Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle
strange_complex

6. Peter Tremayne (1977), Dracula Unborn

This is a terrible-brilliant book about Vlad as Dracula, and the first of a trilogy. It's one of many written following the publication of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (1972), In Search of Dracula, which took their (rather over-egged) argument that Stoker's Dracula was based on a profound and detailed knowledge of the life of the historical Vlad Dracula, and spun glorious fiction out of it. Florescu and McNally misunderstood how Stoker (and indeed fiction generally) worked and their case has now been comprehensively deconstructed, but the opposite extreme of arguing that Stoker's Dracula has nothing whatsoever to do with the historial Voievod is also just as wrong, and in any case I don't really care and still love the connection. It is my personal head-canon. So books which adhere to it are my happy place.

This one presents itself in grand Gothic tradition, just like Dracula, as an authentic 'found' document - specifically the memoir of Mircea, son of Vlad Dracula, written in 1480, discovered by Abraham Van Helsing in a Russian monastery in 1898, translated and annotated by him, and then 'found' again by Peter Tremayne in an Islington street market. The story starts in Rome, where Mircea, twenty-two years old, has recently been orphaned following the death of his mother, Dracula's second wife, who had fled there for safety in 1462 when Dracula discovered she was having an affair. He is well-to-do but gets himself into trouble after seducing the wife of a local prince, and decides that the time is right to take up an invitation from his older half-brothers, Vlad and Mihail, to return to Wallachia and claim his share of their birthright now that Dracula is dead. Naturally, when he gets there, he finds them living in a remote and spooky castle, appearing only at night and plotting to turn him into a vampire so he can help them restore the house of Dracula to its rightful mastery over the world. Meanwhile, Dracula himself is not as dead as people have been led to believe...

'Peter Tremayne' is apparently a pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, who is also a Celtic historian and now best-known for the Sister Fildelma murder mystery series. I actually think it's fair enough for a non-specialist historian not to have debunked Florescu and McNally's theories about Dracula for himself, especially since the main grounds for questioning their claims came from the study of Stoker's notes in the 1980s. Meanwhile, his historical grounding is clear throughout, and he has certainly absorbed what was known about the historical Vlad in the the late '70s pretty thoroughly and gives room in the novel to different perspectives on him. Mircea begins the story believing that his father was a popular ruler who had been just to punish the Saxons for trying to overthrow him, but as he meets Saxons on his journey through Wallachia who don't know he is Vlad's son, he discovers that to them he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. Later, in Tirgoviste, he meets an abbot in whose view Vlad was driven by an excessive puritanical austerity which led him to punish the immoral, but also wonders whether the horrific stories about him can really be true, or invented by his enemies to discredit him. Others note that VLad may have been harsh and ruthless, but at least he drove the Turks out, while Mircea himself knows of plenty of other contemporary rulers who impale at least as much of Dracula - including John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester (aka the Butcher of England).

That said, some bits of Tremayne's background research felt like they had been crow-barred in for the sake of it. On the way to Wallachia, Mircea travels through Dubrovnik, but no action takes place there. Rather, it is mentioned, we are treated to a paragraph about its history, economy and demography which reads for all the world as though it had been copied out of an encyclopedia, and then we just go straight into "When I left Dubrovnik, I noticed almost immediately a drop in temperature." So... why bother with a copy-and-paste description of what was actually nothing more than a staging-post on his journey? Meanwhile, there are plenty more nods to Stoker's novel beyond the simple presentation of the story as a first-person documentary account. E.g. Mircea sees blue flames flickering in the darkness as he approaches Castle Dracula, which his coach driver stops and bends over to do something. Later, he learns that one of the ways Dracula may have become a vampire is by dabbling in sorcery and conjuring the devil, while in the final moments of the novel Dracula tells Mircea he has not won because he will spread his revenge over centuries and has only just begun.

The castle itself, when Mircea arrives at it, meshes together some of the features of Stoker's Castle Dracula with what Tremayne must have learnt from Florescu and McNally about Vlad's castle in the Argeș valley, including (as I ascertained by reading their book afterwards) a rather bizarre theory about a second castle a mile from Poenari. Within the novel, it's this second castle which Mircea visits, which of course works very well in a work of fiction because it avoids the constraints of having to adhere to the real Poenari. It means Mircea can approach the castle for the first time in a carriage driven along a narrow winding road supported by a mountain ledge, across a wooden drawbridge and straight into a courtyard, which matches Stoker's novel nicely but wouldn't be possible with the real Poenari. It has a sheer drop of a thousand feet down to the river on one side, which is about as true as you can get in real life of Poenari, but not actually literally so, yet is exactly what Stoker says about Castle Dracula. Its walls are polygonal, following the shape of the plateau on which it stands, like Poenari, and beneath it are many tunnels and secret passageways, including one which leads out into the Argeș valley - not actually true of Poenari, though many people furiously claim that it is, because romanticised legends about the historical Vlad speak of how he escaped a Turkish assault on the castle that way.

Mircea fairly quickly realises that the castle is not a safe environment if he doesn't wish to become a dead-eyed acolyte of Dracula, though, so he decides to escape from the megalomaniacal brothers and the demonic woman who attacks him in the night. After finding his way through the underground tunnels down and out into the Argeș valley, he meets a Cornish monk in the forest who saves him from a bear and with whom he converses in the best shared language they have - Latin. This monk, Brother John, is essentially the Van Helsing figure of the book, with medical training, a knowledge of vampires drawn from William of Newburgh and Walter Map and good knowledge of the Classics too. He calls upon Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Pliny to help him with his healing work and speaks very accurately of references to lamiae in Euripides and Aristophanes and striges in Ovid. Their investigations take them, of course, to Snagov monastery, where they learn that Dracula was indeed buried there after his death, but more recently exhumed and reburied by his sons in the family crypt at Castle Dracula - a nice use of the contested traditions about whether he was buried there or not. Alas for Brother John, though, when he and Mircea return to their castle for their final confrontation with the Dracula family, he falls prey to Dracula's brides, and Mircea has to stake him before he transforms completely.

Dracula himself is a largely unseen presence through most of the book, though there is a compelling scene in which Mircea sees him standing some way off in the forest outside an inn where he is sheltering with Brother John, and they do come face to face at the very end of the novel. But I didn't mind too much, because he is generally most effective if used sparingly, and besides we learnt all sorts of little snippets about his background and origins as the story unfolded which were again pretty much exactly in line with my personal head-canon. Mircea's brothers boast of a family history dating back to the earliest human occupation of the Carpathians, and specifically state that several historically-recorded local rulers of the Roman era were members of the house of Dracula: Burebista, Dicomes, Decebelus. The edge is taken off it all slightly by the fact that they refer to their Roman-era predecessors as Darcians rather than Dacians, which evoked incongruous images of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, but other than that the hints of a connection between vampirism and paganism were very welcome, and indeed became even more explicit as the story went on. The brothers claim that the family owes its allegiance "only to its heritage and to the ancient gods who made it", while Dracula later explains that he studied the writings of the ancients and particularly the Egyptian cult of the fire-breathing beast Draco, whose priests knew the secrets of immortality but were driven underground when Amentotep [sic] introduced the monotheistic cult of the sun-god. Indeed, the habit of conflating paganism with Satanism is directly engaged with too. The castle proves to contain a very Hammer-style room full of black drapes decorated with runic symbols and containing a black altar which Brother John interprets as evidence of Satanic practices. But Dracula responds directly to this in his final confrontation with Mircea: "Your friend, the priest, he who was Brother John, said we worshipped the devil. What devil? I know of no such being".

After all this, the actual ending felt slightly disappointing. Mircea fights off most of the vampires with a sword blessed by the Pope, through which he feels some kind of magic power surging as he lifts it against them. That felt like a bit too much of an easy solution, I think - as when a Doctor Who story is essentially solved by waving the sonic screwdriver. During the sword-fight, a candelabra is knocked over into a tapestry, setting the castle ablaze, and Dracula himself is lost somewhere in the flames - which of course creates plenty of opportunities for him to escape and go on to further adventures. As Van Helsing spells out in a final note appended to the manuscript, that includes those recorded by Stoker.

If there's another book out there which combines Stoker's Dracula, the historical Dracula and Hammerish notions of vampirism as rooted in ancient paganism, I'd sure as hell love to read it. Until then, this one will enjoy a special place in my heart, despite its occasional ineptitudes and rather weak ending. I remain unclear as to why it is titled 'Dracula Unborn', as I couldn't see that that title matched up with any of its characters.

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Tags: books, books read 2020, bram stoker, dracula, historical characters, horror, paganism, reviews, romania, vampires
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