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Books: Vlad the Impaler

6 minute read
John Skow


by LEONARD WOLF 327 pages. Little Brown. $8.95.



RADU FLORESCU 223 pages. New York Graphic. $8.95.

California is, of course, the new Transylvania. The mind does not boggle therefore at the news that a professor at California State University at San Francisco teaches an accredited course in vampirism. He also has written a book. A question arises. Is Professor Wolf for vampirism or against it? The answer remains murky. For what the professor has done is to invent a scholarly equivalent of the celebrated New Journalism, whose practitioners take their own temperatures every second paragraph and print the resultant fever charts as reportage.

“I shiver with more than cold,” one of his early sentences begins, “and into my trained academic mind there push, in all their luminosity, Faust’s lowering words to Mephistopheles.” The lines he goes on to quote do not, as it happens, come within half a mile of the subject of vampires. Professor Wolf, as he explains, was sitting one sunny day on the Berkeley campus watching girls and feeling randy when he happened to think of Faust. And so? So nothing; Wolfs trained academic mind drops the thought, satisfied that it has served its purpose as a lyrical prelude.

The thought he then takes up is arresting: “We slept, in the dark, sweet exhaustion after love, for hours in near oblivion.” What’s this? Read on: “It was no time for the telephone bell, but it rang. And rang. As if a fishhook had caught in the back of my skull and I was reeled upward from the nourishing dark, and at last I heard it, reached for it, angrily.” Spillane Agonistes, but what is it all about? Well, someone has called to say there is a live vampire to be interviewed. The caller was overstating the case, as Wolf admits, but never mind.

Gratuitous quotations and shy confessions follow each other in a happy jumble. The reader is treated to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy (twice) and to an account of Wolfs first sex experience. Wolf donates a pint of blood to a hospital and allows himself to entertain giddy thoughts. He interviews some cancer patients, who have little to say, and an actor, Christopher Lee, who has played Dracula in several films. He talks with some high school girls, and although the subject of vampires does not come up, he learns a lot about teen-age sex. He does find one 22-year-old sadomasochist who says he likes to suck blood.

The rest is a windy literary turn. He sketches the history of Gilles de Rais, the 15th century French child murderer, who was not a vampire. He gives a gloss of Rider Haggard’s She, which is not about vampires, and a 20-page summary of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which is. It is here that the single idea of Wolfs book is developed. This is the notion that the force of Stoker’s novel derives from the sensual repressions of the Victorian Age. Of course he is correct. The fantasy of a tall intruder in evening clothes bending over the naked bosom of a sleeping maiden must have been delicious. He might have gone further. The Middle Ages believed matter-of-factly in vampires, and the 19th century was thrilled by fictional ones. There has been a small spate of vampire books and films of late, but except as a soggy bit of low camp, Dracula is not really a monster for our times. We lack the peasant theology for one kind of belief, and the right kind of sexual snarls for the other.

There was a historical Dracula, however, and according to the authors of In Search of Dracula, he was a fright to believe in. The book clears him of one notable charge: by examining Rumanian, Russian, German and French folklore of the 15th century, in which Dracula figures vividly, it establishes that he was not a vampire. That was Bram Stoker’s libel; needing a monstrous name and a far-off place for his fantasy, he chose Dracula and Transylvania. The real Dracula, son of Dracul (the name means dragon), was a Christian prince and mass murderer who lived in what is now Rumania, at the edge of the Turkish empire, from 1430 or ’31 to 1476. He was known to his times as Vlad the Impaler, and with good reason. His favorite method of torture and execution, although he had others, was to spit his victims on wooden stakes and watch them writhe.

Woodcuts of the time show Dracula eating at a banquet table outdoors, surrounded by a large array of stakes on which bodies are speared. When a visitor to his court showed himself to be revolted by the resulting stench, Dracula jovially ordered the man himself to be impaled, but on an especially high stake, so he could not be offended by the smell of other bodies. When two emissaries of Sultan Mohammed II neglected to take off their turbans, explaining that such was the Turkish custom, Dracula had the turbans nailed to their heads. He spitted babies on their mothers’ breasts and forced parents to eat stewed pieces of their children.

In all, he may have executed some 100,000 people—Turks, Saxons, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Jews and Gypsies.

This was approximately 20% of the population of Wallachia, where he reigned (Transylvania was a neighboring province). What is fascinating about this tyrant is that he was universally acknowledged to have been an effective ruler. He savaged the Turks, whipped the landowning nobles into line, cowed the Saxons, and relieved the poor and the sick of their misery by burning large numbers of them. So perfect was his law and order that he was able to leave a rich golden goblet by a wayside spring in his domain for the refreshment of travelers. No one ever stole it.

In Search of Dracula is a bit overpackaged. But the authors have done fine work in assembling documents and tales from Dracula’s own time. A report written for Czar Ivan the Great in 1490 is particularly revealing. It would not have been good sense to criticize Dracula harshly lest the Czar suspect the principle of autocratic rule was being challenged. So the writer repeated the bloody stories in an approving tone.

Dracula, he implied, was eccentric but just, a stern father to his people. Thus do courtiers who present news summaries to rulers remain in favor, even to this day.

∙John Skow

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