It’s a hundred and ten years since the first edition of Dracula hit the shelves. Bram Stoker’s compulsive blood sucker came at the end of a lineage of gore meisters going way back to the Ancient Egyptian cult of the Afterlife and came to us via the Lamia of Greece and assorted European Undead. Most of the time they were smelly, fetid-breathed animated corpses with as much sex appeal as a month-dead porcupine.
Then Mad, Bad George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron, took up the cause.
In what took the place of a weekend Nintendo sleep over party at a Swiss resort in the 18th century, Byron dreamed up a larger than life aristocrat, Lord Ruthven, whose thirst for claret that had never seen the vine carved a messy carnival of death through international society. Byron didn’t think much of his ‘fragment’ of a story and cast it aside. He didn’t think much of the efforts of a fellow player at the party either – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!
Byron’s vampire story would never have been published if it wasn’t for the efforts of his leecher and drug pusher, Doctor John Polidori. The Doctor rescued the discarded manuscript and took it to the publishers. Horror had become a well-read genre, especially among bored young ladies, by this time and they were happy to consider publishing a book by the infamous Baron Byron. The tale of the vampiric Lord Ruthven and his mate, Aubrey, scything through the flesh pots of Europe, was bound to be a best-seller by anyone’s reckoning. It was called The Vampire. A tale.
It fostered an appetite for tales of the Undead which aspiring writers were happy to sate. Unfortunately the trend was towards nasty, smelly creatures coming hotfoot from the cemetery to debauch fragrant young ladies. Varney the Vampire, The Vampire of Croglin Grange and many others. Then Bram Stoker pigged out on Port and overripe Camembert and came up with Count Dracula. Pepsodent actor, Raymond Huntley, in the initial stage performance of the play, topped out with the cloak, flying collar and starched shirt front and begat Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Bob Quarry et al.
Stoker’s motive for spawning Dracula could be an attempt to curry favour with his client and master, the famed Henry Irving. Irving did do a reading of Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre in London where Stoker was manager but wasn’t impressed enough to order a full blown stage version. It might have been because the script he got was the original. According to Dennis McIntyre of the Stoker Dracula Organisation in Clontarf, Stoker’s birthplace just outside Dublin, the old bloodsucker was conceived as an Irish Lord in the first draft of the book. He was called Drochfhola (Bad Blood); instead of Whitby it was Baldock Baile an Duil (Town of the Dead) where he came ashore; and he was more Max Shreck than Chris Lee.
But whatever it is that turns the public on, Dracula reigns supreme and is reinvented practically every weekend. And Bram Stoker is celebrated everywhere he is supposed to have written large chunks of his magnum opus. Whitby, Clontarf, London, Purfleet. Purfleet? Well, that’s where Count Dracula chose to establish his British residency after Whitby. He bought a house there called Carfax Abbey. That is enough to inspire the Trustees of the Heritage Centre to throw a Bram Stoker/Dracula Day next Saturday 10th November. I’ve been asked to share a platform with the Deacon of Chelmsford and chat about the old days. It is short and, hopefully, sweet and runs between 11.30am and 3pm at the Heritage Centre, Purfleet in Essex. The show – not the speeches!
Catch up with Ingrid Pitt’s last column here, where she goes ghost hunting…