Fangs for the memories: How the count made me the writer I am

Wed, Apr 18, 2012, 01:00

I’M THE BASTARD grandson of Bram Stoker, and proud of it. Of course, I don’t mean that I’m genealogically related to the theatrical manager and sometime author – at least, not to the best of my knowledge. But as a writer who works predominantly in the horror field, and as one who has also worked to a large extent on vampires, I feel as close to Bram Stoker as anyone who is not a blood relative could possibly feel. After all, without his ground-breaking novel about a Transylvanian count, my field might very possibly not even exist.

Dracula is not just a career-defining work, which is rare, but a genre-defining work, which is far rarer. While it might seem impossible now to think of a world without dark, brooding, fanged bloodsuckers who turn to ash if exposed to the rays of the sun, without Stoker’s seminal work they would still probably be nothing more than a literary curio, by all means much-explored monsters, as they were before he laid hands on them, but ones that were little known or cared about by anyone bar those with a true interest in the grotesque.

Vampires had been around long before Bram Stoker hit the scene, undead creatures of myth who had cropped up in various forms in many cultures. But Stoker was the one who brought the myths together and combined them to create a single entity far greater than the sum of its parts. In a way he was like the Bismarck or Garibaldi of horror, uniting individual horrific elements into one majestically monstrous beast, an empire builder who worked with mental states as opposed to those of the topographical kind.

As one who has followed in Stoker’s footsteps, I am often asked to explain why vampires are so popular. The short answer, which I usually avoid in an effort not to look like a bumbling fan with more enthusiasm than literary kudos, is that they’re cool, baby, cool. It is really, when you strip all of our critical mumbo jumbo away, that simple. Vampires have style. They get the best-looking ladies. They don’t age. They dwell in the finest mansions that money can buy. Dracula is like Keith Richards minus the wrinkles.

Although in the original, of course, Dracula was wrinkled. The book differs vastly from the films and books that have followed. Stoker’s Dracula is more human than most other vampires. For instance, he can come out during the day. The novel is not the final word in the vampire canon, merely a springboard for the imagination of others.

I think this is the reason why the work has stood the test of time and spawned so many intriguing imitations. While there have been many anaemic rip-offs of Dracula, more explorative and accomplished authors have taken the bones of the book and built their own, unique creatures out of them. Vampires have been evolving over the decades, reworked by one generation after another. They have almost become a mirror image of ourselves, a way for humanity to explore its darkest fears and dreams. We keep getting so much out of vampires because we are able to pour so much into them.

Was Stoker thinking of that when he set out to write his masterpiece? I doubt it. I imagine he just wanted to tell a cracking good story, which is what he did. If you ignore everything that has happened with vampires since, and go back to that book, you will find a story every bit as thrilling as it was when first published. While Dracula was cutting-edge fiction, a product of its time, it is also a book that works just as well in its future, a page-turner of the highest order.

My first exposure to Dracula was through the medium of film, as I’m sure it is for the majority of people. I was about six years old when I caught one of the Hammer flicks on television. As I watched Dracula crawling across the wall of his castle like a bat, I fell in love. I had always been a bloodthirsty child, and I instantly knew that I had made a friend for life. And beyond.

A few years later I saw the second half of the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. That blew me away and confirmed in my mind that vampires were the coolest monsters on the face of the planet.

A short while after that I stumbled across the book (I think it was in Killarney, of all places) and asked my mother to buy it for me. She was dubious, but she always believed in letting me follow my own literary path, so she obliged, and I settled down at the grand old age of 10 or 11 to read my first Stephen King tome.

Salem’s Lot is a faithful reimagining of Stoker’s novel, with a Dracula-type vampire relocated to the United States in the 1970s. It was my introduction to the world of the real Dracula. As gruesome and garish as the Hammer films were, they never truly captured the darkness and coolness that lay at the heart of Stoker’s book. King, on the other hand, nailed it dead-on. When I came to read Dracula years later, it felt like a familiar work, not just because I knew most of the story but also because I had experienced the same air of fascinating dread, mixed with fast-paced thrills, in Salem’s Lot.

Having wanted to be a writer for almost all of my life, I had long dreamed of contributing my own vampiric entry to the ever-growing tower of work that has built on the foundations Stoker laid down.

I tried a few short stories in my teens but couldn’t find a way of offering anything new, so I shied away from the challenge for a long time.

It was only in my mid-20s that I found my own way in, through the unlikely medium of children’s books. Much had been written about adult vampires, but very few writers had tried to capture what it would feel like to be a child in a world of blood.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to deviate wildly from Stoker’s undead touchstone, but at the same time I was conscious of his work at every turn. Rather than try to generate a completely new type of vampire, it was a case of thinking back to Dracula and deciding which elements I wanted to keep and which I wanted to tinker with. Like mixing a piece of music, my intention was always to honour the original while trying to create something out of it that could work in its own right.

I recently returned to my vampire work and wrote a four-book series, The Saga of Larten Crepsley. These books covered 200 years in the life of a vampire, starting in the early 19th century and working their way through to the present.

I knew going into the project that the opportunity would arise to include a mention of Bram Stoker. Indeed, it would have been amiss not to make reference to the book, seeing as how it was released halfway through my story’s chronology and served to drive vampires to the forefront of popular culture.

The upshot was that I got to write a scene featuring Bram Stoker while he was researching his vampire novel. On the one hand I felt rather foolish for suggesting, albeit in a drily humorous way, that my vampires might have had an influence on the author of the greatest single vampire book ever published. At the same time it was a pleasure to be able to publicly tip my hat to the master and openly acknowledge his influence on the world I had created.

I think Stoker would be delighted that his book is still in print and as popular as ever. I’m also sure that he’d be pleased by all of the bastard grandchildren he has sired, the lousy rip-off merchants as well as the Stephen Kings. I see myself as being part of a community of writers, and there’s no greater compliment than for another author to claim your work as an influence. Bram Stoker lives on through thousands of his literary offspring, each one as indebted to him as I am, and on the centenary of his passing I think that knowledge would bring a smile to the old maestro’s face. Almost as wide a smile as the one I’m sure would dance across his bloodstained lips if he could see how many readers he is still, directly or indirectly, managing to terrify all these decades on.

Bram Stoker is a century dead but as active as ever. Long live Bram Stoker.

Darren Shan’s latest novel, Brothers to the Death, is published by HarperCollins next week