Monthly Archives: October 2020

A Pre-Dracula Vampire Novel—The Pobratim: A Slav Novel

The Pobratim: A Slav Novel was published in 1895. When I first heard of it, I thought it was a translation of an original Slav novel, but it was actually written by “Prof. P. Jones,” which makes me think he was British, Jones being a Welsh name. I have been unable to learn anything about Professor P. Jones beyond the few clues the book offers. The novel was published by H.S. Nichols, a printer in Soho Square in London, and dedicated to Prince Nicholas of Montenegro. This would be Nicholas I of Montenegro (1841-1921), who was prince of that land from 1860-1910 and king from 1910-1918. The date and place given in the dedication is Trieste and June 17, 1895, which suggests the author lived abroad at the time. Clearly, Professor Jones knew a great deal about the Balkans and traveled through them. After all, Trieste is in modern Italy near Slovenia. In this article, I will provide a plot summary of the novel since almost nothing about it can be found online. I hope this article will create greater interest in it among readers and scholars.

Of course, the only reason most people would be interested in The Pobratim is that it contains a vampire and was published two years before Dracula. I only discovered it myself because it was mentioned by Andrew Boylan in his introduction to James Lyons’ translation of After Ninety Years, a Serbian vampire novella from 1880. Although The Pobratim is a pre-Dracula novel, I do not believe it influenced Stoker. I still think it interesting, though I would not regard it as a vampire novel but a novel about the Slavs that has a vampire in it.

“Pobratim” is the Slavic word for “blood brothers.” The novel’s focus is on the friendship of two young Slavic men, Milenko and Uros. Set in the nineteenth century, it appears to be written primarily to depict Slavic folklore and customs. One custom, common to the Balkans, is that of blood brothers. The novel begins with the two friends becoming blood brothers. In the United States, we might equate this with slitting the wrists of two friends and comingling their blood, but in the Balkans, it is a more formal ceremony. The two men actually swear to be lifelong blood brothers in a church ceremony. This ceremony includes a “best man” for each brother and is described as being like a “marriage.” It is a lifelong bond that is created that must never be rent asunder, and during the ceremony, the two friends even hold hands and kiss each other. Twenty-first century readers would raise their eyes at all this and think of same-sex wedding ceremonies, but our two heroes are strictly heterosexual here.

Prior to the pobratim ceremony, Uros and Milenko have been friends from childhood, but an old woman predicts that tragedy will part them. That tragedy is set in motion when Uros falls in love with Milena, a married woman. Uros and Milenko decide to become sailors and leave their home, which seems largely to be to get Uros away from Milena. Milena is married to Radonic, a violent and unlikeable man. Radonic is friends with Vranic, who has the second sight and is rather disliked in the community. Uros and Vranic are both aware that the other is interested in Milena, although Radonic is not yet suspicious of either.

The pobratim now sail off. Eventually they are involved in rescuing a shipwrecked family, including a young woman named Ivanka. They learn Ivanka’s father was good friends with Uros’ father many years before. The two fathers had once sworn that Uros and Ivanka would marry. However, Ivanka’s father confuses Milenko with Uros, and Milenko has fallen in love with Ivanka. Uros, as a result, acts obnoxious to get Ivanka’s father to dislike him and agree to marry Ivanka to Milenko instead. Besides, Uros is not interested in marrying anyone except Milena, whom he cannot have.

When the pobratim return home, Uros again begins seeing Milena. One day, when Radonic goes on a journey, Milena goes to visit Uros’ mother. Vranic, thinking he will catch Milena home alone and have his way with her, goes to Radonic’s house. However, Radonic, suspecting his wife of adultery, returns home and finds Vranic there. He claims he is there to protect Milena from Uros, but Radonic knows Vranic is after his wife and murders him.

Radonic now goes into hiding. The novel, in its interest in depicting Slavic life, goes into detail about what happens next. A “Karvarina” ensues—this is rather like the weregild of Anglo-Saxon culture—where a murderer is forgiven after paying a price for the dead man’s life. Radonic’s friends go to Vranic’s two brothers and manage finally to convince them to forgive Radonic in exchange for payment. The scene is one of the best in the novel as they go through the formalities of this process, the brothers claiming their brother is worth a great deal, even though the narrator tells us they hated him, and in the end, because everyone hated Vranic, the brothers receive very little.

Vranic’s spirit, however, is not happy. He returns in the form of a vampire and begins to torment one of his brothers—the novel gets confusing here since the brother is also referred to as Vranic (I’ll call him Vranic 2). The townspeople come to realize Vranic has become a vampire so they go through a ceremony where they dig up the corpse, say prayers over it, and then require Vranic 2 to stab his brother. However, it is dark and the clouds make it hard to see. He is supposed to stab his brother’s corpse in the neck, but he bungles it and only gets his cheek. As a result, the villagers are angry with him and he’s told his brother will now have eternal life as a vampire.

Vranic continues to torment Vranic 2, telling him he will soon be a vampire too and enjoy it. Vranic 2 is now urged on by Vranic to kill Bellenic, Uros’ father, which results in Vranic 2, in the scuffle, stabbing Uros, who tries to defend his father. Vranic flees the scene, horrified that he has committed murder. He finds it even more scary because he didn’t want to kill anyone but found that the vampire forced him to act against his will.

Meanwhile, Milenko comes to Uros’ aid, carrying his friend to a nearby convent to be nursed. Believing Uros is dying, his parents visit him and they manage to sneak Milena into the convent, disguised as a boy. By this point, Milena has learned that Radonic has died, and she has also given birth to his dead child. Uros’ dying request is that he and Milena may be married, which the monks finally agree to. Uros then dies, and Milenko returns to sea.

Vranic 2 has also fled to sea and now works on various ships. Eventually, Vranic 2 and Milenko’s paths cross again when Milenko’s ship comes to the aid of Vranic 2’s ship during a storm. Vranic 2 is in the water about to drown when he realizes Milenko is rescuing him. He then cuts the rope he has tied around himself in an attempt to rescue him because he fears Milenko’s retribution. He is never seen again, presumably drowning.

Milenko now receives a letter from Uros that he has not died. He fell into a state of unconsciousness and was about to be buried when he was able to waken and be restored to life.

The novel ends with joy as the characters celebrate Milenko and Ivanka’s novel.

The author, unfortunately, seems to forget that Vranic, the vampire, is still on the loose. However, in Slavic culture, vampires tend to torment their relatives, and so with Vranic 2’s death—nothing is ever said of what became of the other brother—apparently Vranic is no longer a threat to the community.

I have summarized the main plot here, but the novel is filled with interrupting stories and poems of Slavic folklore and myth that the characters are continually telling to one another. In some cases, these stories appear to be commentary upon the main plot or the novel’s themes. At other times, the stories seem to be included simply to delay the action or provide a break from the emotion and suspense. One such story is a narrative poem about St. George. The other stories would not be recognizable to English readers, but they are all entertaining. I do not know if P. Jones drew upon actual Slavic stories or made up the stories he included. Since the tale of St. George is included, I suspect many, if not all, of the other stories have some origins in Slavic folklore. Most contain supernatural elements, including a bargain with the devil, and some are love stories.

Oddly, the book ends with a list of “transcriber” corrections, which mostly are things like missing periods the “transcriber” added.

While Vranic is far from as effective a vampire as Dracula, or even earlier vampires in British literature like James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire or John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the novel itself is very interesting because it reflects an interest in the Balkans in Britain that predates Stoker, although is after LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872) which is also set in the Balkans. Overall, The Pobratim is very readable and interesting, which makes me surprised it is not more generally known, especially among Dracula scholars and vampire enthusiasts. I hope someone will do further work to reveal more about who P. Jones was and his reasons for writing the novel.

The Pobratim can be purchased in paperback and ebook formats at Amazon.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Postcolonial Edition of Dracula Fills in Gaps and Dispels Myths About Eastern Europe

Universitas Press’ publication of Dracula: The Postcolonial Edition, edited by Cristina Artenie and Dragos Moraru, is one of the most significant editions of Dracula ever produced.

I have previously discussed on this blog three of Artenie’s other books, most notably Dracula: A Study of Editorial Practices, which discusses the shortcomings of various past editors and editions of Dracula. Artenie, consequently, along with Moraru, created her own postcolonial edition of the novel.

The term “postcolonial” might seem surprising in relation to Dracula, but it is based on the fact that Romania, although never technically a colony, was usually treated like one by the British and other European powers. The British saw the Balkans as the breadbasket of Europe, and their interests in it resulted in some questionable politics ranging from the Crimean War to power plays with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Consequently, Romania was treated as if it were a colony, and arguments have been made by scholars that the novel reflects a fear of reverse colonialism if too many people from the Balkans come to England. Dracula’s vampirism is, thus, like a plague from Eastern Europe that must be prevented by the characters.

The entire text of Dracula is presented in the postcolonial edition. The book contains 528 footnotes illuminating the text. Many of the notes shed light on details of Victorian England, as well as technology, and the novel’s continual efforts to show Western civilization as technologically advanced and, therefore, superior to Eastern Europe and the Eastern or “Oriental” countries.

The book also points out and corrects several errors in earlier editions of Dracula that have often unknowingly been perpetuated as well as false information that other editors have provided. Overall, the main purpose has been to “avoid any justification or enhancement of Stoker’s ‘Othering’ of Romania and Transylvania” (Introduction, p. xxvii).

To me, the greatest strength of this edition is the simple history lesson it provides into Romania and what it really was like in the 1890s. Photographs are provided showing hotels in Romania at the time that were up to par with other fine European hotels. Much of the technology in the novel is treated as if it solely belongs to the West, ranging from shorthand to photography, yet the editors of this edition show that photography in Romania had been prominent and advanced decades earlier and shorthand was regularly used.

The editors also reveal that Stoker intentionally has Harker travel through the countryside during the day and only arrive at cities at night, thus he is unable to describe the cities, thereby removing any sign of their being just as civilized as the West. Harker stays in Bistritz where the innkeeper warns him not to go on to Dracula’s castle. The innkeeper is depicted as a superstitious peasant, yet Bistritz was a modern, flourishing town at the time. Because Harker travels through cities mostly at night, he would never get to see pleasant daytime scenes like the café scene depicted on the front cover of this edition of Bistritz at the turn of the century.

Another stereotype exposed in this edition, as part of the “othering” of Romanians that Stoker creates, is the superstition of the local people. The Romanian and Transylvanian characters are continually depicted as superstitious compared to the English main characters. However, the novel can easily be deconstructed to show perhaps that the peasants are wiser than the English characters. After all, in Stoker’s world, vampires are real and the peasants have had dealings with them, so they are intelligent enough to be cautious of vampires. As the editors point out later in the novel when the characters are pursuing Dracula—and particularly when Mina is herself becoming a vampire—Mina thinks nothing of commenting on how superstitious the people are. As the editors state in note 515, “Few sentences in the novel are as ridiculous as ‘They are very, very superstitious’ coming from someone turning into a vampire.”

The novel can be deconstructed around this dismissal of superstition since the vampires are real in the novel; consequently, the West is not wise but foolish to dismiss such beliefs. Furthermore, for all the focus on science and technology in the novel, it is only superstitious practices—using Catholic crosses, holy water, Eucharistic wafers—that are able to defeat Dracula along with old-fashioned violence. Quincey Morris, who commits the final murder of Dracula, is himself a hero of the Wild West, and thus, he goes to Romania like it is an exotic, uncivilized land where violence is necessary like in the Wild West to maintain law and order.

Another interesting aspect of this edition is that it reveals how Stoker not only argues for Western and especially British superiority but also the superiority of the upper classes. The editors point out that the English lower class characters are just as superstitious as the Romanians. Furthermore, the lower classes, like the Romanians, and even a Jewish character, continually must be bribed so the main characters can make progress in discovering Dracula’s whereabouts. By comparison, an English gentleman, the consulate clerk, whom the main characters encounter at Galatz, willingly helps them.

Altogether, I think anyone interested in Romania and what Stoker actually knew about it, as well as how he used his research to create fiction, will find this an extremely valuable edition. Stoker’s reading and sources are continually referenced and discussed. Information is provided on everything from Romanian and Transylvanian recipes and hotels to train schedules. The notes are especially thorough and fascinating in the opening chapter of Harker’s journey.

My only criticism of this edition is a lack of maps to show us Jonathan Harker’s journey and later the characters’ pursuit of Dracula across the Balkans. Such maps can be found online, one of the better ones being: https://infocult.typepad.com/dracula/2009/05/harker-travels-east-via-google-maps.html. However, people not familiar with Romania’s geography could have benefited from one in the front of the book so they could have easily followed along with the characters.

Overall, Dracula: The Postcolonial Edition is a long-overdue book that dispels many myths about the Romanian people and the levels of technology that existed in Eastern Europe at the time Stoker published the novel. I know I will return to it time and time again for illumination about the text. It will not only bring new understanding to Stoker’s novel and his writing process but is a vindication for the Romanian people and will hopefully encourage readers to discover the beauty and culture of Romania as it exists outside the pages of Dracula. Having visited Romania myself, I can testify that there is much more there worth seeing and experiencing than just a vampire legend that is not even native to the land. The difference between Stoker’s fictional world and the real Romania is like night and day as anyone will discover who visits that beautiful land.

Dracula: The Postcolonial Edition, as well as other works by Cristina Artenie and Dragos Moraru, is available at www.UniversitasPress.com.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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An Unusual Vampire Novel: Richard Laymon’s Bite

I am no expert on horror writer Richard Laymon (1947-2001), but a friend encouraged me to read his vampire novels, and while I don’t find a lot to write about in them, I do find a lot to enjoy. Earlier this year, I reviewed The Traveling Vampire Show (2000), probably Laymon’s best-known vampire novel, but he wrote two others, The Stake (1990) and Bite (1996). I have yet to read The Stake, so I’ll only discuss Bite here.

Like The Traveling Vampire Show, Bite is low on vampire appearances, and although it’s been described as horror, it is not really scary. Therefore, some vampire and Gothic or horror fiction fans might be disappointed by it, but what it lacks in vampires, it makes up for in a suspenseful, sexually-charged story that keeps the reader turning the pages, constantly wanting to know what will happen next.

In The Traveling Vampire Show, Laymon holds the suspense as the characters go through the day anticipating the vampire show that evening. In Bite, he does the opposite, having the vampire show up in the very beginning. I will not summarize all of the plot so I don’t give too much away. I’ll just say there is a vampire and the main characters, Sammy and Cat, have to kill him and then find a way to dispose of the body so they are not accused of murder—though killing a vampire may seem justified, who will believe them that their murder victim was a vampire?

The novel opens when Sammy finds Cat at his door. She wants him to help her kill the vampire who has been attacking her for the last year. Sammy and Cat are in their late twenties and dated in high school. Vampires aside, their relationship is really the meat of the novel and what ends up most interesting to the reader. Sammy is the narrator throughout, and it is clear from the start that he has never gotten over Cat. He is still highly sexually attracted to her, and so he is very willing to help her get rid of a vampire and all the mess that results from it. Plus, unlike in The Traveling Vampire Show where Laymon shied away from actual sex scenes because his characters were teenagers, these adults are able to have plenty of sex, even at some of the most unlikely times.

Once the vampire, named Elliot, is killed, the disposal of the body fills the bulk of the novel. Sammy and Cat decide to bury the body out of state, and so begins a road trip that will be filled with disasters, violence, and many twists and turns. Laymon is a master at keeping the suspense going and the reader guessing what will happen next.

Anyone who likes a suspenseful ride will not be disappointed. I didn’t miss the lack of a (living) vampire throughout most of the novel simply because there was so much else to keep me interested.

My only complaint is that while we have a great villain, why does he have to be gay and a pervert? Sure, gay people can be villains, but they can be villainous bank robbers or counterfeiters or carjackers—instead, there seems to be a trend of them always being perverts, and I find that offensive. Such is also the case in Outlander, as I’ve written about previously. In any case, these gay characters end up being more like vampires than the vampires themselves, which perhaps is intended by the author. In that respect, we can say Laymon was a product of his time, and he may have been more sensitive had he written the book today. That said, homophobia has been at the heart of the Gothic at least since Bram Stoker’s time as many a literary critic of Dracula will tell you.

Regardless of its flaws, the story in Bite does what it sets out to do—entertains—and it entertains extremely well.

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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, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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