth is that when the evil Vlad renounced the orthodox faith, he was henceforth called Voivode Drakula, the Devil Count: Count Dracula.

NOSFERATU, Max Schreck, 1922

Yet if a Count Dracula did exist, he is far removed from the character in Stoker’s novel. Notably, the real Dracula is not a vampire, although certain of Vlad’s characteristics are horrifying enough … In a recent biography of Stoker, A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker, its author, Harry Ludlam, tells us how Stoker came to hear of the legend of Count Drakula. A friend of his, Arminus Vemberry, was carrying out historical researches in Budapest when he came across the two aforementioned Turkish manuscripts. He told Stoker of his find and the author was delighted, for he had been seeking just such a tale to provide a historical basis for his novel. Needless to say, Dracula owes much more to Stoker’s imagination than to the actual facts relating to the Voivode Drakula, Prince of Wallachia.


For almost a hundred years before Stoker put pen to paper and commenced his immortal classic of the Undead, the Vampire had been enjoying a literary revival. It had been summoned out of the grave of superstition by the literary movement known as Romanticism. In the character of the vampire, the romantic writers found the ideal figure to personify the theme of seduction so prevalent in 19th century literature. At the same time, he served to introduce “a bit of the dark world” into their writings. The vampire was a link between love and death, the two subjects most dear to the romantic writer.

In the 18th century, the Blutsauger, or Bloodsucker (as the vampire was then known) was a recurrent theme in Germany poetry. These dark verses of a region where life, death and love merge, greatly impressed and inspired Goethe. Even so, the great writer was to remark, when speaking of contemporary “ultra-romantic” French Literature in general and Merimee’s La Guzla in particular: “Instead of the noble content of Greek Mythology one sees devils, sorcerers and vampires.” Despite this, he did not hesitate to describe his own Bride of Corinth as “a Vampire tale.” Another German fantasy author of prominence, E.T.A. Hoffmann, seemed to share the opinion of Goethe. “The Vampire,” he said, “is one of the most dreadful and blackest of ideas; it is spawned of the horrible and repulsive.” These noble sentiments did not prevent him from writing The Vampire; despite its title, this novel concerns a ghoul, an even more horrible creature.

About this time, the influence of the German poets began to make itself felt in British poetry. Sir Walter Scott, in his lengthy poem Clerk Saunders, writes: “My mouth is full cold, Margaret; It has the smell, now of the ground; And if I kiss thy comely mouth; Thy days of life will not be long.” But the first work to firmly establish the Vampire in English fiction was Byron’s Giaour (1813), a passage from which follows: “But first on earth, as vampire sent; Thy Corpse will from its tomb be rent; Then ghastly haunt they native place; And suck the blood of all thy race.” In a footnote to his poem, the well-traveled poet relates: “The stories told in Hungary and Greece of these foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.”

(Byron’s Giaour)

On that famous evening at Maison Montalegre, as a result of which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Byron spoke of writing a vampire tale. Alas, it was not to be. However, Polidori, his secretary, employed his ideas in his own tale, The Vampire, published in The New Monthly (1819). Indeed, in his sinister hero Lord Ruthven, Polidori embodied many of the notorious traits of Byron. Whatever the controversy as to the author of the piece, it was a source of inspiration to many others and firmly established the theme of the vampire in English literature. 1833 saw the publication of Liddell’s Vampire Bride: “When they thrust a dart through the swollen heart; It convulsively shivered and screamed.”

Times changed, but the treatment was always the same. Varney the Vampire; Or, The Feast of Blood (subtitled “A romance of exciting interest”), by Thomas Prekett Prest, was a “penny dreadful,” sold in episodes. It had a tremendous popular success. However, the author’s repeated emphasis on grisly detail did little to preserve the story’s atmosphere. Regardless of its faults, it did serve to show how popular these uncanny tales of the Undead had become.


In 1865 Swinburne wrote the poem Chastelard, which dealt with the fatal attraction of a female vampire. This theme was redeveloped in 1872 by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in his novelette, Carmilla. This time the vampire (or rather vampires) is a charming young girl from Transvylvania. She descends suddenly upon the quiet household of an English gentleman and asks for his hospitality for a few weeks. He cannot refuse such a beautiful young lady. The lovely guest makes friends with the young mistress of the house, who mysteriously begins to pine away. Finally, unaccountably weak and of death pallor, she dies. Le Fann’s novelette was remarkably constructed. It relates in such detail normal, everyday happenings, that when the supernatural element is introduced, one readily accepts it.

(“Carmilla”; Wikipedia)

Carmilla was to inspire Bram Stoker to write Dracula and Carl Dreyer to make the film Vampyr. The story itself was finally filmed by France’s Roger Vadim as Blood and Roses (Et Mourir de Plaisir; literally, To Die of Pleasure). La Fanu’s story greatly impressed Bram Stoker, who henceforth entertained the idea of writing a similar novel, but with greater regard for authentic detail. Bram (or Abraham Stoker, to give him his proper name), was born in November 1847 in Dublin of middle-class parents. He had a difficult childhood, suffering from ill-health at an early age. Despite this obstacle, he proved himself a fine athlete when he entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of 16. Already enamored of the theatre, at the age of 20, he met the man who was to exercise a powerful influence on him: Henry Irving, the great actor and theatre manager. (In later years, Stoker acted as his secretary). He was passionately fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman and this greatly encouraged him to take up a literary career. He rapidly became the editor of an evening paper, a drama critic, and a noted essayist. At the time of the writing of Dracula, he already had published eight books, including Under the Sunset, a collection of fantastic stories for children, the only indication of the horror he was about to unleash.

DRACULA, from left, Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, 1931

Having found a basis for his story (courtesy of Arminius Vamberry), he began work on the novel with an enthusiasm that was quite unusual for him. Indeed, he was like a man possessed. This man of imposing build, with a bushy red beard, had been nicknamed “the gentle giant,” but a different person emerged during the writing of Dracula. The family for whom he had shown such deep affection now ran in fear at the sound of his ill-tempered approach. It was the only time this was to be. Upon the book’s completion, he reverted to his former kindly self. Even he could not explain his temporary derangement, except to say that he had felt strange emotions as the story unfolded beneath his pen. It is certainly true that he went to great pains to render the book authentic, and into its writing went many long hours of patient research.

HORROR OF DRACULA, Christopher Lee, 1958

The way much of the book was set out, in the form of diaries and letters, shows the influence of Wilkie Collins (who wrote The Moonstone, one of the first detective stories), of whom Stoker was an ardent admirer. His method of introducing the lore of the vampire to his readers through Dr. Seward’s phonograph recordings was an original device, which was later to serve the same purpose in Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula. The trust placed in Dr. Van Helsing reflects Stoker’s own faith in science, but the good doctor’s use of the weapons of superstition in his combat with Dracula was the author’s way of saying that there are some things which science cannot explain.

DRACULA, Frank Langella, 1979, (c) Universal Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection

The book completed, he dedicated it “to Hommy-beg” a pseudonym of the popular contemporary writer Hall Caine — and submitted it for publication. The first edition appeared in May 1897, published by Constable. Later in the same month was presented the first theatrical adaptation, at the Royal Lyceum, London (a theater managed by Henry Irving). This was more a formality, to insure the safety of the copyright rather than a serious attempt to dramatize the novel.

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, Gary Oldman, 1992. ©Columbia Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

The book received some favorable reviews, but was not an immediately success. Stoker continued to write, but now with a preference for fantasy and the weird. Among the novels he produced in this vein are The Jewel of the Seven Stars, The Lair of the White Worm and the famous short story collection, Dracula’s Guest, which contains the classic The Squaw. The title story of the last work is said to be a missing chapter from Dracula.

After a serious illness, lasting six years, Stoker died in April of 1912. In life he had been kind and gentle, the self-proclaimed champion of delicate womanhood. Not the least of the curious tales about him is his alleged appearance at the meetings of a secret pagan magical society called The Order of the Golden Dawn (to which the fantasy writer Arthur Machen and the poet William Butler Yeats also belonged, as well as the notorious “black magician,” Aleister Crowley). Perhaps it was here that he obtained his taste for the supernatural. Ironically, Stoker, like so many other artists, died without knowing that one day his best work would be world famous. While the name Dracula inspires dread in all civilized (and many uncivilized) parts of the world; the name of Stoker is all too easily forgotten.

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