Book Review: Powers of Darkness
by Bram Stoker – and Valdimar Asmundsson
translated from the Icelandic by Hans Corneel De Roos
Overlook Duckworth, 2017
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was published in 1897 to some critical nods of approval but certainly no hint of the immortality that awaited it. There’s every indication that its original audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it, this melodramatic, lopsided, downright weird fantasy about a centuries-old undead Carpathian warlord surreptitiously seeking to spread his dominion to Victorian England by means of terror and erotic seduction. The book’s separate plot-strands all seemed to belong to different novels; young Jonathan Harker’s horrific ordeal in Castle Dracula jarred stylistically and thematically with the jockeying of Lucy Western’s ardent suitors, which in turn jarred with Dracula’s unexpected infatuation with Mina Harker, and the whole thing culminated in a chase scene that ends with a motley band of bunglers killing with comparative ease a supernatural being who can shatter stone in his bare hands.
But fittingly enough, the book exercised a hypnotic grip on readers similar to the mesmerism of its title character. Knock-offs and plagiarisms soon abounded, and fans of Stoker’s work sought to spread the word. In 1899 an American version of the book appeared, and in 1901, Icelandic publisher Valdimar Asmundsson embarked on a serialized translation of the book for newspaper readers in his country. This serialization was published in book form in 1901 as Makt Myrkranna but remained almost entirely unknown outside of Iceland until 1986, when it came to light that Stoker had written a preface to the Icelandic version. By this point the novel and its author had long since ascended to the literary firmament, and the Makt Myrkranna came under new scholarly scrutiny.
That scrutiny revealed something both predictable and amazing: Amundsson hadn’t merely translated the novel – he’d changed and elaborated on it, perhaps secure in the assumption that neither its author nor anybody in the English-speaking world would ever know. Dracula scholar Hans Corneel De Roos did a thorough comparison of the two works and came to some delightfully shocking discoveries, not least of which was that the Makt Myrkranna in some ways fixed the gangly lopsidedness of the original. This Icelandic fantasia on a theme of Bram Stoker is tighter in its construction and more direct in its lurid charms, particularly when it comes to the central human character. Asmundsson has more sympathy than Stoker did for the young man he calls Thomas Harker, and has De Roos hints in his fascinating Introduction, here may have been a vicarious element to that sympathy:
In this sense, Makt Myrkranna is a stronger love story than Dracula, where vows and prayers replace real intimacy. Although in Stoker’s original, Jonathan Harker is initially thrilled by the vampire ladies, after his first encounter with them his only disgusted, and he sees the Count as his savior for interrupting their seductive advances. His counterpart Thomas in the Icelandic version, however, constantly longs to be reunited with the fair-skinned temptress and allows her to embrace him and kiss him time and time again, and even sit on his lap; in these and other scenes, the women in the story seem to be attractive to the point of being irresistible – there were no traces of the physical revulsion expressed in Dracula and in Stoker’s later novel The Lair of White Worm (1911).
This English-language translation, Powers of Darkness, is the strangest, weirdest gift Dracula fans could hope for in this or any other book season. Gorgeously produced by Overlook Duckworth, the text is presented in columns running alongside copious and often very amusingly carping annotations by De Roos, and the experience of reading it is often downright surreal, especially if the reader is already very familiar with Dracula. Powers of Darkness is both very much Stoker’s novel and very much not – reading it is like reading a version of Pride and Prejudice written by Dan Brown, or Danielle Steel’s “translation” of A Little Life. The Count is more flamboyant and theatrical, and he commands far, far more page-time in Powers of Darkness than Stoker ever gave him in the book that bears his own name. And Thomas Harker has so much fun with the ladies of Castle Dracula that you wonder why he’d ever bother to leave:
She stood in front of me in the moonlight, and I couldn’t recall ever seeing a girl of such breathtaking beauty. I won’t provide a detailed description, as words can do her no justice, but she had golden-blonde hair, which was bound in a chignon. Her eyes: blue and large. Her dress resembled those worn by beauty icons from the turn of the century – like Queen Josephine – with her neck and upper chest revealed. Around her neck she wore a necklace of glittering diamonds.
“I am glad that you have come here,” she said. “You look so handsome and masculine – that is an advantage here in the Carpathians. It will be our pleasure to get to know you.”
No Dracula aficionado should do without the strange and oddly thrilling experience of reading Powers of Darkness, and they’ll likely be reassured by one undeniable conclusion that experience yields: ultimately, none of the streamlining changes Asmundsson worked on the original, none of the superior dramatic choices or plot-neatening, makes any difference. The raw, ungainly magic of Dracula still wins the day – and may just be untranslatable.