Monday, December 29, 2008

From Demons to Dracula – review

Author: Matthew Beresford

First Published: 2008

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: In blood-soaked lore handed down the centuries, the vampire is a monster of endless interest: from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this seductive lover of blood haunts popular culture and inhabits our darkest imaginings. The history of the vampire is a compelling tale that is now documented in From Demons to Dracula, which reveals why the vampire myth and this creature of the undead so fascinates us.

Beresford’s chronicle roams from the mountains of Eastern Europe to the foggy streets of Victorian England and to Hollywood film as he follows the portrayal of the vampire in history, literature and art. Investigating the historical Dracula – Vlad the Impaler – and his status us a national hero in Romania, Beresford endeavours to minnow out truths from the complex legend and folklore. From Demons to Dracula tracks the evolution of the vampire, drawing on classical Greek and Roman myths, witch trials and medieval plagues, Gothic literature and even contemporary works such as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Beresford also looks at the widespread impact if screen vampires from television shows, classic movies starring Bela Lugosi ad Christopher Lee, and more recent films such as Underworld and Blade. Whether as a demon of the underworld or a light-fearing hunter of humans, the vampire has endured through the centuries as a powerful symbolic figure for human concerns with life, death and the afterlife.

Wide-ranging and engrossing, From Demons to Dracula casts the bloodthirsty nightstalker as a remarkable, complex and telling totem of our nightmares, real and imagined.

The Review: Phew, with a subtitle “the Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth,” and the blurb above this book sets itself a real task and I feel somewhat torn as I review this as there are some really excellent aspects to the book but, occasionally, examples of poor research and downright inaccuracy. Be that as it may (and I will explore several of those areas where I felt the book fell over) it is nice to see a reference book that is properly referenced itself, bibliographied and indexed.

My caution with regards the book started small, there were just the occasional areas that gave me pause for thought and I could actually understand why they occurred. There is an illustration in the introduction, page 12, of “‘a vampire rises from the grave…’in an 18th century illustration” . Actually, not long before receiving the book (as a Christmas present from my ever loving wife) I read an article about this illustration on the blog Diary of an Amateur Vampirologist. It seems the illustration was reproduced in Frayling’s Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (listed in the bibliography of this) as such a piece, but it is actually of "BIANCA RUBEA, wife of BAPTISTA Á PORTA / crushes herself with the tombstone of her husband." A minor problem, as it is an illustration of a suicide and not a vampire, but I can see why Beresford believed it to be of a vampire given Frayling used it as such.

Later a law is mentioned, repealed in 1823, which allowed stakes to be driven through the corpse of any person deemed undead. That information came from Seán Manchester it seems, whom Beresford has corresponded with and play is made by Beresford that it is specifically a corpse deemed undead and not vampiric… however, to my knowledge the word undead only came into usage in 1897 as it was invented by Bram Stoker in respect of Dracula (EDIT: Evidence has come to light that undead was used prior to 1897 but it was only connected with vampires by Stoker and was actually referential to the divine prior to that). However, in the main the book was proving excellent, insightful and a good read.

I was taken with the chapter on Vlad Ţepeş, especially as Beresford recognised that there was precious little connection between the historic Vlad, vampirism and Stoker’s Dracula. I was even more taken by the look at the classic literature, where Beresford recognised the importance of The Vampyre and Varney the Vampire, as well as Carmilla and Dracula. Indeed he points out “It is interesting that whichever one considers, be it The Vampyre, Varney, Carmilla or Dracula, it will be described as the most influential or the most imitated vampire story, and one cannot help but believe it to be true of each in turn upon reflection.”

Then we hit the movies and things sank low, though perhaps I am being a little too critical. To be fair the section is very small, especially given the sheer volume of vampire movies but I’ll have to point out that the Doors song covered by Echo and the Bunnymen (not the original Doors version, note) on the Lost Boys was called ‘People are Strange’ and not ‘When You’re Strange’. However it was the musings upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula that got my goat up, as it were. It does not follow the novel fairly closely at all; it overplays the Ţepeş connection and adds a love affair between Dracula and Mina as she is his reincarnated wife, something lifted from the works of Dan Curtis – a fact that is not mentioned here. However it was the following that really irked “The novel itself ends with Dracula being killed in Transylvania, but here Coppola’s Dracula continues briefly. One year after Dracula’s death, Jonathon and Mina Harker have a baby boy that they name Quincey…” No. No No. The film ends with Mina chopping Dracula’s head off to give him peace, no continuation further. The novel ends with a transcript written seven years later, when the hunter’s return to Castle Dracula, that mentions Mina and Jonathon’s son. It is as though Beresford just went off on one and one then questions whether either was watched/read or is the quoted passage just a typo of the most massive order.

He pulls it back as he looks at vampire killers and asks the question of why the press dub many of them vampires when their acts seem to have precious little to do with vampirism. He goes on to look at the Sophie Lancaster case – indeed the book is dedicated to her – and does not suggest that there was a vampire connection but that in the eyes of those who perpetrate such hate crimes (of which the one against Sophie and Robert Maltby is without doubt of the most heinous order) there is no discerning between vampiric and the gothic lifestyle but a general resistance in society to darker sub-cultures. He ends this section by mentioning the attacks by the establishment on Sam Stone for daring to actually be creative when she wrote her novel and how a non-discerning tabloid press turned someone who writes about vampires into a vampire with their lurid and sensationalist headlines.

The book ends (ish, there is a conclusion and an extract from Historia Rerum Anglicarum) with a look at the Highgate Vampire. Three things struck me. One, Beresford maintains (through the book) that Stoker had Lucy buried at Highgate. Not necessarily true, Stoker does not name the cemetery and it is McNally and Florescu (wrong on so many counts, as they are) who argue that case but other cemeteries fit just as well. Two, most of the references seemed to come from Seán Manchester. Beresford does not necessarily conclude that Manchester was correct but I would have wanted some verification from other sources. Thirdly, it seemed a little much to use a whole chapter on the Highgate events – but that’s just me.

So there you have it. An excellently written book, easy to read, but inaccurate in places. For the main of the book, however, it is well referenced and Beresford draws some interesting conclusions. 6 out of 10 but it should have scored higher.


Amateur Vampirologist said...

Cheers for the citation, there. I expanded on the issue a bit more, here.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

AV thanbks for the update