Dracula: Sense & Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller. Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, UK: Desert Island Books, 2000. 256 pages. Hb. £16.99/$29.95.
Since In Search of Dracula, the milestone study by historians Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, burst on the scene in 1972, we have witnessed an increasing amount of energy devoted to the study of vampires in general and Dracula in particular. In Search of Dracula was a major force in legitimizing vampire and Dracula studies, and as a growing number of academics and other learned commentators jumped on the bandwagon, all of the recent (and not-so-recent) scholarly theories were pulled from the shelf to illuminate our understanding. Speculation reigned supreme. It has been a glorious time.
Coincidentally, as the community of scholars was being assembled and taking on some group identity around a new field of study, our work was strongly affected/distorted by developments within the popular culture. A reading public made vampire fiction a growth industry, and Hollywood was turning out new vampire movies almost weekly. Increasingly through the 1990s, television documentaries voraciously consumed the drops of golden nectar as we expounded upon the latest tidbits of information about Dracula and waxed eloquently concerning his Transylvanian origins.
As the academic dialogue continued, writers seeking to reach a more popular audience (including many academics as well) became attached to pet theories which with media encouragement they were all to eager to transform into fact. Some interesting imaginings became the foundation for even wilder assertions about the whole subject. And we all watched with some degree of amusement as small groups of people developed a vampire subculture built around the adoption of a vampiric lifestyle (complete with black clothes and a coffin for sleeping), a yearning to be a vampire, and even a belief that real vampires (the undead, not just kinky blood drinkers) actually existed. We looked down on these people who had obviously confused the modern, highly romaticized, literary myth of the vampire with folkloric vampire stories (none of which present a very appealing picture of the vampiric condition).
With this subculture's mistake as an extreme example, it seemed that one could say almost anything about vampires and get away with it. As I started work on The Vampire Book in the early 1990s, I was frankly appalled at what I found, and spent a considerable amount of time sitting in the folklore section of the University of California-Santa Barbara trying to verify all that was being passed along in the many vampire texts.
In the section of vampire studies specifically focused on Dracula, the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, speculations have been rife for the last three decades over the relationship of Count Dracula, the character in the novel, to Prince Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, an actual figure in the fifteenth century, and the land of Transylvania, his birthplace. Over the last generation, it has been assumed that Vlad was identical with Count Dracula, and such assumptions have found their way into numerous novels, short stories, movies, and television shows. In the wake of the identification with Vlad, we scholars have made pilgrimages to Transylvania, have been flattered by all of the media interest, and ecstatic when commercial publishers issued contracts for our books. It has been a fun time.
But if I read Dracula: Sense & Nonsense correctly, Miller is trying to bring our fun to an end. Miller, a professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada) has challenged us to drop all the falsehoods and unsubstantiated pet theories about Dracula and bring our work up to speed with all we have discovered in the past three decades of concentrated study of Dracula. Building on two decades of detailed study, bolstered by her interaction with her fellow academics, her new book is a wake up call to rid our writings and public pronouncements of numerous persisting errors concerning Count Dracula, author Bram Stoker, Transylvania, and especially Prince Vlad.
Alas, it appears our party is over, and the end is in sight for all the fun we have been having. We will have no more dress-up balls, no more late-night conventions, and no rationale to return to Eastern Europe's party capital, Bucharest. Wasn't the world much more interesting when we dressed the Count in a tux, suspected that Bram Stoker had died of syphilis, knew that Vlad really was a blood-drinking vampire, and secretly entertained the possibility that vampires really did exist.
All that doesn't seem to matter to Miller. She points the accusing finger and demands that those of us who pretend to be scholars must put everything else aside and be true to our profession. She modestly suggests that, given the present state of knowledge, we discard the unfounded speculations and deadend hypotheses concerning Dracula, and that we base our future writings and discussions on what we presently know. After all, we are the ones who produced all this knowledge, why not utilize it? Scholars acting like scholars, now that's an interesting idea.
Then having girded ourselves with knowledge, Miller also suggests a more daunting secondary agendathat we launch a search and destroy mission against the widespread body of misinformation in the popular culture, with a special focus on the media. For those of us who lack any crusading spirit, we can at least cease to cooperate with the future spread of falsehoods. And lest we have any doubts concerning the errors no longer to be spread aboard, throughout her text Miller has punctuated her catalog of errors with emphatic academic code words (often used privately in scholarly gatherings, but very rarely used among the uninitiated)"Claptrap," "Poppycock!" "Utter trash," "Baloney," and "This stinks."
But is Miller really out to destroy all our fun? In the end, I think not. Dracula is as fascinating as it is important in the history of literature. Even with many of our misconceptions about it pushed aside, we can still enjoy our movies, worship at the shrine of Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, and occasionally contribute to the next generation of expanding knowledge. We must agree that for every problem that Miller pronounced solved, a new one now stands in its place to entertain us. Rest assured, the romantic vampire, the vegetarian vampire, and the psychologically obsessed vampire are here to stay. We will survive the divorce between Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. Breathe easy.
Now, lest my having some fun at Dr. Miller's expense be misunderstood, in closing let me state unequivocally, Dracula Sense & Nonsense is a very important volume. It stands out amid the many publications of the last decade and joins that small select set of books that belongs among the desk references of every serious scholar, researcher, and writer in the field. Yes, most of us will feel some discomfort on first reading. She even has the audacity to criticize my books in several places, the pain of which was only slightly alleviated by her own confessions of falling short of the high standard she is setting. But I hope that you were as lucky as I was early on in having a teacher who drilled into me the virtue of being grateful to colleagues who assist us in checking our errors.
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