Powers of Darkness: The Lost Version of Dracula
by Bram Stoker and Valdimar Ásmundsson,
Translated by Hans Corneel de Roos.
Overlook Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $30.
Dracula appeared first in a dream. In a journal entry dated March 8, 1890, Bram Stoker writes, “Young man goes out sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat.” Six days later, he writes again, and this time, a new character has appeared. “Is it a dream? Women stoop to kiss him. Terror ofdeath. Suddenly Count turns her away—‘This man belongs to me.’”
Seven years passed before it was published, but already Stoker’s novel can be glimpsed, lurking like a phantom: the bite that pretends to be a kiss, the young hero as prone and vulnerable as a maiden, the lord claiming his property. Some elements are missing—the decrepit, haunted Castle Dracula, the mad Renfield poisoned by his encounter with the vampire, the free-thinking Doctor Van Helsing. But the essence of Dracula, the origin of nightmares for more than a century, arrives fully dreamt, murderous and seductive.
A new vision of Dracula has arrived, from an unexpected source. Four years after the original novel appeared in England, it was translated into Icelandic by Valdimar Ásmundsson. Ásmundsson’s translation, Powers of Darkness, was serialized in his magazine, and eventually published as a single volume.
Hans Corneel de Roos, with the help of a crew of academics and amateurs, has translated Powers of Darkness back into English. This circuitous process of translation and re-translation might make some readers leery—it sounds too much like Mark Twain’s prank on the French translators of “The Celebrated Jumping-Frog of Calaveras County.” But the style here is fluent, and the many marginal notes offer a fascinating garden of forking digressions. Dacre Stoker, Bram Stoker’s descendant, contributes a forward, and de Roos’s introduction traces, among other things, the history of the Dracula manuscript, the literary scene of fin-de-siècle Iceland, and Ásmundsson’s unusual career. There’s even a map of Ásmundsson’s Castle Dracula.
Powers of Darkness is called the “Icelandic version” of Dracula, which might suggest it is simply a translation of Dracula. It is not. Stoker’s Dracula is a hypnotic novel that begins with a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, summoned by an aristocrat to Transylvania to complete the transfer of some property in England. Of course, this aristocrat turns out to be Count Dracula, who traps the young man in his castle, leaving him to be devoured by three female vampires. In the meantime, Dracula establishes himself in England, where he preys on the innocent, including Harker’s fiancee Mina, and her best friend Lucy. A professor of medicine, Abraham Van Helsing, leads the battle against Dracula, and a crew of young men chase the Count back to his castle, where they drive a blade into his heart.
In Powers of Darkness, Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania and his captivity in Castle Dracula has grown 60 percent longer than in Stoker’s novel. The second half—where Dracula introduces his reign of terror to England, and is pursued back to Transylvania to meet his doom—is 90 percent shorter. Ásmundsson introduces entirely new characters, and other characters, familiar to readers of Stoker’s novel, drop into the background, or vanish.
De Roos makes much of these changes. He argues, strenuously and with elaborate forensic proof, that Ásmundsson must have had access to Stoker’s working notes for the novel. Notes for Dracula include a Countess who attacks Harker, and Powers of Darkness introduces a ghostly woman in Castle Dracula. She might be Dracula’s bride, or his cousin, or perhaps both—this Dracula is the product of an elaborately inbred family. The Gothic tradition adores doomed siblings, and it is not especially surprising to find a pair of Ushers. Tellingly, however, Dracula is no neurasthenic Roderick Usher; he is brusque, lusty, and almost openly bloodthirsty. Something about the character of Dracula makes it difficult to successfully invest him with both melancholy and monstrosity.
After all, who is Dracula? A series of schematic strokes: his aristocratic nose, his archaic cape, his ever-more exaggerated and lurid accent. He’s instantly recognizable, but almost a cartoon. Bram Stoker providedonly spare glimpses of Dracula’s private life, as when the heroes come upon his pitifully spare private effects—“a clothes brush, a brush and comb, and a jug and basin.” Van Helsing’s research reveals that the vampire was “in life a most wonderful man,” a “soldier, statesman, and alchemist.” But in the same conversation, Van Helsing ridicules Dracula’s “child-brain.”
Subsequent readers and interpreters have always tried to find out who Dracula really is, and most usually make him the Vlad Dracula of the fifteenth century, cursed by some romantic circumstance to be a vampire. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula gives histrionic, defensive speeches about the peoples of Wallachia, protesting the ancient dignity of his family. He howls at Jonathan Harker about “Attila, whose blood flows in these veins.” But genealogy is not personality. Research and footnotes may be piled up, but it is at last impossible to approach Dracula. The vampire poisons intimacy, because it is his kiss that promises death.
Most strikingly, in the second half of Powers of Darkness, Ásmundsson abandons all of the telegrams, letters, and transcripts that narrate Stoker’s story. Stoker’s novel is a paranoid work, one that prefers to suggest rather than reveal, its events emerging from a collage of letters and communiques, stringing the pieces of information together. Dracula’s evil manifests in his schemes and manipulations. Folklore has it that a vampire cannot enter any place he has not been invited, and Dracula enters England by the paperwork of a real estate transfer. In Ásmundsson’s version, an omniscient narrator directs the characters as they gallop to the story’s conclusion.
If that sounds like a travesty of the story, it comes close to the point of Stoker’s book. By means of a routine legal operation, a demonic vampire sets up residence in an abandoned abbey. The sober-minded English cannot comprehend the supernatural struggle of good and evil.
Likewise suspicious of this good-and-evil business, academics have made much of the fact that Dracula is an immigrant, spreading a contagion that leeches life from the sturdy English. But in Powers of Darkness, Dracula literally directs a cabal of grotesque, blood-drinking revolutionaries. The only characters who do any blood-sucking at all are these troglodytic creatures, who consume blood as part of a human sacrifice under Dracula’s castle. Perhaps inspired by the disgusting example of his followers, Count Dracula suggests that liberal democracy is a fraud.
At the turn of the century, radical political groups had become violent and revolutionary, and Ásmundsson plays on these fears. For instance, in most versions of Dracula, the vampire’s death releases his victims from his thrall. But Powers of Darkness concludes with a warning that “the Count’s followers may still be hiding somewhere”—as if he led a terror cell, and not an undead brood. In Stoker’s novel, these anxieties are evident, although they are more complicated and subtle.
Ásmundsson’s taste for a simple narrative, without epistolary interruptions, has a more serious consequence: the elimination of Mina Harker. At first, Mina seems to be yet another victim for Dracula, a passive, suffering woman. But it is Mina who calmly documents Lucy’s dissolution, and who rescues Jonathan from his Transylvanian captivity. Her mystical blood-bond with Dracula is the only reason the vampire-hunters track the Count to his death. Mina types and arranges the scraps and jottings and telegrams that become Dracula; she is, in the world of the book, its author. Without those fragments, she is irrelevant, and Ásmundsson drops her without a sigh.
Mina’s intelligence and discernment, not her sentiments or kindness, save the day for humanity. Powers of Darkness trades all of this complexity to extend the miasma of gloom at Castle Dracula. This new book might preserve more from Stoker’s original plan, but it is hard to believe that anyone would be much interested in Powers of Darkness without over a century of Dracula.
When Stoker had his dreams in 1890, a long century of vampires lurked behind him. The aristocratic Lord Ruthven, the pulp-novel supervillain Varney the Vampire, or the sapphic predator Carmilla might have inspired a legacy of movies and adaptations. Yet somehow, it is always the Count who finds himself gorging on the blood of a new generation. Why?
Clever readers have looked for subliminal explanations. Perhaps Stoker secretly desired other men—the great actor Henry Irving, Walt Whitman, even Oscar Wilde. Perhaps some English distaste for garlicky foreigners seduced him into bloodsucking fantasies. Venereal disease, class resentment, colonialism—a dozen miasmas of prejudice and fear have been suggested. By this account, these anxieties somehow stewed together to produce a masterpiece. Stoker, for his part, tended to joke that his Dracula dreams came from a “too-generous helping of dressed crab.”
These explanations are all the more attractive because Stoker was part of the last generation for whom dreams were unconscious. Three years after Dracula’s publication, Sigmund Freud promised his readers a new enlightenment. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams could guide patients wide-awake through the landscape of dreams. He told them that the monsters and perversions of their nightmares were fictions,a mere burlesque of our siblings and our coworkers. Freud’s theory might have diminished the terror of dreams, but it also sharpened the gnaw of guilt. For if every dream is a symbolic poem, who wrote it? Not our waking, respectable selves, but a dark sibling inside us. An uncanny doppelganger who never sleeps, made of the lust and fury we cannot bring ourselves to express.
Ever since, we have slept with one eye open, one half of the brain unaware of what the other half is dreaming. It used to be said of the vampire that his eternal life was a punishment; all his wealth and sophistication could not disguise the fact that he was a parasite on the living. This is the explanation we offer for our own wandering mind: like the shark, another fanged predator, the brain cannot stop working, or it will die.
Perhaps the original readers of this Dracula thrilled to see the old Count die. But I cannot help thinking that Ásmundsson’s fatal mistake is sprinting to Dracula’s death. Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, even Patroclus and Hector: these are characters we watch so that we can witness their deaths. But we watch Dracula because no matter how many times he has died, we want to see his long clawed fingers curl delicately around the lip of his coffin. If he has lasted, it is not only for political allegory or covert pornography. It is because his nightmare is completely awake, like our own.
Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.