10.30.09

Stoker Family Values

A slasher-flick screenwriter and Bram Stoker’s great-grand nephew have written the first “official” Dracula novel since the 1897 original. Matthew Shaer on the pair resurrecting the Count.

In 1901, Bram Stoker appended a new introduction to the Icelandic edition of Dracula, his most famous novel. The events contained in the book, Stoker deadpanned, were no act of imagination. Not only did the dread count exist historically, but he was still un-dead—his reign of terror was not yet complete.

Stoker, a lifelong student of the theater, loved this sort of metafictional gag. He was a master of the shifting perspective—the whole of Dracula is epistolary, with no third-person narration—and he preferred to leave his books open-ended. (In the final pages of Dracula, the title character is stabbed with a Bowie knife. He melts into a fine Transylvanian dust, but as many scholars have pointed out, the conclusion is tantalizingly ambiguous—to really kill a vampire, you need a wooden stake.)

“My family was always proud of its heritage, but it wasn’t like there was a lot of vampire memorabilia lying around the house,” says Stoker.

A few years ago, a screenwriter named Ian Holt stumbled across the 1901 Icelandic introduction, and decided to write a sequel, picking up where Stoker had left off. “Stoker was ingenious,” Holt told me recently. “He never let the reader escape those diary entries and journals. He worked to make you believe, and in the process, he left so many loopholes in his stories. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I can probably fill those loopholes.’”

Holt started with a simple, provocative conceit: What if Dracula had survived the events of Bram Stoker’s original novel?

shaer---dracula-the-undead
Dracula: The Un-Dead. By Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt. 432 pages. Dutton Adult. $26.95 ()

Holt, who speaks a thick New York accent, has been writing screenplays for more than a decade. He specializes in thrillers (in one of his scripts, a woman falls in love with her rapist) and low-budget horror flicks, few of which have been produced. IMDB describes his 2005 slasher film Dr. Chopper as the story of five young friends who “run afoul of a group of motorcycle-riding madwomen led by the sadistic, knife-wielding plastic surgeon Dr. Fielding.”

But he is also an amateur historian of some note, and as a younger man, Holt temporarily left New York for Boston, where he befriended the eminent Dracula scholars Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally. (Florescu, famously, claims to be distantly related to Vlad the Impaler, the basis for Stoker’s count.) Holt knew he had the depth of knowledge to write a good Dracula sequel, but he was also a realist; he wasn’t going to get his proposal in front of a major publisher on the strength of Dr. Chopper alone.

He needed a hook, and in 2002, Holt, now 40, began reaching out to members of the Stoker clan, which today is scattered across the United States and lower Canada. He was flatly turned down by Bram’s great-grandson Patrick Stoker, who rightly pointed out the Stoker name had not exactly been treated kindly by the passing of years. (In the ‘30s, the Stokers failed to stop Dracula from slipping into the public domain. The family has since had no artistic control over any Dracula-related works, including the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)

Holt next reached out to Dacre Stoker, a great-grand nephew of Bram’s. Dacre, an affable South Carolina schoolteacher, was born in Canada—he once served as the coach of the Canadian Olympic Pentathlon team—and in the ‘90s, he had drifted south with his family. He was a volunteer with a local search and rescue team, a certified First Aid instructor, a fly-fishing enthusiast, and the executive director of a land trust northeast of Augusta. He was everything, in other words, except for a writer.

“As a teacher, you write course outlines, and multiple report cards, and I’d done some newsletter writing for voluntary organizations,” Stoker, 51, said in a phone conversation from his South Carolina home. “But I never even considered writing a novel.” There were other obstacles, as well: Stoker hadn’t read Dracula until college, and even then he found the book “a little bit difficult to get into.”

“My family was always proud of its heritage, but it wasn’t like there was a lot of vampire memorabilia lying around the house,” Stoker explained somewhat sheepishly. “At Halloween, people would say, ‘Hey, are you related to this guy?’ And as I got older, there were the Bloody Mary jokes. It might have been different if we’d retained the Dracula copyright. As it was, we didn’t harp too much on the celebrity of our ancestor. We wanted to make a name for ourselves.”

Still, Holt persisted—Stoker calls their early correspondence a “writerly courtship”—and in 2006, the two men began sketching an outline for a sequel, based in part on Bram Stoker’s notes to the original 1897 novel. They went through one draft, and then another, and then a third, and when the manuscript began to cohere, they shipped the bulk of it off to a company called Writer’s Lifeline, which revises books to make them more marketable. (Motto: “Turning Writers into Bestsellers!”)

Two years later, Dracula: The Undead, having been futzed with by two writers, a manager, and a team of tune-up specialists, was purchased by Dutton in what Publishers Weekly called a “well over mid-seven figure” deal. According to Holt, Dutton editors offered the authors a couple of hours to decide whether or not to sign; the scene, Holt joked, was “like something out of a movie.”

Dutton clearly knows what it has on its hands. These are halcyon days for vampire art—books by Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer crowd the heights of the bestseller lists; The Vampire Diaries is off to the best series start in the history of the CW network; and tickets to New Moon, the latest film based on Meyer’s Twilight series, are selling out weeks before the official premiere.

The six-figure marketing campaign for Dracula: The Undead, which will be released on Tuesday, is designed to snag the same young demographic that has driven the vampire boom—Dutton is going heavy on social network promotion, email blasts, and a string of convention appearances by the authors. (Although Holt and Stoker split the writing, Stoker gets top billing on the hardcover edition of The Un-Dead; he is meant to be the star attraction at this particular circus.)

The Un-Dead opens in 1912, years after the close of Dracula, with the now-decrepit Dr. Seward swinging like an arthritic Indiana Jones across the rooftop of a villa on the French Mediterranean. He is there to stalk Bathory, a lesbian vampire queen with “a voluptuous feminine figure” and a “masculine strength.” Predictably, chaos ensues. Bathory dispatches poor old Seward; pretty soon, a mysterious stranger is offing the rest of the cast from the original Dracula.

Everyone is here: Professor Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Mina Harker, Jonathan Harker, and Bram Stoker himself, now an aging novelist trying desperately to get a stage production of Dracula off the ground. The problem for Stoker is finding the right man for the lead role. He fancies an American actor named Barrymore, but Barrymore, a prodigious drunk, soon storms back to Los Angeles.

Enter Basarab, a sinister and suspiciously strong Romanian actor with a penchant for swordplay and, well, you can see where this is going.

“Our main goal was to get back to the basics,” Stoker says. “To give Dracula back to the fans. To return to the story that started it all. I know people will say we’re jumping on the bandwagon with the book—that it’s a case of a relative trying to cash in. But we’ve been at this for years. Since the very beginning of the vampire groundswell.”

Leslie S. Klinger, a Los Angeles tax lawyer and the editor of The New Annotated Dracula, which was published by Norton last year, says that in many ways, Stoker and Holt have written a “fine, exciting” book.

But The Un-Dead, Klinger argues, “lacks the powerful sense of creeping horror present in the original… It’s an interesting story about new characters with old names, but it’s such a massive distortion of the original material that it’s hardly fair to term it a sequel.”

More pressing still is the question of how young aficionados of, say, The Vampire Diaries, will respond to The Un-Dead. In Holt and Stoker’s world, vampires are not sex symbols. They’re serial killers. They gleefully bathe in fresh entrails; they rip the limbs off human bodies like a gourmand digging into a fresh lobster. Impalements, apparently a preferred pastime for Victorian basement-dwellers, occur routinely.

But Stoker says he’s already been mobbed by Dracula fans at conventions, who have found something comforting in the count’s “official” return. “Does this obsession with vampires ever really go away?” Stoker said. “Vampires suited gothic literature; they suited modern literature. There’s something about vampires that appeals to us. The mystery. The intrigue. The romance. That theme of immortality. It’s tremendous escapism, and hey, times are tough.”

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Matthew Shaer writes regularly about books for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Bookforum, among other publications.