Thursday, February 23, 2017

Essential Literature: Powers of Darkness

Authors: Bram Stoker (original Novel) & Valdimar Ásmundsson (adaptation)

Translator: Hans Corneel de Roos

First Published: 1900 (serialised), 1901 (novel), 2017 (English translation)

Makt Myrkranna – or Powers of Darkness – was the name of the Icelandic adaptation of Dracula. I say adaptation as it is significantly different to Dracula – as we shall see, in turns fascinatingly and frustratingly. It was adapted and serialised by Valdimar Ásmundsson and, for some time, the English speaking world only knew the content of the preface – seemingly written by Stoker and, if dated correctly, provided some time before the adaptation was published (August 1898). The original translation of that preface revealed a tantalising Ripper connection – however de Roos argues that there were translation errors and makes a good case that Stoker (if indeed it was he who wrote the preface) directed us to the Thames Torso Murders of 1887–1889 and, indeed, the text of the story seems to underpin this.

It is, however, the radically different text that makes this so interesting and I think that for me it is for different reasons to the reason conveyed by the translator. I have classed this as essential literature because, whichever way you fall in the debate as to the origin of the changes, it is still a necessity for the student of Dracula and the media vampire. I must however note the cover states this to be “the Lost Version of Dracula”. It is not – for it was never lost to the people of Iceland, to start off with, it was republished in 1950 and 2011. The suggestion it is a lost version is based, however, on the idea that Ásmundsson had access to an early (radically different) draft of Dracula. Though I do not dismiss the notion entirely, I am far from convinced.

The writing style and tempo does not feel like Stoker at all, though whether this is due to Ásmundsson’s rendering or de Roos translation I do not know, and the “similarities” between story elements and unused aspects of Stoker’s notes do not seem definitive to me (indeed many points can and have been critically discussed by other articles and I do not wish to labour them here, as my interest in this is slightly different). But what we have – one way or another – is the first example of Dracula being altered radically in adaptation. This is a tradition that likely did not flow from this volume (given that it was generally unknown outside Iceland) but continued through Nosferatu (1922), the Hamilton Deane play (1924), Ali Riza Seyfi's novel adaptation Kaziki Voyvoda (1928 – and something I’d love to see translated into English), and then through countless movies and books.

So what is different within the book? The first part is Thomas (rather than Jonathan) Harker’s trip to Transylvania – as well as changing Harker's name we should also note that Ásmundsson changes Mina to Wilma. This section is epistolary, like the original, made up from Thomas’ diary and goes from approximately 22,700 words in the original novel to around 37,200 words in this. The changes are manifold. There are servants in the castle – including a deaf/mute old housekeeper. The Count is said to have had three wives; possibly referencing the vampire women from the original novel, they are unseen in this. Perhaps… There is one vampire woman in the castle whom the Count claims to be his cousin. However she bears an uncanny resemblance to a painting of a Countess in the portrait gallery, and apparently believes she is the woman in the picture.

The Count tells the story of the Countess from the painting; a sorry tail of love and betrayal. Did she betray this Count and suffer his punishment of having her trapped with her lover until that lover went mad and killed himself? We do not know for sure whether the contemporary woman is the original Countess or not (I suspect so, of course). Her interactions with Harker are numerous and she casts a fascination over him that seems like a charm or a hypnotic control. As I read the first part of the book the presence of the solitary vampire woman, who says to Thomas “—tell him nothing, but come! And beware, beware, beware”, drew my mind to Hammer and specifically the Horror of Dracula and Scars of Dracula where, years later, solitary vampire women would try to seduce the hero and have their role expanded compared to the original story.

There are secret passages, and ledges on the outside of the castle on which people can pass. It is a lackey of the Count who takes Harker’s clothes (and papers) rather than the Count himself. Beneath the castle is a Satanic temple, where ape-like men (possibly a racial slur, though the Count is also described as half-man and half-animal later in the book) attend rites and human vampiric sacrifices conducted by the Count himself. Taking this pseudo-religious aspect, along with (under drawn) aspects in Part Two, I again thought of Hammer and their cult of vampirism – in fact an annotation suggests the “Count’s vision might be understood as a satanic counterpoint to the Christian expectation of a Last Judgement”. Perhaps we can go one step further and liken this Count to the antichrist, just as Hammer did with their Count especially in Satanic Rites of Dracula. At the very least, this Count seems intent on introducing a New World Order and political commentary, flavoured by Ásmundsson’s political interests, are found within the text

During Part One we get a wonderful scene where the body of a peasant girl (a probable sacrificial victim) is spotted outside the castle by Harker. He cannot find a way out to the body but then sees peasants come to the body and stake it before removing it. I should note that, in an annotation, it is suggested that “the intentions of both the Count and his cousin remain obscure—for nowhere are they caught with their fangs in someone’s neck”, with a preceding passage that also points out that Lucia (Lucy) has no fangmarks on her neck. This may be true but the vampire woman certainly kisses Harker’s neck (a kiss being a euphemism in the original Dracula for a bite) the ape-like men bite their sacrificial victims and suck their blood and, indeed, it appears one of them bites Harker’s neck for he finds a bite mark on his neck just after being attacked in a secret passage by one (and assumes the rosary he wears has protected him). It is true that the term vampire is only used once in book and in reference to London fog.

If Part One is fascinating and a rip-roaring tale then Part Two is frustrating (at the very least) and in fact I found it to be a bitter disappointment. The serialisation of the novel had been going on for over a year at this point and it feels as though Ásmundsson just wanted to wrap things up. The story drops from 137,860 words in the original to only 9100 in this and the epistolary style is abandoned for a narrator. The story is changed again and one of the most notable changes is that Van Helsing does not seem to recognise the vampirism, or even suspect it, until he reads Harker’s journal – indeed, Arthur reports seeing Lucia rising from her coffin (prior to internment) and in response the Professor sits vigil in case she has been mistakenly declared dead and awakens.

One thing I found interesting was the explanation given for the soil the Count ships to England. Stoker’s lore can be confusing but is centred around the fact that the Count must rest in hallowed earth as “in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest.” In this it is specifically, “the hallowed earth in which it had once been buried”. This makes it specifically the vampire’s grave dirt (and the boxes of earth were also used to carry riches to England, it is suggested).

So, all in all, this is absolutely necessary as the first example of Dracula being reproduced in an altered form. Whether this was with either the blessing or the aid of Stoker is unclear to me – I have doubts that he actually had his hand in the process, but do not entirely dismiss the possibility. Whilst I might not be convinced, I am certainly very grateful to Hans de Roos for making this available to us and the time and effort he has taken to do so. The first part is a fantastic read in its own right, though the style and tempo do not feel like the novel so many of us love and the details are certainly very different. The second part is totally disappointing – possibly more so as the story is again changed significantly but the prose feels less a novel and more an extended synopsis and so does not exploit those changes in a satisfying way.

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