It happened today - May 26, 2015
On May 26, back in 1897, Dracula first came to death. The most famous vampire in literature, linked more or less randomly to the historical Vlad Tepes, flapped, glided and crept into popular culture and never left.
Dracula was not the first vampire in fiction, let alone folklore. And he was certainly not the last. Arguably we have seen too many vampires including the Twilight (The Twilight Saga) series and even worse. But I defy all but the most hardened aficionado even to name Stoker’s predecessors without Googling (if you do, you’ll find “Sheridan Le Fanu's 1871 Carmilla", about a lesbian vampire” and “Varney the Vampire, a lengthy penny dreadful serial from the mid-Victorian period by James Malcolm Rymer”) and none would have inspired the flood of blood-suckers good, bad and ugly we have seen since, from Legosi’s Dracula to Tom Cruise’s Lestat to William Marshall’s Blacula to Buffy and Lincoln slaying… no. I can’t go on. Even though I actually watched Blacula in a drive-in theatre on a double bill with Thing With Two Heads. We all have our shameful secrets. But I digress.
What is remarkable is that Stoker was able to create such an iconic figure. As with Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, the scale of his achievement is such that his novel launched not just imitators but a whole genre. In fact the novel Dracula sold decently but was not a cultural event during Stoker’s lifetime; his 1912 obituaries didn’t even mention it by name. But it really caught on with a 1920s Broadway adaptation (one shudders to imagine it) and then of course with Lugosi’s adaptation which, curiously, is almost as unwatchable today as Nosferatu whereas the novel holds up well, being close to a masterpiece in execution and definitely a masterpiece in conception. Unlike Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, which started strong but fizzled. There is something so compelling in the central vision that it has survived everything in including the endless parodies (think Leslie Nielson in Dracula - Dead and Loving It) that a true classic inspires.
Would it matter if Stoker had originally given the main character the intended and distinctly campy name “Count Wampyr” before stumbling across “Dracula” in a now long forgotten book on Wallachia and Moldavia at a book in a public library? It is difficult to say; so many things have to go right to create a genuine cultural icon and in Dracula they did. Our view of vampires is, forever, Stoker’s view, even if Dracula is killed in the novel using metal rather than the standard wooden stake (shades of “Garlic doesn’t work!” from The Lost Boys?) Or what if he had given up on the project, or died as a child?
Clearly vampires speak to something deep inside us, some instinctive dread coupled with unclean fascination. But they would not speak nearly as loudly or often as they do were it not for Stoker.