Review — The Essential Dracula,
by Leonard Wolf

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is without a doubt the Mother of All Vampire Novels, and as such it has inspired no less than three annotated editions: Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s The Essential “Dracula”: A Completely Illustrated and Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker’s Classic Novel (Mayflower Books, 1979), Leonard Wolf’s The Essential Dracula (Plume, 1993), and Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal’s Norton Critical Edition of Dracula (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997). My first experience reading Stoker’s seminal gothic thriller was with Leonard Wolf’s The Essential Dracula, and the following article serves double duty both as a review of Stoker’s novel and of Wolf’s annotated edition.

Wolf's edition, touted as “the Definitive Annotated Edition” of Stoker’s work, is a substantially revised version of his earlier The Annotated Dracula (New York: Clarkson N. Porter, 1974). The notes, bibliography, and filmography in The Essential Dracula were revised in collaboration with Roxana Stuart, with illustrations by Christopher Bing and tributes to Dracula by various authors and filmmakers. (Wolf is also the author of A Dream of Dracula and The Essential Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.)

Dracula is an engrossing read, richly deserving its reputation as a classic. It does wallow in Victorian sappiness from time to time, with lots of moist-eyed scenes in which stalwart gentlemen weepily proffer their undying devotion to their dear, sweet, kind, loving, and pure ladies, but that’s part of its charm. And even in our modern era of ultra-violent cinematic splatterfests, Stoker’s kinder, gentler horrors can still manage to raise goosebumps. In fact, the Count was at his most effectively spooky when he was a mere elusive presence, a pale face and red eyes barely glimpsed in the dark. When we get too close a look, as in Dracula's long melodramatic speech to Mina in Ch. 21, he can sound a little too much like Snidely Whiplash with fangs.

Stoker made skillful use of the epistolary style of narrative to create a feeling of veracity; as the novel progresses it provides its own documentation to “prove” the events described are true, and it really draws you into the sub-creation to see Mina transcribing and collating the text of the very book you're holding in your hands. True, the letters and journal entries often seem too prodigiously detailed to be plausible, and sometimes the propensity of the characters to compulsively scribble, scribble, scribble pushes the bounds of credulity, as in Ch. 11 where Lucy — alone, terrified, and woozy from massive blood loss — sits down and pens a three-page memorandum detailing the evening’s events before passing out. But perhaps it’s not entering into the spirit of things to expect total realism from a novel whose title character is, after all, a 400-year-old blood-drinking corpse. We should also keep in mind that Bram Stoker himself was, by his own account, a letter writer of Olympic caliber: over a 28-year period, he claimed to have written in the name of his employer Henry Irving “nearer half a million than a quarter of a million letters” (Essential Dracula, p. xvi). If we accept the lower of these two figures as accurate, in order to write a quarter of a million letters in 28 years Stoker would have had to write an average of 25 letters a day!

Wolf’s introduction includes an overview of vampire fiction before Stoker (Varney the Vampire and friends) and after (King and Rice get high marks). There’s also a biographical sketch of Stoker with an emphasis on his sex life. Wolf makes much ado about Stoker’s “fear of and fascination with women”, various “suspicions about his inner life”, family gossip that Bram and Florence Stoker’s marriage was largely sexless following the birth of their son Noel, and Stoker’s “enigmatic … complex and charged friendship” with the actor Henry Irving. And just what exactly does that White Worm symbolize in The Lair of the White Worm, nudge-nudge, wink-wink? After a while you wish Wolf would stop being so damned coy and flatly state his suspicion that Stoker was a latent homosexual (not an uncommon implication among modern Stoker commentators). This is a titillating but ultimately irrelevant point — unless it lends credibility to Wolf’s subsequent proposal of a possible homoerotic subtext in Dracula’s dealings with Jonathan Harker.

Sex is a theme which Wolf also approaches with gusto in his notes to the text itself, and there’s plenty of erotic content in Dracula for him to comment on — Stoker’s vampires are a randy lot, though this aspect is portrayed with characteristic Victorian restraint and decorum, which occasionally leads Wolf and other scholars to assume that some of Stoker’s sexual imagery was unconscious (I personally think Stoker was well aware of the implications of what he wrote). And Wolf tends to go too far at times in emphasizing the sexual elements of the book. For example, it’s hard to swallow his claim that “male hostility toward female sexuality” is the “central theme” of the novel. Funny, I’d have guessed the theme was more along the lines of “Good vs. Evil”. The same goes for Wolf’s ridiculous “pet notion” that after Dracula attacks Mina and makes her drink his blood, she becomes pregnant with his child! The burn mark of the Host on her forehead, says Wolf, is “the visible sign of her pregnancy”. There is little or no support for this theory in the text, and as Wolf himself points out, Mina doesn’t give birth until thirteen months after the attack.

The Essential Dracula is annotated with a vengeance, as well it should be. There is a wealth of information to be had in Wolf’s notes, on everything from obviously vampiric stuff like hairy palms, anemia, stakes, garlic, and the lore of the blue flames on St. George’s Eve, to explanations of such obscure Victoriana as Hughe’s Blood Pills, Ellen Terry, and Jack Sheppard. The cryptic (and lengthy) dialectal utterances of the old Yorkshireman Mr. Swale would have been largely incomprehensible without Wolf’s translations (example: “I lack belly-timber sairly by the clock” = “I’m very hungry according to the clock”.) Wolf personally visited many of the places in the book, such as Whitby, and offers his interesting first-hand observations. While one might disagree with some of Wolf’s subjective interpretations (see above), and sometimes he displays a knack for overlooking the obvious (see below), the pros of his book far outweigh its cons, and I would highly recommend it to anyone, both first-time readers and repeat offenders. Thanks to Wolf I got far more out of my first reading of Dracula than I would have otherwise.

Wolf’s notes are particularly helpful in pointing out Stoker’s frequent literary references. Dracula is filled with numerous Biblical and literary allusions, in particular to Shakespeare. Stoker served as Sir Henry Irving’s “actor-manager” at London’s Lyceum Theater for some 28 years, and since Sir Henry specialized in Shakespearean roles Stoker must have witnessed hundreds of performances of the Bard. Wolf occasionally overlooks (or chooses not to comment on) a literary reference, and two that he omitted struck me as particularly interesting. In Ch. 4 Jonathan Harker refers to Dracula’s three vampire brides as “those weird sisters”, certainly an allusion to Macbeth’s description of the Three Witches as “these weird sisters” (perhaps referring to the belief that those who were witches during their earthly life would become vampires in death). In Ch. 5 Quincey Morris begins his proposal to Lucy with “Miss Lucy, I know I ain’t good enough to regulate the fixin’s of your little shoes…”, a charmingly rustic paraphrase of John the Baptist’s description of Christ as “he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:27) On one level Quincey is simply paying Lucy a heartfelt compliment; but there’s also a deeper significance, if you believe the theory that Lucy Westenra’s name can be symbolically interpreted as “Light of the West” (Essential Dracula, p. 71), for just as the Gospel according to John refers to Christ as “the light” and says that John the Baptist “came for testimony, to bear witness to the light” (John 1:7), so in this scene Quincey Morris bears witness to Lucy’s luminous goodness and purity.

Wolf’s mind is obviously stuffed with an impressive amount of information, and so he can be forgiven if he’s occasionally unable to see the forest for the trees. For example, in Ch. 2 Harker notices that Dracula has circled the cities of Exeter, London, and Whitby on a map of England. Wolf finds this “mysterious, because, though we may later understand why he marked Exeter (because it was his solicitor’s address) and London (because it was teeming with life), we are never clear as to why he marked Whitby. Or did his hypnotic powers sort out his victims at long range?” (The last sentence refers to the fact that Lucy and Mina were on holiday in Whitby when Dracula arrived there.) Wolf’s puzzlement over Whitby is odd, for it becomes obvious later in the story (Ch. 7) that Dracula circled Whitby on the map for the same reason he circled Exeter: he had engaged a solicitor there, Samuel F. Billington, who took charge of the boxes of earth from the ill-fated ship Demeter.

Another example of a not-so-mysterious mystery occurs in Ch. 4, where Dracula tells Harker he may leave the castle at any time, emphasizing his point by quoting a line from Pope’s translation of the Odyssey — “Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest” (XV, l. 83). Wolf remarks, “How Count Dracula comes to be quoting Pope is one of the charming mysteries of this work.” But what is the mystery here? Dracula’s library contained “a vast number of English books, whole shelves full of them” (Ch. 2); the last volume of Pope’s Odyssey appeared in 1726, giving Dracula some 167 years (the novel is set in 1893) to acquire a copy and read it; moreover the Odyssey would be of particular interest to Dracula, since it tells how Odysseus summoned the dead by filling a trench with sheeps’ blood, for “the ghosts of the underworld can only feed on blood.”

Finally, one of my favorite minor moments in Dracula occurs in Ch. 20, where it is revealed that Dracula has purchased a crumbling mansion in Piccadilly under the pseudonym “Count de Ville”. Wolf merely notes that this name is “a generic name for an aristocrat”, but he’s missing the joke: Count de Ville = Count Devil = Count Dracula, since Dracul means “the Devil” in Romanian. Which just goes to show that even a blood-sucking fiend can’t resist a good pun! Stoker probably got this idea from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”. Le Fanu posits the rule that a vampire assuming a pseudonym must choose a name that is an anagram of their real name; thus the vampire Millarca had the pseudonyms Carmilla and Mircalla. Stoker’s variation on this rule appears to be that a vampire must take a pseudonym that has the same meaning as their real name.

The chapter illustrations by Christopher Bing are by and large excellent, done in a crisp style resembling engravings or finely detailed woodcuts. Many show things rather than people: garlic, a Bible and crucifix, Castle Dracula, maps spread out on a table, a set of keys, a fly caught in a spider’s web, etc. These are the most effective. Renditions of the characters themselves are skillfully done but are wisely kept to a minimum, given Bing’s tendency to get the details wrong. For example, the portrait of Dracula on the frontispiece depicts him as clean-shaven while the text describes him as mustachioed and occasionally bearded; moreover, the illustration of Dracula in Ch. 8 is too obviously based on a photo of Bela Lugosi. Bing also renders the three vampire brides in Ch. 3 as dark-haired, when Stoker makes much of the fact that one is fair-haired. Such oversights are unfortunate in a book that aims at being the definitive edition of Dracula.

The tributes to Dracula interspersed throughout Wolf’s edition are a mixed bag. The best tribute, and the only one in the form of fiction, is Harlan Ellison’s hilarious one-page short story entitled “Dracula’s Dentist, My Uncle Bernie”. The award for the worst tribute goes to the following exercise in pretentious drivel by Susie Landau, associate producer of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Dracula prevails. This extraordinary alchemical tale inspired the score from which Francis Ford Coppola conducts his ensemble, and like an operatio [sic] dream the musicality of the cinematic performance resonates with an authenticity at once horrific and revelatory.” (Translation for the bullshit-impaired: “Why yes, Mr. Coppola, that is my nose jammed up your ass.”) In her defense, Ms. Landau is not a professional writer (I hope), an excuse not available to Robert Bloch, who begins his mercifully short blurb with an ungrammatical pun more horrifying than a showertime visit from Norman Bates’s mother: “Dracula has jabbed the jugulars of horror writers since Bram Stoker first created his gruesome toothsome. …” I’m sure Stoker would have been deeply moved by the nanosecond of thought Bloch invested in composing his tribute.

Wolf’s edition includes Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest” as an appendix. This story, posthumously published by Stoker’s widow in 1914 as part of the collection Dracula’s Guest, and Other Weird Stories, was originally the first chapter of Dracula but was deleted by Stoker’s publisher, who felt the book was too long. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, relating an uncanny episode experienced by Jonathan Harker on Walpurgis Night (the eve of May Day) en route from Munich to Bistritz. There are several intriguing passages in this tale that cry out for further explanation, but for some odd reason Wolf didn’t annotate it. The centerpiece of the story is Harker’s ill-advised journey on foot through a valley said to be the former site of a village wiped out by vampires. As night falls, Harker is caught in a sudden snowstorm and forced to seek shelter in a graveyard dominated by a massive marble tomb bearing the inscription “Countess Dolingen of Gratz in Styria Sought and Found Death, 1801”. Here’s where annotations would have come in handy. Gratz was the capital of Styria, a duchy of Austria, that’s easy enough to look up (and Styria, by the way, is also the setting of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”). But Countess Dolingen doesn't appear in any reference book I have at hand. Was she a real person? If so, how and why did she commit suicide? The Countess’s tomb is pierced through the top by a massive iron spike, evidently a bit of preventative architecture meant to keep her from rising as a vampire, as suicides are wont to do. In a flash of lightning, Harker sees through the tomb’s open door “a beautiful woman, with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on a bier.” A second bolt of lightning strikes the spike, and the dead woman rises up screaming in agony, wrapped in flames.

This episode might account for Harker’s puzzling comment about the fair-haired vampire bride in Ch. 3 of Dracula: “I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where.” Wolf notes, “This is a major mystery in the book. Whose face is it?” My theory is that Harker’s sense of recognition is a holdover from the time when “Dracula’s Guest” was still the first chapter of the novel, with Harker half-remembering his glimpse of Countess Dolingen of Gratz in her tomb. It’s perhaps significant in this regard that Stoker deleted the line about Harker recognizing the fair-haired vampire bride in his 1901 abridged text of Dracula.

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