Sunday, June 20, 2010

A World Without Dracula?

Theresa answers a reader's compelling question on her blog: "Without Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula' do you think the vampire would be as popular today?"

Let's put this in perspective. At the time Stoker wrote his book, vampires made sporadic appearances in fictional literature. The vampiremania and theatrical adaptations that followed in the wake of John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819) were long-gone.

Sure, Varney the Vampire (1845-1847) was a reasonably successful penny dreadful. But, to my knowledge, it didn't exactly have global distribution. It was reprinted in 1853 and wouldn't see republication again till 1970 and 1972.

How about J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872)? Even though it's been reproduced in numerous anthologies, it didn't exactly have a huge impact at the time. That'd come much later.

Between then and 1897, I dare you to name any other vampire novels or stories, off the top of your head. And, if you can think of any more, then ask yourself this: did they have as much of an impact on vampire literature as Dracula did?

How about we skip right ahead into the twentieth century?

Between 1897 and let's say, maybe, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (1975) or, better yet, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), try and come up with some vampire titles that have been in continuous reprint since Stoker's book. Try and think of a name that is more synonymous with vampires than Dracula.

Can't think of any? That's how important Dracula's been to vampire literature. For better, or worse.

Now, just to get technical for a second, Dracula wouldn't nearly be so well-known today if it wasn't for its subsequent stage adaptations and a certain Bela Lugosi flick, but the fact remains, that Stoker's book spurred on a hell of an interest in the undead. So much so, that even "folklore" he invented managed to slip into studies on the vampire proper.

Sure, Stoker was drawing on a rich Gothic tradition, but few vampires have succeeded in crystallising an archetype and given birth to an industry.

But, to get back to the initial question, would vampires be as popular as they are today, if it wasn't for Dracula?

Bane argues in the affirmative. However, despite the material she cites, that is, the vampire writings leading up to Dracula's publication, I'm not really convinced vampires would be the pop culture figures they are today.

After all, as I pointed out, fictional writings on vampires were quite sparse by Stoker's time. Hell, a lot of the non-fiction stuff was derived from three primary sources: republications of Augustin's Calmet's works on vampires, Herbert Mayo's "Vampyrism" article and Theosophical/occult writings on psychic and astral vampires.

In fact, vampire literature of the latter nineteenth century was geared more to this last category, e.g. Florence Marryat's Blood of the Vampire (1897). This motif was already well-worn by the early twentieth century, too.

Thus, the publication of Dracula helped turn the tide against the metaphysical direction vampires were taking, by returning to folkloric variants, giving us many of the tropes we associate with them now. Its basic storyline and characterisations (Van Helsing, anyone?) also set a benchmark.

Of course, this also meant that a new cookie cutter template was born and many clones followed in its wake. Thus, it's no surprise that the next major novel to have a significant impact on subsequent vampire stories was Rice's 1976 book, mainly because of its shift from vampire-as-shadowy-background-figure, to protagonist. Hell, a vampire even told the damn story. A big overhaul, as it essentially meant the vampire's personality (along with moral complexities) came to the forefront. No longer was it a mere figure of evil to stalk-n-stake.

And yes, I know Fred Saberhagen beat her to the punch in 1975. His novel served as the perfect bridge between Stoker and the new guard.

But here's the thing: how could all these changes have taken place, if you remove Dracula from the equation? If there's anything Dracula achieved, it was casting vampires into the mainstream. You know, the "popular" angle of the original question.

I mean, how many vampire characters do you know, that have inspired potential theme parks?

So, no, I don't think vampires would be as popular today if Stoker's Dracula never existed. I mean, you don't exactly see Carmilla Karnstein on a box of cereal, do you?

Admittedly, the vampire has gone through bursts of public interest, which Bane touches on, but what she neglects to deal with is the large gaps between this interest. That is, prior to the twentieth century. And even then, basic knowledge and exposure to vampire writings is one thing (I'm sure a lot of folk knew what a vampire was by that time), but popularity, another. Toys, fake fangs, games, movies, TV shows, comics, etc., etc. they were all largely born in the shadow of Dracula's mainstream success, not a penny dreadful boogeyman or Polidori's Lord Byron pastiche. Thus, no Dracula = no mainstream success.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

I tend to agree, if we look at the movies (pre-Lugosi) that (allegedly) contained vampires Dracula Halála certainly borrowed its name from Dracula and Nosferatu was a make of Dracula...

Other movies, such as London After Midnight didn't actually feature a vampire (just the rumour of one and an actor in disguise) and the serial les Vampires used the female vamp formula.

It’s interesting you mention 'Salem's Lot as I have read a foreword by King who says he was attempting to "combine Dracula and Tales from the Crypt" (illustrated edition) - so no Dracula no ‘Salem’s Lot in the form we know it at least.

Would vampires have appeared within popular culture – probably, though what form they would have taken and what abilities and weaknesses (all of which primarily came from Stoker and filmic adaptations thereof) is debatable.

You can’t un-invent, so it is impossible to really tell but to deny Stoker’s impact would seem, at least to this genre fan, to be folly.

Anthony Hogg said...

Bingo. Prior to Bela Lugosi's turn as Dracula, there were bugger-all non-Dracula related vampire flicks.

I didn't think to mention in my blog entry, that the other strain of "vampire" popularity were the "vamps" of Theda Bara and co. Sure, we could argue that variants of this archetype exist today, like Sharon Stone's turn in Basic Instinct (1992), but the "vamp" proper has largely died out.

Point is, Dracula launched vampires into our modern popular consciousness. In this regard, Dracula was the great unifying archetype. The vampires of the 18th and 19th century, while popular in some capacity, hardly caught on as household names at the time.

As to 'Salem's Lot (1975), that's a perfect case-in-point. It's one of the 20th century's most popular vampire books (mostly likely for the King "brand", though) and it was consciously patterned on Dracula.

Another book, which I can't believe I didn't think to include, is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) which has certainly been influential in its own right. However, the interesting thing is, is its biggest pop cultural impact has been on the zombie genre, only because Romero ripped off his story for Night of the Living Dead (1968).

There's no doubt that vampires would have manifested in popular culture in some shape or form. But the popularity they see to do, I posit, is primarily because of Dracula's success.

You're right that one can't "un-invent", so I've merely taken the liberty of extracting Dracula from pop culture history and we're only left with some bare bones of what coulda been.

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