With our minds on Halloween ghouls, comes a prequel about Dracula, the vampire invented by the Irish writer Bram Stoker back in 1897. An old Count who drank the blood of his victims; killing some, and converting others into vampires, it’s inspired a whole genre in recent times. But what if the original story was true?
Dacre Stoker, the Canadian co-author of the newly released Dracul, believes that his great-granduncle based his horror novel on a factual story.
“I’m not saying that Bram believed vampires are real,” he qualifies, “but I do believe that, from all his research, he believed that others thought they were real.”
Bram’s notes, journals and original manuscripts support this theory, he claims. Through extensive research, Dacre has discovered the original preface, which stated that the story was true – told to him by friends – and there were clues in the original first 121 pages which were excised before publication.
“As I read, and researched, I realised that most of the characters in Dracula are based on real people,” he says, as we chat, over tea in Dublin. “Jonathan Harker’s fiancée Mina is a combination of his sister, Matilda and his mother, and Dr Stewart is really his brother, Thornley. A lot of what you read is real.”
The early chapters were cut, he discovered, because they were simply too terrifying to a public who were already traumatised by the actions of Jack the Ripper.
“When he gave it to his publisher saying, ‘this is real,’ his publisher pushed it back and said, ‘no way.’ He wouldn’t publish it without changes because he was frightened of public reaction, but Bram wanted him to.”
As a child in Toronto, Dacre showed little interest in his famous ancestor.
“People joked, ‘You can’t be a Stoker because you can’t eat blood.’ I got sick of it!” He became interested when the book, In Search of Dracula brought the story into a popular culture, but it wasn’t until 2003, when he was approached by the writer and director Ian Holt, that he became actively involved.
“He said he’d like to continue Dracula’s story, but he needed me to help him. I said, ‘fine, but I’ve got to learn about it first.’ We muddled through and relied on good editors, and came up with a pretty decent story, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
This isn’t surprising. Dacre had done a lot of diverse things in life, from teaching to coaching the modern pentathlon to Olympic athletes, but he had zero writing experience. The resulting sequel, Dracula – the Undead, was criticised for ignoring Bram Stoker’s style, and putting Bram into the book as a character, but Dacre’s appetite for all things Dracula had been whetted.
“Then I found the lost journal,” he says. In tandem with Elizabeth Miller, a well-known Dracula scholar, he went through the document which covered an eleven-year period. “It was an important time. It covers from when Bram was still at Trinity, through his working at Dublin Castle, to his big break in life, working with Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London. It shows all the creative freedom that came with that. I thought, there is a story here. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’s about Bram, his childhood, and the interesting illness he overcame. I wondered how did he overcome it? I decided I had to get someone who is a good thriller writer to help me with these ideas.”
That ‘someone’ proved to be JD Barker from Pennsylvania, who is also here, publicising the book. The younger man has been obsessed with Dracula for most of his life.
“Dracula was the first adult book I ever read,” says J.D. “I picked it up, aged 8, at a yard sale for 25 cents. It’s been a constant on my shelf ever since. I probably have 10 copies of it.”
He’s even written a short story based on Dracula.
“I wrote about Bram Stoker walking out of the Lyceum Theatre and Dracula confronting him in an alley, and saying, ‘If you want to live you have to tell my story.’”
No wonder that, having spent twenty years as a book doctor and ghost-writer J.D. penned a horror novel of his own. When Forsaken came out in 2014, and was endorsed by Stephen King, it sold 250,000 copies even though he had self-published. It got nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, and when Dacre read it, he decided J.D was the writer he needed.
They met at the Horror Writer’s Association convention, sitting side by side at an author signing. Then Dacre invited J.D. and his wife to his cabin in the Carolina mountains, where, the second night, he presented J.D. with all the research material relating to Bram. These included copies of all the books Bram had referenced in the writing of Dracula – all pieces of the puzzle. Reading all this excited J.D, and he happily agreed to collaborate.
It was a match made in heaven. Dacre is a walking encyclopedia on the Stoker family, and J.D. has a form of Asperger’s with the benefit that he can plot an entire book in his head. The resulting novel, Dracul – a prequel to Dracula – is utterly compelling, not to mention terrifying; with murders, body snatchers, empty graves, and a vampire nanny it truly is the best possible reading material for October 31st.
Using real names, it focuses on Bram and his family, and includes adders, cockroaches, wolves, and plenty of the undead – those converted into vampires by the scheming Dracul and his cohorts. Many of the events mentioned feel authentic enough to be real – with the authors drawing closely on the Stoker family history.
“Edward Stoker really did write a treatise on fever and blood-letting,” says Dacre, “and I’m sure Bram’s brother Thornley, being in The Royal College of Surgeons would have had some activity as a body snatcher. It was the only way to learn back then.”
The discovery that Dracula’s Guest, a short story of Bram’s that his wife, Florence, published after his death, holds a key.
“It came from the deleted 101 pages,” says Dacre. “It was 17 pages of the lost 101. And deleted sections from the original manuscript referenced these early pages. We think there’s a good chance that some of the things we’ve put together would have been part of his story, had it progressed the way it did.”
Whilst Dacre is back to the day job – coaching the world number one ranked Real Tennis player, whilst teaching CPR, his co-writer is working on other books. Writing the third of a very bloody crime series – he’s just started collaborating with James Patterson.
“It’s a learning experience,” he says. “I know I can write a thriller, but Patterson is better. He’s like a coach, going through what we write. He is telling me, ‘this is great, this is horrible.’ He’s teaching me how to dial it up to 12 from 11.”
The two hope to collaborate again. And there is enough material left over in the archives which they didn’t use in Dracul.
“We’ve just spent an hour at Trinity going through more phenomenal information. There is so much there, it’s a matter of piecing it together.”
Would Bram Stoker approve? J.D. certainly thinks he would.
“It felt like Bram was standing in that room,” he says. “He was for us when we got it right, and also very quick to point out when we got it wrong.”
So, he was directing them? Saying he’s keeping an open mind, Dacre quotes from Dracula.
“There are mysteries that men can only guess at which age by age they may solve only in part.”
Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker is published by Penguin at €14.77. Kindle: €11.00
Published in The Irish Examiner on 27th October.
© Sue Leonard. 2018