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Count Dracula first visited Bram Stoker in a nightmare

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Literature, Magic, Mystery on Thursday, 5 January 2012

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 893 published on 3 March 1979.

Beam Stoker's Dracula, picture, image, illustration

In the throes of a nightmare Bram Stoker dreamed of a King vampire; later he would read about Dracula while researching vampires in the British Library. Picture by Oliver Frey

The Turks had been threatening invasion for some months, and Prince Vlad of Romania was determined to stop the enemy from ravaging his territory. Each day he consulted his political advisers and military leaders. And each day he scornfully rejected their suggestions.

Every idea they put forward was too timid, too conventional, too ordinary for him. He wanted something that had never been done, or even thought of, before. Eventually, tiring of talk about extra fortifications and added reinforcements, he announced that he would solve the problem himself.

Vlad, who ruled over the Romanian region of Wallachia, wanted to show the Turks that they could expect no mercy once they crossed the border. Already known as a man of immense cruelty, Vlad was dubbed “The Impaler” through his habit of fixing the bodies of unwary travellers on upright sharp stakes.

If the weather was fine, he dined in the courtyard, enjoying his food and wine and watching his “guests” in their death agonies. But his cruelty did not stop there. On one infamous occasion he threw a banquet in a large shed for hundreds of starving peasants – then had them burnt to death when they had eaten their fill.

At another and equally notorious event, he greeted a group of Turkish ambassadors who had come to discuss peace terms. Furious because they had not taken off their fezzes in his presence, he demanded an explanation.

“In our country it is the custom to keep our headgear on, even when in front of a king,” the chief ambassador explained.

Vlad smiled grimly at this and replied: “Then, gentlemen. I will help you to strengthen your custom.”

Immediately, he ordered his soldiers to seize the Turks and to nail their fezzes to their heads. During his six blood-spattered years in power, Vlad is said to have been responsible for the inhuman deaths of some 120,000 people.

When the Turks refused to call off their invasion, he decided to slaughter thousands more of his own subjects. The men, who were mainly impoverished, out of work, or homeless, were arrested and taken to the frontier. There, row after row of freshly-carved stakes had been erected. The prisoners were thrust upon them as a warning to the Turks. “When the enemy see what I do to my own people,” declared Vlad, “they will wonder what I will do to them if they are captured.”

Possibly the Turks did ponder on this. But it did not prevent them from invading Wallachia as planned, and from fighting their way into Vlad’s castle. The prince was put in chains and tried as a tyrant and a mass murderer.

He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. At first, Vlad feared he would be impaled like the multitude of people who had displeased him in one way or another. But the Turks decided not to copy their defeated enemy’s heartless behaviour. Instead of the stake, Vlad was brought before a military executioner, who beheaded the ruler with one clean chop of his axe. Vlad’s severed head was then taken to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and put on display as a warning to other murderous princes.

Vlad was executed in 1476, by which time he had become known as Dracula, the Romanian word for “son of the devil”. Numerous stories spread about his real and supposed cruelty, and people claimed that he had habitually drunk the blood of his victims. It was even stated that he was not a human being at all, but a vampire, forced to live out of the sunlight and in the shadow of his castle walls.

Gradually the rumours began to die down and Prince Vlad looked like becoming a minor, if horrifying, character in Romanian history. Then one night more than 400 years later an Irish writer and former civil servant named Bram Stoker went to bed after demolishing a rich supper of crab covered with mayonnaise sauce. He fell asleep feeling ill and fearful and soon had a nightmare about what he afterwards called a “king vampire”. On awakening the next morning he remembered all the details of his terrifying dream and discussed them with his employer, the great actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving.

It was the autumn of 1896 and Stoker was Sir Henry’s private secretary. The two men had frequently had long and expert discussions about black magic and the supernatural, and the actor advised Stoker to use the nightmare as the basis for a horror novel.

The Irishman had already published a number of what he called “horror serials” and he recalled a conversation he had with Theodore Roosevelt the previous year. He had met Roosevelt, then the Chief of Police in New York, while on a theatrical tour of America, and the policeman had given him a “conducted tour” of the city’s criminal underground. The future President was also keen on what he called “matters mystical” and he urged Stoker to write a book about a supercriminal. “Even better,” he said, “why don’t you make your main character a supernatural criminal?”

Stoker reflected on all this and, a few days after his crab-induced nightmare, he went to the British Museum in London and began to research the unnatural history of vampires. It was then that he first came across the name of Prince Vlad, or Prince Dracula. Stoker was appalled when he read of the ruler’s barbaric behaviour and wondered what could have made someone so merciless.

Then he came upon a section in which Vlad was compared to, and even described as, a vampire. Instantly, Stoker knew that he had found the theme and inspiration for his proposed book. It would be about the evil activities of a vampire. And the monster’s name, of course, would be Dracula. He decided to set some of the action in Romania, although not in the region of Wallachia, where the real-life Dracula had come from. Instead he chose the nearby province of Transylvania as he felt the name had a more sinister ring.

Dracula, as the novel was called, was published in Britain in 1897 and it quickly became a best-seller. In it. Prince Vlad, who had shoulder-length wavy hair and a curly moustache, appears as a tall elderly man, clean-shaven except for a long white moustache. The life and grisly death of the vampire noble was later dramatised and the story was used as the basis of several horror films. Today the tale of Count Dracula is as popular as ever.

In Romania, Prince Vlad has become something of a national hero.

“Vlad, or the real Dracula, fought for the cause of the Romanian people,” an official of the Government Tourist Board said recently. “Despite his cruelty, we had a lot to be thankful to him for when he was alive – and even more now that he is dead.”

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