He would never pose nude for the cover of Rolling Stone.
I recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and found its titular character far removed from the romantic figure that today’s vampire has become. Stoker’s creation is a true monster: vicious, bloody and permeated with the stench of decay. Unlike vampires in the popular HBO series True Blood, who can be seen this month on magazine covers wearing nothing but sharp smiles, there is nothing attractive about Stoker’s walking dead. Stoker’s portrayal is consistent with the image of vampires at the time. They were mythical creatures to be feared, not revered.
The image of vampires in popular culture began to change in 1931, when the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was cast to play Dracula in director Tod Browning’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Clad in a dark suit and oozing charm through heavily accented English, Lugosi added an element of romance to the image of the Count. Later portrayals of Dracula by such actors as Christopher Lee (in several films throughout the 1960’s) and Frank Langella (in director John Badham’s Dracula, 1979) further heightened the sense of eroticism that became associated with the character. Only much later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film of the same title starring Gary Oldman, was an attempt made to revisit the image of the vampire in Stoker’s work. That attempt was apparently short-lived, as the vampires of such films as the popular Twilight series today offer more charm than harm.
While many books have been written in recent years about vampires, who consistently dominate best sellers lists, two novels in particular stand out for their portrayal of Dracula as the ruthless and timeless king of the undead.
Dan Simmons’ Children of the Night (1992) offers a different take on vampirism, portraying it as a genetic condition that could hold the cure for AIDS and cancer in present-day Romania. Vlad Dracula, however, who lingers in the background and has survived for centuries by feeding on the misery of others, is more interested in perpetuating his power than eradicating diseases. What follows is an engaging tale by a very talented author whose work consistently transcends genres.
More recently, Elizabeth Kostova’s best-selling debut novel, The Historian (2005), retells the legend of Vlad the Impaler by turning to his roots as Vlad III Drakyula, Prince of Wallachia, and his resistance against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. It was during that period that Vlad committed the atrocities that earned him his nickname and led to speculation of his thirst for blood and indestructability. Kostova seizes upon the myth surrounding the mysterious Drakyula and creates a suspenseful, literary novel that is at times plodding, but is overall intriguing and illuminating.
The final episode of the third season of HBO’s True Blood is scheduled to air Sunday, September 12. The critically acclaimed and popular series will undoubtedly return some time in 2011 for its fourth season. I suspect we will see much of the same: humor, sex and violence wrapped in an entertaining tale. What we will not see, however, is the vampire created by Bram Stoker, whose work has endured for more than a century and is likely to be remembered long after the vampires of today have dissolved into the dust and bone fragments that await even those who are deemed immortal.