The First Drop of Blood: A Dream of Dracula

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It’s now possible to find gazillions of non-fiction books on Dracula, novel or historical character or cultural figure. I recommend anything by Elizabeth Miller. But in the early 70s, there was really only one:  A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, by Leonard Wolf.

It’s a long-form meditation on what vampires and Dracula mean to people in the (then) contemporary world. He talks to modern supposed vampires, visits Transylvania and sees an awful lot of movies. His insights are occasionally brilliant but often rather obvious; yet it has to be remembered, he was the first one writing this stuff for a popular audience. It’s like high school students who don’t like Hamlet because it’s full of cliche’s.

Wolf was actually born in Transylvania, and the book is a dive into both the legend of Dracula in popular culture, and into the psyche of Leonard Wolf. One is obviously more interesting now than the other, but even the personal asides and extended vignettes have their entertainment value. Wolf was writing at the end of the Sixties, so some of his interviewees actually use phrases like, “groovy” and “turned on.” He lets us into his sex life, which seems to involve younger women, including students (this was not considered so improper back in the full flush of the sexual revolution). He talks a lot about how his discoveries and insights make him feel. So it’s very much a book of its time.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Still, it’s got some value, and Wolf can turn a phrase and make a pithy observation. He calls Vlad the Impaler “a practical joker of agony” (p. 244). Of the heroes of Stoker’s novel, he says, “They were strange, one may suppose, even before Dracula came into the lives of the men” (p. 210). And on contemplating his own mortality in the mirror, he writes, “The man I see in the mirror gets a look of surprised misery in his eyes, as if he heard the flapping of leather wings bearing creatures through the darkness who will converge on the fluorescent-lighted silver rectangle of the mirror where his face is illuminated, trapped” (p. 92). Whew.

Reading it today, and as a fan of the topic, I’m especially swept along in the enthusiasm Wolf has for his subject. He knows, despite the critical consensus at the time, that there’s something valuable here in the conjunction of history and pop art, in the transformation of Vlad Drakul into Count Dracula. He may never quite articulate it, but he gets most of the way there, and he gives later scholars a good spot to start.

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