What is the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s literary masterwork, Dracula? Florence Stoker, the refined widow of Bram and mercurial keeper of his copyright flame, might’ve said it is Universal Pictures’ 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi and his accented powers of darkness. It was the first authorized film version, at least, adapted from Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s play of the same. But even before that stage work, F.W. Murnau infamously “borrowed” Stoker’s tale for Nosferatu (1922), which Florence subsequently spent much of the rest of her life driving a legalized stake through. But then there’s also that lost Hungarian film that Michael Curtiz co-wrote in 1921…
Indeed, the transformative power of Dracula has proven as mystifying as the undead fiend himself. And now passionate Stoker scholar Hans Corneel de Roos appears to have added another wrinkle to his billowing cape. By shepherding this Icelandic “translation” of Stoker’s novel from 1900 back into English, de Roos and his research team have cracked a baffling yet fascinating literary enigma: a seemingly Bram Stoker-authorized reinvention of his novel, which jettisons many plot points and characters while adding its own bizarre socio-political (and Satanic?) tangents to the cauldron. Whether this is the first true adaptation of Dracula, a glimpse into Stoker’s earliest vision of the story, or, as David J. Skal mused in his recent Stoker biography, Something in the Blood, a piece of “unauthorized fan fiction,” remains an open question. And a bloody enticing one for vampire lovers everywhere.
Published in English for the first time today as Powers of Darkness, this book quite literally lacks even Stoker’s title (which until right before publication was The Un-Dead). Known as Makt Myrkranna in Iceland (also “Powers of Darkness”), from the very beginning author Valdimar Ásmundsson seemed to suggest this was a liberal reimagining of Stoker’s then three-year-old English novel. One whose differences few noticed until the 21st century.
For context, Powers of Darkness, which has been published in English by the Overlook Press, spends over 75 percent of its length detailing Thomas Harker’s (not Jonathan) stay in Castle Dracula, which is devoid of two of the Count’s famed brides. Luckily, it is occasionally filled with secret half-ape vampire relatives who seem to worship demons while sacrificing half-nude young girls in the basement with “lascivious” glee.
If only Francis Ford Coppola had known about this 25 years ago, no?
In Powers, Dracula is a Darwinian strongman who admires socialists and anarchists, yet simultaneously wishes to rule them while ushering in a new world order through a secret international conspiracy teeming with Napoleonic undertones. Ásmundsson even unintentionally anticipated the elements that cinematic storytellers would gravitate to in the ensuing century: the suave continental villain who makes parlor room visits, and the erotic ecstasy he and his ilk tempt all in their path with. The shadowy unkempt cadaver of Stoker’s novel takes on a militaristic authoritarian sheen here that is both undercooked and fascinating.
So how did this book come to be?
At this point, Powers of Darkness is engulfed by the even more disorienting cloud that covers much of Dracula’s literary origin. It’s long been known that Bram Stoker spent seven years writing his vampiric opus, however this is often romanticized by fans who overlook that a large part of this length was due to his grueling commitments as theater manager for Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum; he also was acting at the time as a pseudo-literary agent for his best friend, the much more successful Victorian novelist Hall Caine. And it is Caine who provides the most likely clue to Powers of Darkness’ existence.
Academics continue to speculate that Stoker had some uncredited help by another author who edited and reworked large chunks of what became Dracula. This is based primarily on American rumors (enflamed by, of all people, H.P. Lovecraft). And while there are no completed early drafts of Dracula that have been discovered, we do know from Stoker’s earliest notes of the novel, as well as most of the book’s only typeset, that the creative process was a fluid thing.
For instance, Stoker’s notes included Jonathan Harker visiting Munich’s famed “Dead House” on his sojourn to Transylvania, where he’d unknowingly catch his first glimpse of a vampire. The typeset—which is also missing its first 80 pages—likewise includes a different ending that culminates in the “volcanic” destruction of the Count’s castle. Then there are Florence’s dubious claims that the short story “Dracula’s Guest” was intended to be the first chapter of the book.
Thus up until publication, the novel went through plenty of metamorphosis, and scholars have speculated if Caine, the Manx friend whom Stoker ultimately dedicated his book to, reshaped much of the novel for him. This seems unlikely given Caine’s own dense literary commitments in the 1890s, but Caine being from the Isle of Man had long cultural ties to Iceland—Stoker himself noted this when he wrote an introduction to The Bondsman’s 1895 reissue… a novel from five years earlier that Caine had set in Iceland.
Caine, with his Icelandic connections, being the intermediary that made Powers of Darkness happen seems highly probable… as does the idea that “translator” Valdimar Ásmundsson had access to early drafts or lost story notes to Dracula when he was officially hired by Stoker to translate the novel for Icelandic readers.
In his thorough annotations and introduction to the English language version of Makt Myrkranna, de Roos persuasively argues that this novel shares too many similarities with elements of Stoker’s earliest notes for it to be a coincidence. For instance, we know from surviving notes that Stoker intended for Count Dracula to have an elderly, deaf and dumb serving woman in the Castle; while she is nowhere to be found in Dracula, this housekeeper is a frequent presence in Powers of Darkness. Also like the unwieldly cast of characters in Stoker’s earliest notes, Powers includes investigating police detectives, one of whom has the name Barrington—the same surname as Sir Charles Burton Barrington, who captained the Trinity College rugby team that Stoker played on in 1870.
There are other connections to Stoker’s notes, including Dr. John Seward and Dracula attending a party where the Count arrives late (albeit the context of the party changes wildly from the initial scribblings to Ásmundsson’s faux political cloak and dagger machinations). It amounts to suggesting Powers had access to Dracula materials that academic researchers do not (and likely never will).
However, after reading the book, I remain skeptical of the suggestion that Stoker authorized or was even fully aware of what is quite visibly Ásmundsson reworking the tale in his own image. Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram and author of the truly unholy “official Dracula sequel,” writes in Powers’ foreward that “I feel safe in saying Bram was not only aware of the differences between Dracula and the Icelandic edition, Makt Myrkranna—I believe he orchestrated them… The Icelandic preface and the modified plot are interconnected in a way that points towards Bram writing both.”
While there is a preface that was likely written by Stoker, the fact that it begins with the author not only suggesting the epistolary novel is real, but he is dear friends with its many contributors, including John Seward, is a red flag. First, because after spending about 70 percent of the book with Jonathan Harker in the castle, Ásmundsson abandons Stoker’s diary-entry framing device in favor of a skeletal narration that rushes the events which comprise the rest of the story, including the revelation at the end that Seward has gone mad after being trapped in his own burning asylum by Dracula… and has since died.
How much Stoker was aware of Powers’ changes to his own story is thus fairly speculative. Yet, what is in the book is a curious glimpse at what might have been in Stoker’s earliest vision.
For starters, the book is again mostly about Thomas Harker’s misadventures in Castle Dracula. Often considered the strongest portion of Stoker’s novel, it would make sense that it’d be the most fleshed out section in an early draft that Ásmundsson could have seen. Hence Ásmundsson padding the narrative here considerably, nearly doubling its length. In honesty, it actually dilutes the tension because the more pages Thomas Harker spends bumbling around the castle not trying to escape, the more ineffectual and dithering he appears (even if he has the foresight to bring a revolver with him, a precaution that could’ve helped Jonathan).
The more interesting elements are the characters Thomas Harker meets, including the solitary ‘bride’ of Dracula, whom enters the story as a supposed golden-haired damsel in distress, similar to how Hammer Films would play the same story beat in Horror of Dracula (1958). Yet, this woman much more explicitly and sexually tempts Thomas with repeated clandestine rendezvouses.
More curious still is the fact that the Count claims this kept woman is his “cousin.” A mad woman convinced that she is actually her own ancestor, as seen in one of the many likenesses that Dracula keeps portraiture of on the walls. He also tells stories about her that explicitly connects her to the times of Napoleon, and seemingly alludes to the idea that she might actually be Joséphine de Beauharnais, the real-life scandalous wife of Napoleon Bonaparte; like Joséphine, she had husbands who died, secret lovers, and a paramour who appears to be her blood-relative in Dracula. With their union, the villain in Powers also liberally endorses incest by suggesting that all the bloodlines in the Dracula Clan are pure. The House even seems to have secret members all over Europe, hence marrying this woman and eventually turning her into Thomas’ siren.
As a whole, this much more alpha male version of Dracula is driven by warped political ideas. He tells Harker at one point that “the strongest must prevail and conquer the world. Those who are weak are only created to satisfy the needs of others more powerful. The person who knows how to exert his strength will gain supremacy and have everything at his command—beauty, prudence, and knowledge.” Dracula, who also wears military galloons, relates that to politics, social engineering, and to sexuality. For this Count is an open libertine who slobbers at portraits of his cousin-wife with the kind of “locker room talk” current world leaders might use.
This extends to his supernatural schemes, too. Ásmundsson takes the animalistic themes of reverse Darwinism—the eugenics catchall of “degeneration”—to new extremes since the Dracula Clan includes mostly beautiful women and half-ape men. The novel suggests that Attila and the Huns, who remain Dracula’s ancestors, gained their power by consorting with witches and demons in the woods, and indeed Dracula wears blood-red ceremonial garbs while sacrificing disrobed adolescent girls underneath paintings of demonic faces.
The narrative eventually changes gears to England where Wilma (instead of Mina) and Lucia Western (rather than Lucy Westenra) actually speak with the de-aged Dracula who is hiding in England under the name Baron Székely. And while he never attacks Wilma, he woos Lucia in the same way latter-day movies suggest the Count’s penchant for romance. He seems to believe Lucia is supernaturally touched.
However, Lucia’s fate after she is turned into a vampire is ambiguous, as is much else. Again, the book’s total abandonment of Stoker’s epistolary function hints at a frustration with the “translator” to finish the story since it was originally published in serialized magazine printings. And like Lucia’s final fate, it has a myriad of hanging threads, including what were Dracula’s actual machinations, leading him to have Satanic soirees at Carfax Abbey (which has now been moved to London).
As a whole, Powers of Darkness appears incomplete, but that will only add to its mystique for the most devout fans of Dracula and Bram Stoker. It is both a probable glimpse into Stoker’s early ideas and a wild deviation by a foreign author that offered the first reinterpretation of Dracula, one which predates many of the lurid impulses filmmakers would later embrace. Its new English language existence will likely set off debates for years to come, and in that way, it adds one more inexplicable blue flame to the mythology that has surrounded Stoker and his Castle on a cliff for 120 years.
Powers of Darkness is in stores now courtesy of The Overlook Press.