Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula, has been endlessly re-interpreted by film-makers ever since the first – unauthorised – version, Nosferatu, appeared in 1922. Stoker’s widow sued the German production company, and in doing so created the publicity which led to a surge of interest in the novel.
After good reviews at the time of its publication in 1897, Stoker’s novel was hardly a success in terms of sales. It languished in obscurity until the court case, but has rarely been out of print since.
I first read the novel, Dracula, in my late teens, after seeing a film adaptation starring Christopher Lee as the Count, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. The film prompted me to read the book, which I found more subtle in its horror and – thanks to the importance of Whitby to the tale – more intriguing.
Dracula’s arrival in Whitby is one of the novel’s most dramatic episodes. Everyone remembers the wreck of the Russian ship, the crew all dead, and the great hound leaping ashore. The description is so alive, the storm so vivid, it seems like something that really happened.
As a Yorkshire lass, I wondered why Whitby? Count Dracula was travelling from Varna, a port on the Black Sea – such a journey would have taken the ship via the Mediterranean and English Channel to the North Sea. If the little port of Whitby had been the Count’s ultimate destination, fair enough; but it was not. Why, I asked myself, did the author not choose Falmouth, for instance, one of the most southerly ports in Britain?
The answer is probably that Stoker hadn’t visited Falmouth, but – as I discovered years later – he did know Whitby.
Shipwrecks abound along that coast, but the wreck described in the book is curious. Stoker’s Demeter, of Varna, appears to have been taken directly from an actual wreck which occurred during a violent storm off Whitby in October 1885 – the Dmitry of Narva, a port on the Baltic…
The name leapt out at me while leafing through a book of photographs by the 19thC photographer, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. His picture of the Russian ship, beached on the sands by Tate Hill Pier, led me to an account of the day’s events published in the Whitby Gazette. Comparing that with Stoker’s description of how his Russian ship came into the harbour, suddenly I could picture him watching as the drama unfolded.
I re-read Stoker’s novel and began my research in earnest. Whitby’s 19th century remoteness, its dramatic location with church, graveyard and ruined Abbey standing atop the cliffs, made it popular with Stoker and the London literati – while local characters, retired seafarers, and strange folk tales of the un-dead, had clearly provided the author with a stock of material. Certainly, the great spectral hound – the Barghest – said to haunt both the town and moors, was utilised in Dracula to great effect.
I found Bram Stoker a fascinating man of great energy and imagination. Born in Dublin, he trained as a barrister, and in his 25 years as business manager to the Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving, Stoker combined the attributes of lawyer, accountant, secretary and playwright. In his spare moments – largely on holiday – Stoker wrote novels, most of which would have been better if only he’d devoted more time to them.
The exception, of course, is his novel Dracula, which everyone knows but few people have read. Nowadays we tend to regard it as a Gothic novel – and yet Stoker was at pains to anchor it as a ‘modern’ work, set very clearly in the last decade of the 19th century. The young solicitor Jonathan Harker records his observations in shorthand; in the Count’s library he discovers a Bradshaw’s Railway Guide; he mentions a Kodak camera, and that his fiancée Mina is a working woman. For the Victorian reader, these up-to-the-minute details would have made Dracula’s ancient evil even more unsettling.
Through Harker’s diary we meet the Count as an old man – tall, thin, white-haired. By the end of the opening chapters, however, when the Count is preparing to leave on his journey to England, he has become mysteriously younger and far more virile.
From this point on we are back in England and firmly in the ‘modern’ world. The story unfolds through a collection of papers: diary entries, official reports, letters, telegrams, and newspaper accounts. The order in which they appear gives the impression of snapshots capturing the movements of a nightmare being.
Stoker doesn’t spell it out – he heightens the suspense by suggestion, leaving the reader to assume the worst. Dracula’s visits to Lucy Westenra in Whitby are conveyed by mere glimpses – the bat, the gleaming red eyes of a figure seen close by – enough for us to suspect the cause of Lucy’s ‘illness’.
The author’s descriptions of her subsequent ‘treatment’ by Dr Seward and Prof Van Helsing, suggest the kind of intimacy Victorian readers would have found titillating. Radical action and blood transfusions prove to be in vain, however: Lucy has to die in order to carry the story forward.
The scene in which the group of male friends and lovers kill the vampire Lucy has become, is conveyed in prose that today reads like a description of perverted sexual penetration. And again, with the return to the story of Jonathan Harker and Mina – now married – Stoker describes Dracula’s visit to their marriage-bed in shockingly erotic prose.
The modern reader is more sophisticated, of course, and able to spot references that Stoker’s original audience may have missed. But this is no doubt the content that has set film-makers down the route of love, lust, possession and sexual aberration.
But Dracula the novel is far more than that. Like an early James Bond, it concerns the abuse of power, with a few brave warriors willing to risk life and soul in the fight against this superhuman enemy. It plays on Victorian fears – of invasion, of the occult, of sex. Most of all perhaps, fear of powerful, dominant male figures.
Stoker was living in London when the Ripper murders were happening – those bloody, sex-associated crimes almost certainly informed his story. He was also a visitor to the little port of Whitby, which – before the advent of the railway – had more direct connections with northern Europe than with the rest of the UK.
And, legends aside, who inspired the central character? My choice is Henry Irving, Stoker’s friend and employer. Irving fits the description like a glove: aquiline features and autocratic manner; his passion for sitting up talking all night after a performance at the Lyceum; and most of all, his ability on stage to transform himself into another being. As Stoker once reported, ‘his eyes were like cinders glowing red…’
Perhaps Stoker had Irving in mind all along? He did a rough script adaptation to protect the copyright, but although the Lyceum company did a run-through of the play, Irving refused to play the part of the Count. Perhaps it was too much off-stage – the part not big enough for a star of his magnitude. But his one comment, ‘Dreadful!’ must have cut the writer to the quick.
Regarding Irving, it’s impossible not to see the Count’s blood-sucking activities as a metaphor for the actor’s ability to feed off other people’s creativity. Famous, powerful, the first actor to be knighted, Irving demanded, and got, everything from the people around him. He could not have succeeded without Stoker’s wide-ranging talents and steadfast friendship. In the end, Irving sucked Stoker dry – and then dropped him.
Their relationship fascinated me. Irving, hypnotic, powerful; and Stoker his star-struck acolyte, working literally all hours to further the great man’s career.
The rush of possibilities fired my imagination, turning vague ideas into dramatic scenarios. As it happened, I was living in Whitby for several weeks of a long hot summer, walking the town and cliffs, learning the place as well as its history. I was already thinking of my next book – something to do with fisherlasses and photographers – and in fact Moon Rising could have turned into a Victorian romance between a young woman and sophisticated stranger. But the man became Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Once he entered the scene, my story became much darker.
In Moon Rising, Stoker has reached breaking point, escaping to Whitby before his life in London tips him over the edge. Young Damsy Sterne, photographer’s model, attracts his attention, and thus begins a month-long affair which changes the course of both their lives. Stoker’s psychology, his work and writing, are part of the warp and weft of the tale, as is the genesis of that immortal classic, Dracula.
To me, Whitby was central to Stoker and his novel, but in the 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the little port features not at all. In 1995 I asked around, and discovered that permission to film in the graveyard had been refused. Probably by the Reverend incumbent at the time, and no doubt backed up by the Bishop. But it seems to have been a popular decision, certainly with local historians.
Although my questions were legitimate, every time I mentioned Stoker, I found immediate resistance. ‘Whitby isn’t just about that man and his novel,’ seemed to be a standard protest.
Ironically, by the time my novel was published in 2000, the Whitby Goth Weekend, held in the autumn, had become a regular event…
I wonder what Mr Stoker would have thought of that?
Moon Rising, first published by Chatto & Windus in 2000, will be appearing as an ebook in November 2015.