Mad, Vlad, and Dangerous to Know
By Syrie James
By Karen Essex
In Bram Stoker’s immortal 1897 novel, poor Mina Harker couldn’t make things any plainer:
“’You have aided in thwarting me;’” [she reports her tormentor saying] “’now you shall come to my call. When my brain says “Come!” to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding; and to that end this!’ With that he pulled open his shirt, and with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight, and with the other seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the … Oh my God! My God! What have I done? What have I done to deserve such a fate, I who have tried to walk in meekness and righteousness all my days. God pity me!”
The book, of course, is Dracula, and the fellow breastfeeding the distraught Mina in that scene is Count Dracula himself, lord of the undead, king of all vampires, who centuries before was the embattled Wallachian warlord Vlad Tepes but now, through the alchemy of Stoker’s fiction, exists as a scourge of God, an inhuman creature bent on world domination by turning the women of the world into vampires like himself. At the end of the book, he’s defeated, the curse of his existence is broken, and that’s that. End of story.
Only that wasn’t the end of the story – not by a long shot. The book and the subsequent stage-play were enormous successes, and the Dracula craze became a permanent fixture of Western life. He was the ultimate relationship parasite, the oafish faux-suave Euro-trash interloper, always luring the heroine, always ending up impaled through the heart by the hero. The pinnacle of this trend – as fixed in the world’s imagination as the character himself – is former screen idol Bela Lugosi as the Count, decked out in cape and cummerbund, about as threatening as somebody’s ciorba-sipping grandfather. In true Victorian fashion, Stoker’s Dracula fairly bristled with repressed sexuality, but there was one crucial problem: Dracula himself wasn’t sexy. The sway he had over his female victims was a crude mesmerism, and any desire they felt they were forced to feel, and it shamed them.
A part of this began to change in 1976, when Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, released first in the trappings of a romance novel and then later with a simple script-only cover. The novel introduces the character of Lestat, a young-looking vampire with lots of charisma and 1970s-infused sex appeal (it quickly becomes obvious that the novel’s narrator, a gloomy vampire named Louis, is besotted with him). The book became an immense cult-favorite hit, and its sequels became bestsellers, and suddenly the era of vampire-as-sexy-seducer was begun in earnest. In a 1977 Broadway hit, Frank Langella gave Count Dracula a pantherish grace, but that phenomenon never translated back into books; even though sexy vampires were cropping up all over the bookstores, the Count himself was still a stiff-collared joke, relegated to the sidelines while his fictional progeny sucked and sucked with abandon. Thirty years after Lestat came Edward Cullen, the mopey vampire hero of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – the book and its sequels were huge hits, not least because we’re told repeatedly how unbelievably beautiful Edward is. Not a cape in sight. Dracula himself might as well have been dead and buried.
The problem is Mina Harker, that standoffish little prig. Stoker’s novel is composed of first-person accounts from the book’s half-dozen or so main characters (the quasi-journalistic effect is extremely gripping – Dracula is still an immensely enjoyable reading experience, which might not be true of Twilight in 2169), but only Mina spends any quality time with the Count, and she’s forever sobbing about what a miserable experience it is. How gross he is, in effect. It’s hard to position somebody as a romantic lead with all that “God pity me!” business going on.
There are two ways to get around this. In the face of all the first-hand reporting that makes up the narrative of Dracula, you can either say somebody was lying or you can say everybody was mistaken.
In Karen Essex’s new novel Dracula in Love, the latter approach is embraced. The book is narrated by Mina Harker, but she’s not about to re-tell Stoker’s tale (what she refers to as “the other tale,” paying it the supreme compliment of not needing to name it), as she warns us up front: “At some risk to myself from mortals and immortals alike, I will now reveal to you what happened in strange and seminal year of 1890, when I shed the cocoon of ordinary life, bursting through the membrane of prosaic earthly existence and into a world of preternatural magnificence.” Vampire fiction aficionados will recognize that ‘at risk to myself’ gambit from Rice’s novels The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the idea that the vampire world will hunt down one of their own who dares to expose their secrets to the world. And even non-specialists will see that Essex likes her prose just a few wavelengths into the purple spectrum. That tone stood her in good stead for her absorbingly fast-paced and erotic Cleopatra novels, Kleopatra and Pharaoh, and it works here as well.
Her Mina Murray is at first very similar to the one we know from Stoker’s novel. As she describes herself, she wanted nothing unusual from life – just a husband, a baby, a neat little house in Pimlico. Her coquettish friend Lucy calls her the most old-fashioned person she knows, and Essex’s Mina (more so than Stoker’s) would agree. She’s found contentment with her fiancé Jonathan Harker and wants nothing of Lucy’s exhibitionist tendencies and many suitors.
This comfort is overthrown when Count Dracula enters her life. Even her initial impressions are suffused both with all the menace we might find in Stoker and with that crucial extra element:
Sometimes, faithful reader, we are called upon to reconcile and live with mystery. Prior to the note he sent, I had been able to convince myself, albeit halfheartedly, that [Dracula] was a figment of my imagination. But the note, with its accurate information, now made that impossible. He was real; he read my thoughts; he could find me wherever I traveled; and, apparently, he was omniscient. Moreover, though I feared him, he thrilled and fascinated me.
Both the thrill and the fascination are supplied in ample measure by the events that follow. “You must be who you are,” Dracula informs her, “not as you wish to be” – and he has a story to tell her regarding who she is, a story quite at odds with the orphan-girl-makes-good biography she’s known her whole life. Whereas Stoker’s Dracula is moved by Mina’s coincidental likeness to the woman he loved centuries ago, the Dracula in Essex’s book contends that Mina is that woman, that she’s a vessel for many past lives she doesn’t recall, that the two of them have been destined forever to be together. The Count tries to jog her memory by telling her the story of his own life, including the all-important crossroads where the ancient order of Assassins come to Dracula and his men while they’re fighting in the Crusades:
We found that they made blood sacrifices to a heathen goddess of warriors called Kali by the mystics of India, who drained the blood of her enemies into a bowl and drank it. On Tuesday eves, they ate a substance called hashish, which made the real world disappear, and made sacrifices to this goddess. They claimed that she gave them the power to stop both time and death. They invited us to join them in this and in the ritual magic they practiced, which they called the path of the left hand. They taught us the seven hidden centers of the body, where power is stored and through which the life force may enter. In the rituals, we meditated on those hidden seats of power, and we were taught to stimulate the lowest and most powerful center in the genitalia, on ourselves and on each other, which brought ecstasy and climax.
This isn’t the only place where the over-the-top passion Essex so clearly revels in conveying overcomes the credibility of her narrative – Dracula has, after all, just told his beloved Mina how he and his fellow soldiers enthusiastically masturbated each other all over Palestine, hardly the kind of thing to make most girls swoon – but this Dracula is far more garrulous than Stoker’s, and he quickly clarifies that with the un-dead, it’s the sheer static cling of all this tantric sex that drains the lover/victim. The pernicious anemia is just a side effect:
“The German doctor [in Essex’s book, for reasons that escape me, the kindly Dutch professor Abraham Van Helsing is a creepy German psychologist named Van Helsinger] misunderstands. It is not the blood draining that weakens and kills the prey but the exposure to our power. My being carries an electrical current similar to a lightning rod. You know this because you have felt it. When we interact with the body of a human – call it making love if you wish – even though this current brings great pleasure, it acts a a kind of electrocution. Over time, the mortal’s energy is depleted. It is nothing to do with draining the blood, unless one takes too much of it.”
Mina is too enraptured to heed the obvious warning signs here. Her more worldly friend Lucy might have pointed out that any man – living or otherwise – who feels the need to toss off that “call it making love if you wish” crack is trouble.
Throughout Dracula in Love the Count tries to get Mina’s brain to remember what her heart already knows (“My body was like a musical instrument that only he knew how to play,” she effuses). He drops lots more hints as to his origin; the faerie-folk of Ireland, the Sidhe, come into things at one point, described by one character as “the elder race, child, the original people, the dreamers who dreamt up the world. They formed themselves out of the swirl of life that flows through all things.” But emerald enchantment and Assassin passion are always secondary to the main wellspring of Mina’s fascination, which will strike a very familiar note to roughly fourteen million 21st century pre-teen readers:
Now that I saw him in the candlelight, he was more beautiful than I had imagined. Skin marble white, paler than mine and glowing, and hair like the night sea’s glossy waves. His face was long and angular with a strong brow, like the artists’ renderings I had of the Arthurian knights. With his midnight blue wolf eyes, he stared at me, taking me in.
However much Essex’s book might differ from Syrie James’ new novel Dracula, My Love, on that last point they’re in complete agreement. Mina is also James’ narrator, and she, too, likes what she sees in the foreign Count:
I stared at him, suddenly speechless. He was a young gentleman – not much older than thirty, I thought. He was tall, thin, and extremely attractive, with a handsome nose, perfectly white teeth, and a jet-black mustache that matched his hair. As he smiled down at me, I was captivated by the force of his dark blue eyes, which were at once intense and compelling. He was impeccably dressed in a knee-length black frock coat, black tie, vest, and trousers, and a crisp white shirt, which were perfectly tailored to fit his fine figure. His complexion glowed with good health; his entire face and form, in fact, so embodied the very model of masculine beauty and charm that for a breathless moment, I wondered if I had conjured him from my imagination.
In case we’re harboring any doubts that perhaps it’s Mina’s sheltered life that’s misleading her into over-rating the charms of the handsome stranger she meets at the seaside, James is quick to have him meet with Lucy’s approval as well:
Lucy followed my gaze. “Is that him? The handsome, black-haired gentleman?” she murmured in breathless wonder.
I nodded silently. It had been three days since I had last seen him, and he was – if possible – even more handsome than I had remembered.
This, clearly, is slightly different ground than Dracula in Love. James has written two previous novels whose very titles give the game away: The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Her new book’s subtitle is The Secret Journals of Mina Harker, and the book itself is a perfect example of that second way to sex up the old Count: in Essex’s book, everybody was mistaken about the true nature of the events recorded in Dracula – in James’ book, one of Stoker’s eye-witnesses was lying. That eyewitness is the only one who really matters: Mina herself, who here unfolds the familiar story with one addition: while she’s visiting her friend Lucy and shocking news of the wreck of the Demeter (a ship carrying enormous crates filled with earth) is sweeping the seaside, she makes the acquaintance of a very good-looking young foreigner who at first calls himself Mr. Wagner (he “dabbles” in music, you see – painting too, but he probably thought Mr. Da Vinci would be a bit too much). She doesn’t keep him secret from her friends, and a little later in the book, she doesn’t keep her marriage to Jonathan Harker secret from him – this Mina is a far simpler, more likable character than Essex’s young woman. But they have one big thing in common – when it comes to the Count, they’re both a long way from “God pity me!”:
Oh! What a kiss! It was a kiss unlike anything that I had ever before experienced. As his tongue went on a gentle quest, exploring the delicate interior of my mouth, a myriad of new sensations were awakened within me. I began to tremble. A tingling began in the tips of my breasts that seemed to move and settle in the very centre of my womanhood. I was carried away, on fire. The kiss seemed to go on for ever; I wanted it to go on for ever …
James’ Mina is torn, and James writes it earnestly, if breathlessly: Jonathan Harker is portrayed as a complex, loving husband, and Mina loves him – but she loves Mr. Wagner, whom she eventually learns is Dracula and calls Nicolae – just as much, and she believes all his explanations for the horrible things Team Vampire Slayer keep saying about him. He behaved himself on the Demeter, for instance, eating only rats – the crew, he claims, killed each other while he rested in his crate of earth (why would he kill everybody on board, he plaintively asks her, when doing so would inevitably draw attention to his arrival in England, the very last thing he wanted? It’s a good question, one to which Stoker’s own book has no answer – other than the possibility that Dracula, like the rest of us, gets the munchies when he travels). And those macabre crates he’s lugging to London? Why, most of them are full of books, he tells her – he loves to read (*slow, emotive eye-blink*).
And what about the biggest accusation of them all, that he sucked poor Lucy dry in a blatant attempt to make her one of his own kind? Here our heartless heartthrob uses the maximum turnabout – the real murderer was … Van Helsing!
“Mina,” he explained patiently, “Lucy told me that Van Helsing gave her four separate blood transfusions in ten days, from four different men. I am an expert of sorts when it comes to the blood, And I can tell you – even though modern science is as yet oblivious to the fact – there are, without question, different types and kinds of blood – and I am certain they do not mix. Why do you think so many – I should say most – of the patients who have been transfused in the past decades have died? It was the professor’s misguided medicine that killed Lucy.
It all seems so plausible, especially accompanied by jet-black hair. And fans of Twilight will feel right at home with this archetypal vampire, because he, like cute little Edward, must constantly exercise the utmost self-control when around Mina, lest his dark appetite (the other dark appetite, that is) engulf him:
He kissed me. My arms wound around him. Desire rose within me; my heart began to race; but suddenly he was pushing me away. His eyes grew hard and his entire body shook, as if he was struggling with every ounce of will-power against some powerful inner force that threatened to overcome him.
Dracula, My Love has one structural limitation that Dracula in Love doesn’t share: since these are supposed to be the secret journals of Mina Harker, the book can’t diverge all that much from Stoker’s original – Lucy still has to die (at whomever’s hands), Dracula still has to flee back to his castle in Transylvania, our heroes still have to pursue him, using the bond he’s formed with Mina as a kind of homing beacon, and a bloody confrontation still has to occur on the steps of Castle Dracula. Essex twists the well-known climax of Dracula until it abounds with delicious ironies, and her feel for action sequences is cinematic. But if anything I found myself enjoying James’ version of the old story a bit more, perhaps because her book is crammed with fond echoes of Stoker (it’s clear she’s read the book countless – no pun intended – times), right down to a note-perfect imitation of the weird ‘foreign’ diction Stoker gives Van Helsing:
“It is said that the nosferatu is immortal; he cannot die unless by extraordinary means. He eats not as others but survives by consuming the blood of the living. With this steady diet of blood, it seems he can even grow younger! As Jonathan also observes, it seems he make in the mirror no reflection …”
And there’s no denying the odd appeal of James’ ear for the kind of histrionic melodrama Stoker also loved, as when a dying Dracula gasps to Mina, “I do not belong in this world. You do. Feel no remorse. Live the life that I was never allowed to have. Live it for the both of us!”
Essex can’t bring herself to terminate so promising a story – her book at least leaves open the possibility that the Count isn’t gone forever (her preternaturally youthful Mina feels that things aren’t over between the two of them). And Essex has been known to write sequels, so Dracula might still get a chance to visit the 21st century, try on some skinny jeans, and kick that Twilight twerp right in his garlic gloves. There would be a kind of unholy justice in that.
Liz Satterwaite is an ex-Bostonian living and working in DeKalb, Illinois as a freelance writer and part-time substitute teacher.