“In Search of Dracula” by Raymond T. McNally & Radu Florescu

About twenty years ago I tried to write a vampire novel but eventually, for several reasons, abandoned the project. Even so, I have never regarded that effort as a waste of time. For one thing, I think (or hope) it helped me to be a better writer. Plus, the effort included “research”: i.e., reading books and watching movies pertinent to the subject. The reading portion of this investigation was my favorite part, and the book that stands out is In Search of Dracula.

The updated and revised edition that I used was published in 1994. The coauthors explore a wide variety of topics which surround the ominous figure of Dracula. It turns out that he was not a mere product of legend, fiction, and film. He was based on a real life monster named Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, a prince from Walachia who ruled during the 1400s.  The nickname “Impaler” derived from his preferred method of torturing and murdering his victims, many of whom were Turkish invaders who had the misfortune of meeting Vlad on the battlefield. However, when war did not provide a pretext for his sadistic tendencies, he gathered victims from among his own people. If there is even a fraction of truth in the accounts of Vlad’s cruelties, it’s easy to understand how the dark legends arose and evolved long after his death. For example, here’s an account from an ancient Russian manuscript:

“If a married woman committed adultery Dracula ordered that her shameful parts be cut and she be skinned alive…”

The description continues and gets much worse.

Other historical figures are considered in the course of this book, including the Hungarian aristocrat Elizabeth Bathory, aka the Blood Countess, who was no slouch when it came to sadism and murder. A number of corpses, drained of blood and discarded in fields by Bathory’s servants, were believed to be victims of vampires by local villagers. Moreover, the Blood Countess may have been a relative of Vlad/Dracula.

From these and similar real-life sources have sprung the legends about vampires; and these, in turn, gave rise to novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and movies like Nosferatu.

McNally’s and Florescu’s book is a treasure trove of information. It includes maps, chronologies, a genealogy, and even a travel guide for people who want to explore the Romanian haunts of Dracula. What I found especially helpful was the bibliography and filmography.

Of course, this subject matter is not for everyone, and it’s undeniable that vampire literature and cinema is littered with morbidity and exploitation. But I’ve always admired Bram Stoker’s novel, and many of the lesser known works of vampire fiction are also worth looking at. Plus, I have been a fan of Hammer horror films since I was a child (the first one I saw, Kiss of the Vampire, has held up well over the years). So for readers who are interested in the historical roots of these creative products, In Search of Dracula should be of great value.