Dracul, the recently published prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written by his great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker, is a treat for both Dracula enthusiasts and Dracula scholars. The novel tells a fictional story about Bram Stoker’s childhood and early life from the 1850s through 1868, including his encounters with Dracula. Although the story is obviously fictional, the authors drew upon Stoker’s early versions of Dracula, including his handwritten notes, to create this spellbinding tale.
When the novel opens, Bram is a sickly child growing up in Ireland during the potato famine. He nearly dies at birth, but his nurse Ellen Crone saves him, although no one is quite sure how. She continues to care for him during his illnesses and the family notices that afterwards, as he grows stronger, she becomes weaker. Over time, Bram and his sister Matilda continue to notice strange things about Ellen. At one point, Bram sees her naked limbs, which have the appearance of those of a wrinkled old woman, although she seems fairly young. They investigate her room and find the floor dirty and dusty with no sign of footprints. Ellen realizes they are curious about her, so she taunts Bram for going out at night to investigate her wanderings, all the while climbing the walls and ceiling like a spider. Many other strange incidents occur that make it obvious Ellen is not human, but then she disappears from the children’s lives for many years.
I don’t want to give away the whole plot beyond that, but it’s sufficient to say that Ellen has had dealings with Dracula, and as a result, Bram also encounters the great vampire. I found the book entertaining, although some readers might find the novel far-fetched and not like it’s lack of being accurate to Stoker’s biography—I am not aware that Stoker ever had a nurse named Ellen and could not find evidence of her in the recent Stoker biography by David J. Skal, Something in the Blood, or that he ever traveled to Munich to fight vampires. Regardless, the authors raise some interesting questions about Stoker’s writing of Dracula and the possibility that it was based on real events. Consequently, the novel’s afterword alone makes Dracul worth reading.
I won’t go into full details about the afterword, but here are a few points worth mentioning. At the end of Dracul, Dracula warns Stoker that he will be back to claim him when he dies. Of course, this is supposition on the authors’ part, but in the afterword they note that Stoker had himself cremated, which was unusual in 1912. The suggestion is that Stoker may have feared becoming a vampire like the corpse of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. More significantly, in the original manuscript of Dracula, which was titled The Un-Dead, Stoker wrote a preface in which he states that the novel’s events really took place. Of course, this literary trick—the claim that the book was based on true events to make fiction feel real—was around long before Stoker. Such claims were an effort to validate fiction and make it more reputable, as well as more interesting to readers. For example, in the early days of the novel, Daniel Defoe claimed Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a true story and Samuel Richardson claimed Pamela (1740) was a compilation of real letters. Neither claim was true, so there is no reason to believe Stoker’s tale had any truth to it either. Regardless, it’s fun—in a scary way—to think it might be.
For me, the most fascinating thing about Dracul’s afterword is how it builds on the recent scholarship that revealed the version of Dracula published in Iceland, known there as Makt Myrkranna and recently translated into English as Powers of Darkness, with a preface by Dacre Stoker, is not the same version of Dracula we have in English. According to Dracul’s afterword, Stoker’s publisher made him do serious revisions to the novel, including cutting the first 101 pages and changing the title, plus toning down the idea that it was based on true events. The publisher feared the Whitechapel murders of 1888-1891, blamed on Jack the Ripper, were still fresh enough in people’s minds that claims of vampires in England might cause a panic. (This fear may seem far-fetched to us, but let’s not forget the panic stirred up by Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of A War of the Worlds in 1938.)
Stoker, to get his novel published, went along with his publisher’s desire for changes for his English reading audience, but he did not make the changes to copies of the novel he personally sent to publishers worldwide. As a result, Powers of Darkness is a very different novel from Dracula in many ways, and in the afterword to Dracul, Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker suggest more foreign editions of Dracula need to be translated to see what other changes were made.
Also of importance is that the original manuscript of The Un-Dead still exists, minus its first 101 pages. The authors of Dracul state that it is now owned by Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft. He allowed them to view the manuscript after signing a disclosure agreement not to reveal what was in it. They can only disclose that the short story “Dracula’s Guest” is from the original manuscript and also that the manuscript begins on page 102, the page number of which has been crossed out and renumbered as 1. Stoker apparently cut the first 101 pages of the novel and they have been long missing, which is one reason Powers of Darkness is so interesting since Jonathan Harker’s time in Dracula’s castle is extended in that version.
Of course, the discovery of Powers of Darkness was a field day for Dracula scholars. Hopefully, more foreign editions of Dracula will be translated and published, but more importantly, we can hope that The Un-Dead will eventually be published. Unfortunately, Paul Allen died on October 15, 2018, so the fate of The Un-Dead will remain to be seen.
Finally, what fascinates me most is that anyone who has read Stoker’s other novels will admit that despite a few stirring passages, they largely fall flat beside Dracula. Certainly, as fascinating as Powers of Darkness is from a scholarly perspective, the writing is far from first-rate, and that can be said of most of Stoker’s other novels. I think this difference lies largely in the revision process Stoker went through to get Dracula published in England. According to Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker, Stoker’s editor, Otto Kyllman, worked with him for several months to reshape the novel, the two butting heads over what to cut and what to save. I had never heard of Kyllman before, but he seems to have been very astute as an editor. Surprisingly, he did not die until 1958, which means he must have been extraordinarily young when he was Stoker’s editor at Archibald Constable & Company. Unfortunately, I could find little online about Kyllman. His Wikipedia entry does not even give his birthdate, but it says he was the senior director at Constable & Co. from 1909 to 1950. This is a man whose editing career spanned more than half a century and who worked closely with such authors as George Bernard Shaw and May Sinclair. Surprisingly, Kyllman is not even mentioned in Skal’s biography of Stoker. While I don’t want to downplay Stoker’s genius in creating Dracula, one has to wonder how much credit Kyllman deserves for the Dracula we have today. It is definitely a topic that deserves more exploration.
Dracul is a fun read for those who like novelizations about famous authors, but it’s more than that—in a roundabout way, it helps to add another piece to the mystery of Dracula and how it came to be the incredible novel it is, one that has captivated our imaginations for 121 years and counting.
Thank you to Robert Burke for bringing Dracul to my attention.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.