As I buttonhole my way around town, I occasionally confront the following response:
”Dracula? That old thing? Again!? But . . . why?”
With a literary and cultural figure who has been raked over (or staked over) as much as Dracula, it’s a fair question that deserves as thorough an answer as I can give.
Honestly, I wrote Dragon’s Ark not because “vampires are hot right now.” I’d have written this book, Twilight, True Blood, or no. I don’t read much vampire fiction and, frankly, vampire hotness is a marketplace fluke I could have done without. It forces me to shout even louder with a tale that already storms through the mountain tops as it is.
Anyway, Dragon’s Ark is not a “vampire novel.” It’s a “Dracula novel,” to me a distinct entity, a singularity, a specific mythic personality that symbolizes a stark stain in the human psyche, an unpleasant unsettling idea about ourselves. It’s been digging itself out of my graveyard of nightmares for a long time.
And at last, in Dragon’s Ark, he is free.
When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the other boys wanted to grow up to be spacemen or cowboys, teachers or doctors, baseball or football players. Not me! I wanted to be Dracula! Not George Reeves as Superman in his fruity underpants and cape. I wanted to the original Man in Black. The King of Nightmares. The Superman of Evil.
I’ve loved Dracula from the moment I saw Bela Lugosi glide with his peculiar majesty down that cobwebbed castle staircase in the 1931 film version. Such grace and power! The air split in two before him as his words sang with peculiar, ethereal music: “The blood is the life, Mis-ter Renfield!” his
voice pouring down on wide-eyed Dwight Frye like poisoned syrup, his eyes blazing with a command you encounter only in the dark, a “morally fatal glamor” as Peter Straub puts it in his masterwork Ghost Story.
I first saw Dracula on a weekday: “Movie of the Week” on WOR-TV Channel 9, one of my favorite channels. I must have been seven or eight. Of significance to Freudians, my father, a distinctly unpleasant man, had left several years before, though his shadow still hung like angry smoke in the fine old house down Red Mill Road. Everyone could smell the burned bridges.
A Freudian might say someone—or Some Thing heh-heh-heh--had to fill the parental vacuum. But I believe my response to Dracula was much more elemental than the cliché of absent fathers.
Anyway, I was a little boy, incapable of such insight. To me Dracula’s greatness—it struck like black lightning—lay in his freedom and his power.
Think about it: Dracula gets to stay up all night. He lives free in a world that never says “no,” a world without parents, bullies at home and school, teachers, police, government, or any of the rules that make the human world the fleshy rational prison it is.
And, most magical of all, Dracula controls the elements, down to the subatomic particles of his body. He can reform, shape-shift at will into a bat, a wolf and . . . Gee whiz, my young psyche whirled. Why stop at bats and wolves? What else can he do? If only I had such power!
He’s insolent toward the laws of physics and all humans freeze and tremble under his stare! He rules every living thing that passes by his hidden shadow. No one dares argue with him. If I were Dracula, every single bully at home and at school, would never lay their brutish hands on me again. They’d be my slaves or be gone in terrible grotesque suffering! By my wish, by my will, they would die! Die I say!
It took awhile to find a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, a Dell/Laurel Leaf paperback for 25 cents from 1965, with Dracula looking like as Stoker described him so well, a bit like Charlton Heston too. I read the book all the way through and it was even better than the movie, which even I sensed was not as good as it should have been, even with Lugosi at its center. (But more about film and literary aesthetics later.)
I cast my own shadow as Young Dracula around the schoolyard at George Washington Elementary in Mohegan Lake and, later on, at Lakeland Middle School in nearby Cortlandt. I knew everything about all the other monsters in Universal Studio’s great pantheon of wonderfully impossible creatures: the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy. But the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man were
victims, unable to help who they were. Dracula chose his life, and so became their Lord and Master.
With much pleading, I persuaded my poor mother to buy me a subscription to Forrest J. Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. I even found a board game of “Dracula” (Object: escape from his castle, forgotten now, even on the Internet).
Ah . . . such Power wielded so shamelessly! It is, indeed, a good thing that children do not rule the world . . . or don't they?
As for the sexual implications underlying Dracula, that realization only came later and—unusually for me—I shrugged it off. As I grew older my ambitions to be a Sociopath with Supernatural Powers, or any kind of full-bore criminality, faded away, to be replaced with the prosaic, pragmatic liberalism
that marks my thinking now.
But still, the dream of Dracula remained alive, a shadow in shadows, especially when, in real life, I encountered similar individuals, mostly male, but all with one thing in common: a casual drive to dominate, to exploit, who often spoke glibly of freedom, but only cared for their own. I found them in the history books, in the news, and, sometimes, walking by my side, intelligent, calculating, charming, compelling but deadly to body and soul.
For me, Dracula has always been about freedom without attachment, power without responsibility, action without consequence, life without end, tempting things all, especially for the human male. I try to stir this theme to the surface of the blood-rich pool of Dragon’s Ark, something that I don’t
think any adaptation, film or fiction, has ever caught fully. In this book, I'm not digging up suppressed sexuality, drug addiction or moony teenage passion, but the craving for eternal life, absolute freedom and transcendent power.
In Dragon’s Ark, Dracula wants more than our blood.
For him, liberty and license are one and indistinguishable. The individual is all, inviolate and untouchable. He’s a Demon God who cheerfully thumbs his nose at an indifferent Universe, or scorns its oppressive Creator (against Whom he is a negative image, a bitter irony); a sociopathic terrorist who mocks whimpering, cowardly humanity; a vicious prankster who torments his enemies to insanity with cruel bizarre tricks while feeding off the dozing human cattle as though we were fuel dumps, happiest when the world is darkest.
As for the rest of us well, if we ain’t got it, too bad, bubs (though we may certainly and secretly envy him). The world I created in Dragon’s Ark is Dracula’s world. We just live in it, with, at best, only a dim awareness of our enslavement; a fascist/authoritarian dream for a certain kind of faux libertarian maybe, but a nightmare for everyone else.
Dragon’s Ark is also a love letter, if you will, to a fabulous legend, to a grand but deadly myth conjured from ancient myth, civilized history, and the childhood fantasies of one little boy. He’s a force of both nature and of our unexplainable selves, here, I hope, seen through a prism of a moral curiosity that is often absent from the fantasy lives of boys and always from the moral insanity that marks terrorists and tyrants alike.
(To be continued)
Photo by Author
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield