Not too long ago I had the honor and pleasure to cobble together a starter’s guide to my very favorite fictional character, the world’s first and greatest comic book superhero, Superman. Certainly not an obscure character - in fact, easily ranked amongst the very top of the most recognized fictional beings around the world. Still, with eight decades of iterations and continuity, Supes newbies could perhaps benefit from a few guideposts from a longtime fan and I hope my efforts helped.
But today I’d like to walk you down a different, darker path; through the nightmarish thicket that’s grown up around a much older character and one that presents his own challenge to the curious and the newfound enthusiast. So, please, enter freely and of your own will as I guide you to some high points of my second most favorite fictional character*. Let us speak of Dracula.
And, yes, I hear the scoffing (you should really see a doctor about that): what’s the point? Everybody and their grandmother‘s uncle’s aunt (the one that died of “acute feminine hysteria” in 1908) knows Dracula. Cape, tux, fangs, “vants to suck your blood.” Done-zo. Talk about the “most recognized fictional beings list,” Drac’s gotta be in the top 20 - heck, top 10! A Ugandan farmer with a Sharpie could draw a caricature of the Count and it’d look a lot like one doodled by a tuk-tuk driver in Sri Lanka. Sure, the basics, the homogenized (and inaccurate) shorthand version of the character has spread around the globe, generation to generation, through cross-cultural osmosis, but I’d like to think the reason you’re reading this (and haven’t already scrolled to an article about Super Smash Brothers or the lasting legacy of the Thundercats - no judgment if you have) is that you’d like to know more in an attempt to fathom the ongoing impact of the Transylvanian nobleman who’s haunted us for the last 124 years (or 590, depending on who you ask).
And where to start? Oh come now, don’t you know me well enough by now? Where else would I drag you but to the beginning…
The O.G. novel, the Alpha, the source. From the fevered imagination of an Irishman named Mr. Bram Stoker, personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and a theater manager, a man whose knowledge of Transylvania extended no farther than his local library, came a tale not too revolutionary for its time. The tradition of gothic fiction had been well established and Dracula with its crumbling keep, mysterious, exotic antagonist, and its base theme of innocence versus threatened corruption was, well, nothing new. And Stoker certainly didn’t create the vampire, a folkloric staple of many cultures known by many names. But, while the blood-drinking undead made occasional appearances in high literature and poetry as well as the Victorian era’s popular fiction (i.e. penny dreadfuls), they were far from the ubiquitous supernatural terrors they would become after Stoker’s novel.
What made his book stand out amongst the pack of gothic potboilers was its titular character: a centuries old warlord in command of unholy powers mounting an invasion plan of the modern, “civilized” world who’s ultimately undone by his obsession with two (really, just one) local gals. Dracula, the character, is essentially a one-man plague coming to spread his darkness upon our comfortable, familiar world; a concept that still elicits chills.
The book, told through journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings (basically the “found footage” gimmick of its day), strives to ground its fantastic story in a relatable present (of the late 1880s, that is). The epistolary structure of the narrative, along with a sprinkling of cutting edge contemporary trappings (Psychiatry! Typewriters! The telegraph! Wax cylinder recording! Blood transfusions! Women with jobs!), gave the novel a type of verisimilitude that only helped make the unsettling supernatural happenings stand out that much more. It certainly worked; readers responded in force, making it a popular hit worldwide.
The actual literary merit of Dracula has long been debated, but never its impact. And I suggest it for newbies not just because it’s the starting point but because it’s still a great read.**
Technically not the first Dracula film, this classic from Universal is the one that not only kicked off that studio’s long, fruitful relationship with the horror genre, but also cemented the world’s visual image of Stoker’s creation thanks to an indelible performance by “the Hungarian Valentino” Bela Lugosi.
The film’s abundant liberties with the original story and its creaky pacing are both due to the fact that this version was based less on Stoker’s novel and more on a popular stage adaptation of the book - a touring Broadway production that had actually starred both Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as the Count’s adversary Abraham Van Helsing.
To today’s eyes, there’s a lot to mock here, but if you set aside your snark for a bit, you’ll appreciate the sumptuous set designs, the pervasive eeriness of Tod Browning’s direction, and a Dracula who is, at all times, a predatory outsider infiltrating modern society. Lugosi is charming, arrogant, and always dangerous. In short, whether or not he’s a letter perfect representation of the character Stoker described, he is Dracula.
Plus, Dwight Frye’s Renfield is a performance for the ages. Enjoy!***
I feel a little guilty doubling down on a shout-out from a very recent article (I just posted my treatise on Marvel Comics horror comics of the 1970s), but this comic run belongs on my list as well.
Marvel, or more specifically writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, picked up the reins of this character who, thanks to the public domain, had already been overused and overabused by pretty much every creative medium, and did the old guy justice in the garishly colored, “disposable” art form of comics.
Not to imply this classic series is a high-minded, self-serious affair. I mean, one of his greatest threats is the disembodied brain of a Chinese mad scientist named Dr. Sun. Yeah, it goes to some very weird, very comic book places over its 70 issues (plus tie-in mature readers magazines), but its characterization of the Count is always spot on. Even as his back story unfolds and moments of insight are provided, the temptation to soften Dracula is avoided. He was a man once and he lost everything, but those tragedies are superseded by the dark curse that made him nosferatu and the lust for power that made him king of the vampires.
As goofy as it can get, this version of the Count remains quintessential and delightful.
What? Who let some non-fiction into this list? Well, I did. My list, my rules.
This book by scholars Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu was one of the first attempts to tie together all of the threads of research into the Dracula phenomenon. It of course covers Stoker and the origins of his novel, but also tracks back to the biographical facts of the notorious/heroic (depending on whose side you were on) 15th century Romanian prince Vlad III whose popularized name Dracula (meaning “son of the dragon”) was plucked out of history by Stoker mainly because it sounded cool. They also cover the world’s vampire folklore and mythology to trace what bits might have coalesced into Stoker’s unique take on that supernatural standby.
In Search of Dracula was a hit at publication (there was even a 1974 documentary based on it narrated by Christopher Lee) and has been updated and revised a few times since. It, and the follow-up Dracula, Prince of Many Faces (which focuses exclusively on the historical Vlad the Impaler), are engrossing must-reads for the Drac curious.
I’m sure that many folks who come to Stoker’s original novel after years of passive absorption of the popular concept of the character will be surprised that the canonical version of Drac isn’t very seductive or romantic or tortured. TRIGGER WARNING: In fact, he’s pretty rapey. Even his own vampire brides lash out at him, saying, “You yourself never loved. You never love!” Though he comes back with, basically, “Do so, so there.”
The more romantic idea of Dracula (often hinging on the manufactured conceit of either Mina Harker or Lucy Westenra being the reincarnation of his long dead mortal love) was introduced primarily through various films, but perhaps the most wickedly clever take on the “softer side” of Dracula is this novel by well-established sci-fi author Fred Saberhagen.
Count Dracula, through Saberhagen, sets the record straight about what really happened in a tape recorded “confession” for the descendants of Jonathan and Mina Harker. (Yes, this book was published a year before Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire - I guess everybody was just cassette tape crazy in the mid ’70s.) What follows is a “correction” of Stoker’s novel in which Dracula, revealed to be an arch and sarcastic aristocrat who’s fully integrated into the 20th century, walks through the entire familiar plot and explains that Stoker and Van Helsing perpetuated a monstrous smear campaign against him. The truth, as he tells it, was a love story spoiled by jealous, superstitious and hypocritical third parties.
Why would I include a professional-level work of fan fiction that liberally recycles chunks of the original work in this list? Well, it could be because it does effectively highlight how malleable the iconic character is; how he can be (and has been) recast as misunderstood romantic hero or the basest Satanic villain and every shade in between while still being recognizably Dracula. Also, it may be because I loved this book as a kid.
Should you enjoy it yourself, feel free to delve into the series it spawned from Saberhagen, though only one other, The Holmes-Dracula File, rates my personal recommend.
Folks who know me and who have suffered late night drunken phone calls during which I opine at great length on such subjects, will be surprised to find this film on my list. I, as an obsessive fan of Dracula, have had many, many pointed criticisms about this film by Francis Ford Coppola. But for all of my nitpicks about jarring misfires in casting and art/costume design, I will fully admit this movie is a great intro to the character, his mystique, and the reasons he continues to fascinate. Especially when portrayed by the great Gary Oldman.
Despite the origin sequence explicitly establishing that Count Dracula is the former Prince Vlad III and the now almost expected inclusion of a reincarnation-based star-crossed romance, Coppola’s film is, to date, the most faithful cinematic version of Stoker’s original novel, far more so than Lugosi’s go sixty years previous. So what’s my beef with it? I think the reason this film irks me so greatly is that it’s so close to being great, to being definitive, that I am harsher on it than it deserves. I may have asked too much of this movie, but I’ve made my peace with it. Enough to own the 4K Ultra-HD blu ray of it, anyway.
A not-quite successful adaptation by an always experimental, pure genius filmmaker, a gothic, stylized tone that sweeps you through grand emotions of love, lust, and horror, and a central performance by one of the most magnetic and unpredictable actors of his day makes Bram Stoker’s Dracula an essential take on a timeless tale. At the end of the day, and as the most recent entry of my suggestions, this is a great place to start getting to know the vampire you thought you already knew.
There, these should give you plenty to chew on. Now go, you kooks! Get out there and make music with the children of the night! That blood ain’t gonna drink itself!
There have been countless Counts on the big and little screens since 1931 and most engaged in scenarios far removed from Stoker’s tale, but by and large these (often fun) exercises don’t leave much of an impression or add much to the canon. But I would be remiss not to include at least one recommendation featuring the only other actor to indelibly marry himself to the role on the same level as Bela Lugosi: Sir Christopher Lee.
This film, Hammer Film’s debut outing of Dracula, is a loose retelling of Stoker’s story anchored by the great Peter Cushing’s man-of-action take on Van Helsing. But it’s Lee that becomes a legit icon as a Dracula who looms like a cloaked column of malevolence. He’s courtly but can switch in a moment to a hissing beast. This is a clearly DTF Dracula, a lusty lad on the prowl and is much more prone to physical violence than previous screen Counts.
The Hammer Dracula films didn’t always serve the character or the actor well, but this introductory outing does illustrate why Lee is considered one of our greatest screen Draculas.[Dracula9.jpg]
What if Dracula’s plan to invade England had succeeded? What if he had won? That’s the background premise of this engaging novel by Kim Newman. Dracula, a foreign nobleman, has become Queen Victoria’s Royal Consort and his vampiric nature is not only publicly known but has quickly swept the globe as an acceptable lifestyle. Silver is outlawed. But the inciting incidents of the novel’s plot are the brutal, grisly murders of several vampire sex workers in Whitechapel. They’ve been dissected by a silver scalpel wielded by a serial killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper.” (SPOILER ALERT: the Ripper is revealed to be Dr. Jack Seward, Stoker’s psychiatrist, who never recovered from losing his beloved Lucy to Dracula.)
Yep, a vampiric take on the historic Ripper murders is the impetus to kick off a mystery/action/conspiracy thriller involving pre-existing fictional characters and historical personages of the Victorian era a la League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As grimly delightful as the book’s plot is, a lot of the fun is the Where’s Waldo-esque Easter egg hunt for indirectly name-dropped characters (my personal favorite, the Lone Ranger!).
This novel spawned several sequels that bounce through the eras and work in hundreds more references to a shared universe of well-(and less so)known characters, each one set in a world where a quarter of the populace is undead.
I love ‘em and the only reason I didn’t include this series in the main recommendations is that Dracula himself is very much a background figure with little page time and is used as a mystique-deflating symbol of what happens to a legend that gets all he wants and becomes something of a joke. It’s a credit to the fun construction of these books by Newman that I’m willing to forgive the disrespectful take on my boy Vlad and just enjoy the world he’s created.
This sugary breakfast delight which debuted in 1971 is still being made by General Mills though it mostly hits the shelves around Halloween. It adds nothing to the Dracula legacy, really, but it sure is tasty. Worth every cavity!
*Yeah, I know, what is it with me and superpowered dark-haired guys in capes? Years of analysis have brought me no answers.
** For extra credit, I recommend also digesting either or both outstanding annotated versions; The Annotated Dracula by Leonard Wolf (1975) and The New Annotated Dracula by Leslie S. Klinger (2008)
*** For more of my take on Universal’s 1931 Dracula, be sure to check out the first episode of the podcast I do with editor John Campbell: Campbell and Jones Meet the Monsters.
For more literary horror, check out Brendan's article on Marvel's horror comics, "Booga Booga Nights".