Halloween surprises and other encounters in the company of Dracula

Meeting someone who travels the world investigating fairytales and a Gothic expert who specialises in all things spooky and supernatural as well as seeing a vampire killing kit – these were among highlights of my pre-Halloween sojourn this past week in Dublin.

Asked to give a lecture separating historical fact from literary fiction associated with Irish author, Bram Stoker, his arch character, Dracula, and medieval warlord, Vlad the Impaler, I was delighted to stand Saturday afternoon before a capacity audience in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, relating my adventures researching ‘Digging for Dracula.’

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Imagine my surprise when confronted by Dracula Junior and his mother in the ghostly grounds of Dublin Castle last Friday night.

Now an annual event, the Bram Stoker Festival took place at various suitably atmospheric venues including the eerie, shadowy Chapel Royale inside the grounds of Dublin Castle and the Samuel Beckett Theatre deep within the cobbled-confines of Trinity College, where Ireland’s 19th century best-selling novelist was once a humble student.

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(l to r) Enjoying the company of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin founder of the Inkwell Group and organiser of the festival’s literary programme; Professor Bill Hughes, Bath Spa University; and Angela Dinu, an authentic Transylvanian from Brasov.

Such is the fascination with Stoker’s immortal long-toothed Transylvanian Count, the festival events earlier this week attracted hundreds of people, both speakers and participants. Before and after my talk I was approached by people from places as diverse as Rome, Warsaw and Las Vegas, all keen to discuss ‘beyond-the-grave’ mysteries.

Christa Thompson, from Florida, travels throughout the world investigating and writing about folk stories, while Ed Mooney, from Kildare, combines his passion for photography with his deep interest in history, ancient sites, folklore and mythology. Much of Edwards’ free time is now spent traveling around the Irish countryside in search of his next adventure, which he fondly refers to as ‘ruin-hunting.

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(l to r) In the delightful company of Intrepid folklore investigators from Ireland and the US.

Lara Musto, a highly-qualified librarian and researcher, originally from Rome was among the participants. She said she had been fascinated by Bram Stoker’s work ever since she was a child, “Believe it or not, my father used to read me vampire stories at bed-time, and they helped me sleep. So you can imagine, I’ve really enjoyed the talks I’ve attended here in Dublin during the festival.”

Asked the inevitably question whether I believed in the infamous nocturnal blood-sucking creatures (known as ‘strigoi’ in Romanian folklore), I answered, both evasively and diplomatically, I must admit: “Just because something is written about doesn’t mean it’s true. But then again, just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not.” What else could I say? Not having seen either Donegal fairies or Transylvanian vampires, I remain doubtful but very much open-minded.

Credit must go to the Bram Stoker Festival organisers who provided a plethora of delightful activities for everyone. These ranged from walks with experienced guide, Pat Liddy who brought to life spine-chilling tales such as Stoker’s ‘Dracula;’ Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Faanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray;’ book readings and a cosy Q&A with authors Lynne Truss  and Joanna Briscoe who penned ghostly tales for Hammer Classics, an imprint of Random House; and lively music every night. Light-hearted humor was the hallmark of a funky ‘Literary Death March’ at Smock Alley Theatre, where writers such as Lynn Shepherd read their work and competed with others before a panel of judges, with audience participation in a rousing literary quiz finale.

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Flying witches, goblins and vampires – all part of the Bram Stoker Festival in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in Dublin.

The festival – sponsored by Failte Ireland and Dublin City Council – also featured a tantalising discussion entitled ‘Madness and Sexuality’ at which Paul Murray, a former cultural attaché at the Irish Embassy in London and a Stoker biographer, and two doctors, one a psychiatrist, discussed Stoker’s state of sanity when he penned his macabre bestseller.

Much to my surprise, the ‘vampire killing kit’ was among strange artefacts at a special exhibit entitled ‘BLOOD’ at the Science Gallery beside Trinity College, hosted to coincide with the Stoker festival. The ‘kit’ was neatly arranged inside a glass case and included a gun with silver bullets and a hammer and wooden stake (best, I suppose, to be prepared for all eventualities).

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Gun with silver bullets, a crucifix and a hammer with wooden stakes of various sizes – all elements in a vampire killing kit.

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Vampire season approacheth

A strange invitation popped into my mailbox this week – and it being October, with Halloween approaching fast – perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised whom it came from: that most infamous of blood-thirsty vampires, Dracula.

Or at least from some people close to him, those at Fáilte Ireland and on Dublin City Council who together next week are organizing a special international Bram Stoker Festival in honor of the Long-Toothed Count and his maker, Dublin author Bram Stoker.

Quite right too: after all, ‘Dracula’ is believed to be the most printed book after the Bible, making Bram Ireland’s all-time, best-selling author.

Ever since I penned a tongue-in-cheek (note I didn’t say teeth-in-neck) travel book entitled “Digging for Dracula” almost 20 years ago while a foreign correspondent in eastern Europe, I’ve receive periodic invitations to speak at events focusing on Man’s fascination with blood-sucking immortals (‘strigoi’ as they’re known in the deepest, darkest Carpathians).

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But the invitation that popped into my mailbox this time was stranger than most – to speak next Saturday at no less prestigious a residence than the Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Why there – no idea? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s certainly a sign from on high that we’ve long passed the era when a classic novel such as this was not even acknowledged as part of our literary heritage nor studied in school, for fear it might make us feel a little  too erotic, Catholic and all, as we are.

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But go I will and enjoy a nostalgic journey back in time – to Bram Stoker at the turn of the 19th century, a time when a general obsession about a shadowy, little-known region of eastern Europe called Transylvania and gory, bloody deaths (Jack the Ripper was alive and well and doing his stuff in Whitechapel) combined to focus peoples’ minds on all things dark and macabre.

Thus, Bram, then manager of prominent actor Henry Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum (having earlier eloped with Oscar Wilde’s former girlfriend – yes, Oscar was bisexual once), dusted up his research at the British Library (Bram never actually went to Transylvania) and penned his blood-riddled masterpiece. While his tale has been made into a zillion movies (the first being the German-made ‘Nosferatu’) and lots of TV series, poor old Bram barely made a penny from his work. When he died, his obituaries barely mentioned he was even a novelist.

After his death, the German company tried to avoid paying copyright by changing Dracula’s name to Count Orlok. Bram’s widow, Florence, sued, the court ordered all copies of the movie burned but one copy had already been distributed around the world and this was duplicated, making it an example of an early cult film.

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For me, writing ‘Digging for Dracula’ was a quirky idea that emerged from an even quirkier fax received one morning at my Bucharest apartment from The Times foreign news desk in London asking me to cover a rather bizarre event – the ‘First-Ever World Congress of Dracula’ in Romania. Initially I thought it a joke (foreign newsroom editors have a black sense of humor akin to those in hospital emergency rooms, it helps in dealing with everyday catastrophes).

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A much younger version of yours-truly stepped forward chivalrously (or, more likely, was pushed from behind) and ever since has been bound in wedlock to a woman from Transylvania for all eternity.

With hundreds of participants attending from many different countries including Japan, the US, England, France and Germany (strangely, aside from myself, none from Ireland, home of the author) and many different professions – doctors, nurses, academics, writers, psychologists, teachers – the week-long affair proved to be quite an eye-opener. Some people admitted to having coffins in their living rooms and slept soundly there when the notion took them; others had paid a hefty sum to their dentists to have their teeth sharpened.

Many of the speakers at the conference proved interesting, ranging from a psychologist’s view on what he termed ‘energy vampires, ’ those people whose company we sometimes share who leave us drained of energy; to a colorful history of the medieval warlord (‘voivod’ in Romanian), Vlad the Impaler, who some say was the model for Bram’s lead character.

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While mysterious places in Romania such as Snagov Island and the Transylvanian village of Arefu, the ancient site of Vlad’s castle, proved intriguing for me to visit on my travels for the book, so did the mummies of Saint Michan’s in Dublin and Whitby (where Dracula’s ship arrives in a storm) – all major influences on Bram, the dramatic storyteller.

But seeing crooner Bing Crosby of ‘White Christmas’ fame laid out alongside the world’s most famous vampire in a Los Angeles graveyard proved more than anything that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Fangs for stopping by and, in the words of the Count, “Come freely, go safely and leave some of the happiness you bring.”