Illustrating Dracula

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Cover art by Edgar Alfred Holloway for the Rider edition of Bram Stoker’s novel, an edition reprinted many times during the early 20th century. Holloway’s Count is shown as Stoker describes him in the early chapters of the book, white-haired and bearded.

Last year I illustrated a number of stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and the entirety of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Spanish publisher Editorial Alma. Earlier this year I was illustrating Dracula for the same publisher; now the book is in print I can show the results here. This was another difficult task since I had a few weeks to illustrate all 27 chapters of the novel while trying to do something new (or at least slightly different) with a very familiar story.

As with Frankenstein, I opted for fidelity to the text and period details. Despite its epistolary form, Dracula is much more readable (in a contemporary sense) than Frankenstein, so more people will have read Stoker than Shelley; but the sheer scale of cultural mauling that Dracula has been subject to means that—as with Frankenstein—even the allegedly faithful adaptations often deviate from the novel. The lounge-lizard vampire that everyone knows was a creation of Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage adaptation, the success of which led to Tod Browning’s film and Bela Lugosi’s performance (which I’ve never liked); film and theatre may have made Dracula universally popular but the Lugosi stereotype has overshadowed the more powerful and violent character that Stoker gives us, with his bearded face, hairy palms and glowing eyes. So that’s who you see here, although the restrictions of time and brief (one picture per chapter) meant that some of the moments I’d have liked to illustrate had to be forfeit. Poor old Renfield gets short shrift, and some of the minor male characters are out of the picture altogether.

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On the plus side (I hope), many of the background details are well-researched even if they’re not at all obvious. The castle in the first picture (above) is Bran Castle, known today as “Dracula’s Castle” even though the building in the novel is Stoker’s invention; it certainly looks the part. As before, the full run of pictures follows below. All may be seen at a larger size here.

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Dracula and I by Christopher Lee

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Impossible, not to say foolish, to attempt a brief summary of Christopher Lee’s incredible life and career. Rather than compete with the obituaries, here’s something you won’t find elsewhere, a short piece by Lee himself about his relationship to the role that made him famous. This is taken from The Dracula Scrapbook, a collection of Dracula and vampire-related cuttings assembled by Peter Haining for New English Library in 1976. The Lee piece was originally written for Midi Minuit Fantastique, Éric Losfeld’s film magazine which, we’re told, ceased publication in 1971. Haining dates Lee’s article as 1973 so I’ve left it undated, although it does seem to have been written around the time he was making (or had made) Dracula AD 1972. To compound the confusion, the poster above is for that very film but titled Dracula 73. Lee preferred Jesús Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) to the two final Hammer Draculas but the latter have their enthusiasts.

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DRACULA AND I by Christopher Lee

I should certainly be pleased to play the part of Dracula again on the screen (surely it is the immortal role par excellence?), although I have many times refused to accept it. Nowadays I think the public identifies me with this part, and if I have sometimes refused it, it was for fear that, like the unfortunate Bela Lugosi, I should spend the rest of my life unable to play anything else. However I would willingly play it again, always provided that the production and scenario of this great subject satisfied me to the full. In any case, I have no intention of playing it to gain some sort of cheap publicity or for the financial benefit of a group of individuals incapable of appreciating or understanding the great power and the classical style of this great subject.

The part is one which needs to be played with respect and dignity, although one must always consider the commercial angle, which nowadays cannot be ignored.

I wrote recently that a true actor ought to be able to play a great diversity of parts. I think I have proved this as far as I am concerned, and that consequently there is no danger for me of being ‘typed’. But I am first and foremost an actor and must earn my living, and if the occasion arises again I shall he delighted to play the part of Dracula again under conditions which satisfy me.

Above all I should wish my interpretation to be more faithful to the novel of Bram Stoker. It seems to me that in the film Horror of Dracula (which, by the way, was excellent and a great success) the scenario left in the shade some aspects of the novel which, if they had been retained, would have improved the film as a whole considerably. For example, the sequences with the wolves and the capital scene with Jonathan Harker and the mirror, not to mention the boat sailing for England. The omission of Renfield was also very regrettable.

I believe that these scenes were not shot for financial reasons; they would have made the film considerably longer and therefore called for a great increase in the production budget.

It may surprise you to know that I have not seen any of the other versions of Dracula. Most of them were produced when I was very young and my age did not allow me to go to see them. But I think this is an advantage in my case, for above all I should not like to be influenced in my approach to the part by those who preceded me, even by the great Bela Lugosi. It will always be a cause for great regret to me that I never met him, whereas I know Boris Karloff very well and have a great admiration for him.

My personal idea of the interpretation of Count Dracula was of course based on the novel which I have read over and over again, and within the framework of the scenario and the production I have tried to give my personal view of its interpretation.

Bram Stoker’s grand-daughter came to see me on the set during the shooting, and was kind enough to assure me that my interpretation was excellent, and that she was sure her grandfather would have appreciated it.

Of course there was a great difference between the scenario and the novel, but I have always tried to emphasise the solitude of Evil and particularly to make it clear that however terrible the actions of Count Dracula might be, he was possessed by an occult power which was completely beyond his control. It was the Devil, holding him in his power, who drove him to commit those horrible crimes, for he had taken possession of his body from time immemorial. Yet his soul, surviving inside its carnal wrapping, was immortal and could not he destroyed by any means. All this is to explain the great sadness which I have tried to put into my interpretation.

Another problem was involved in the interpretation, a problem of a sexual nature. Blood, the symbol of virility, and the sexual attraction attached to it, has always been closely linked in the universal theme of Vampirism. I had to try to suggest this without destroying the part by clumsy over-emphasis. Above all, I have never forgotten that Count Dracula was a gentleman, a member of the upper aristocracy, and in his early life a great soldier and leader of men.

Of course it was impossible, within the limits of the scenario, to show this, but it is still possible by one’s interpretation to suggest the facts of the past without actually showing them.

As I have already told you, I am quite in favour of the idea of playing the part of Count Dracula again, always provided that the period and the Gothic atmosphere of the novel are respected.

I believe it is perfectly possible for a production of a film on this subject to be made in a modern setting, but there is only one Dracula, and his period must not be changed under any circumstances.

I have not read the whole of Bram Stoker’s work; I have only read (apart from Dracula) The Lair of the White Worm and one of his shortest stories, The Squaw. The first could not be screened, but the second in a shortened form would make an extraordinary film. The Squaw is, moreover, one of the most terrifying stories that Bram Stoker ever wrote.

The part of Count Dracula was one of the great opportunities of my career, and earned me a worldwide reputation.

It is one of the greatest parts ever created, one of the most famous and fantastic…no actor can ask more.

Midi Minuit Fantastique

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Dracula Annual
Nightmare: The Birth of Horror
Albin Grau’s Nosferatu
Count Dracula
Symbolist cinema

Uncharted islands and lost souls

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The pulp fiction of the early 20th century favoured remote or uncharted islands as locations for the bizarre and the fantastic; in isolated jungles all manner of savage and grotesque behaviour could take place out of sight of the civilised world. Islands are secure from interference; they can be visited by accident or intention, and later fled from when everything goes wrong. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an early example of the type although Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) pre-dates it by twenty-two years. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the first film adaptation of the Wells novel, is one of a crop of mysterious islands that appeared in the 1930s following the success of the Universal adaptations of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The recent Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition of the film is the first UK release to present the film in its original, uncensored form. I watched it this weekend.

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Moreau (Charles Laughton) and Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) at work.

HG Wells famously hated the film, and his vociferous complaints helped to ensure it was banned in Britain until 1958. Even without Wells’ complaints there was enough there to bait the censors who declared it to be “against nature”: writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young push the erotic implications of Wells’ story to a degree that would have been impossible in 1896, and would be equally impossible two years later when the Hays Code clamped down on cinematic salaciousness. Charles Laughton’s Moreau is eager to discover whether Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), will show any sexual interest in the marooned Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). The bestiality theme continues when Parker’s fiancée arrives on the island and finds one of Moreau’s Beast People at her bedroom window. Add to this Moreau’s declaration that he feels like God (a similar line was cut from James Whale’s Frankenstein), a traditional British squeamishness towards maltreating animals (unless they’re foxes), and the Panther Woman’s skimpy outfit, and it’s no surprise that the authorities collapsed with the vapours.

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Sensationalism aside, this is one of the greatest horror films of the early 1930s, and one which follows its source material with much more fidelity than Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. The production had been commissioned by Paramount to capitalise on the success of the Universal films, hence the presence of a very hirsute Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. Cinematographer Karl Struss had worked the year before on Rouben Mamoulian’s excellent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; prior to this he photographed Sunrise (1927) for Friedrich Murnau. The combination of Struss’s chiaroscuro compositions, some adept direction from Erle C. Kenton (including crane shots), and a tremendous performance by Charles Laughton puts The Island of Lost Souls in a different league entirely to Tod Browning’s stagey and over-rated Dracula. Laughton’s cherub-faced Mephistopheles is a performance that runs counter to the cod theatricals of the period: he’s sly, confident and completely authoritative even if he looks nothing like Wells’ white-haired doctor.

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A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!

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It’s become a tradition here to post a playlist for Halloween so here’s the one for this year, a collection of favourite “voodoo” music. Most are these pieces have as much to do with real voodoo as Bewitched does with real witchcraft but I like the atmospheres of Voodoo Exotica they evoke.

Voodoo Drums in Hi-Fi (1958).
Beginning with some ethnographic authenticity, this is one of many recordings of genuine (so they claim) voodoo drummers from Haiti, and was probably released to cash-in on the Exotica boom of the late Fifties. For the genuine article, the drums here sound less dramatic than the pounding rhythms familiar from Hollywood rituals, but that’s still a great cover. Voodoo Drums in Hi-Fi has been deleted for years but a worn copy of the vinyl release can be found on various mp3 blogs. For a more recent recording of voodoo rhythms, there’s Spirits Of Life: Haitian Vodou on the Soul Jazz label.

Voodoo Dreams (1959) by Martin Denny.
This, meanwhile, is the genuine kitsch from Denny’s Hypnotique album, a slow arrangement of a syrupy Les Baxter tune. More drums and bongos than usual for a Denny piece, and a suitably spectral chorus.

Voodoo (1959) by Robert Drasnin.
When composer Drasnin was asked by the Tops company to get hip to the Exotica craze the result was an album entitled Voodoo (with unconvincingly exotic white people on the cover), from which they released a single, Chant of the Moon, and this track as the B-side, one of the best pieces on the album.

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I Walk on Gilded Splinters (1968) by Dr John.
Mac Rebennack was working as a session musician in Los Angeles when he recorded his debut album in an atmosphere far removed from the swampy New Orleans miasma which the music conjures. Gris-Gris owes a great deal to Robert Tallant’s book, Voodoo in New Orleans (1946), a popular recounting of the city’s occult legends from which Rebennack borrowed not only his new persona (chapter 5 concerns the history of the real Dr John, a 19th century voodoo practitioner) but also many of the transcribed chants which he set to music. In chapter 3 we read this:

A song given to a reporter of the New Orleans Times-Picayune was printed in that newspaper on March 16, 1924. Probably a very old one, it reflects the dominance of the queens in New Orleans Voodoo and boasts of their tremendous power. Originally sung in the patois known as Creole, it is given here in English:

They think they frighten me,
Those people must be crazy.
They don’t see their misfortune
Or else they must be drunk.

I—the Voodoo Queen,
With my lovely headkerchief
Am not afraid of tomcat shrieks,
I drink serpent venom!

I walk on pins
I walk on needles,
I walk on gilded splinters,
I want to see what they can do!

They think they have pride
With their big malice,
But when they see a coffin
They’re as frightened as prairie birds.

I’m going to put gris-gris
All over their front steps
And make them shake
Until they stutter!

Anyone familiar with Gris-Gris will recognise the lyrics of I Walk on Gilded Splinters (misspelled “Guilded” on the sleeve) which Dr John did a great job of fashioning into a classic voodoo song. The entire album might be ersatz, then, but it remains one of my favourites by anyone, and for me it’s still the best Dr John album.

Mama Loi, Papa Loi (1970) by Exuma.
Gris-Gris was too weird to be a success when it first appeared but Dr John’s music and extravagant stage presence were very distinctive and helped Blues Magoos manager Bob Wyld recast singer Tony McKay as “Obeah man” Exuma for Mercury Records. Exuma’s self-titled debut album is ersatz stuff again but manages to sound even more deliriously swampy and sorcerous than Gris-Gris, with jungle sounds, zombie gurgles and a clutch of enthusiastic voodoo-inflected songs. “Mama Loi, Papa Loi / I see fire in the dead man’s eye” he sings here, and for the duration of the album Tony McKay is Exuma.

Zu Zu Mamou (1971) by Dr. John.
After Gris-Gris Dr John gradually pared away the voodoo songs but saved one of the best until his final occult outing, The Sun, Moon & Herbs, which includes contributions from Eric Clapton and, somewhere in the bayou distance, Mick Jagger and PP Arnold on backing vocals. Zu Zu Mamou is the spooky highlight which made a fleeting appearance in Alan Parker’s 1987 Satanic noir, Angel Heart.

Voo Doo (1989) by the Neville Brothers.
Of all the songs I’ve heard which equate falling in love with a voodoo spell, this one from New Orleans’ Neville Brothers is the most evocative, a track from their marvellous Yellow Moon album.

Invocation To Papa Legba (1989) by Deborah Harry.
Yes, it’s Blondie’s Debbie Harry singing a very authentic-sounding voodoo chant, arranged by Chris Stein. This was a one-off which appeared on a Giorno Poetry Systems collection, Like A Girl, I Want You To Keep Coming, along with a William Burroughs reading (a staple of GPS albums), New Order playing Sister Ray live, and other pieces.

Litanie Des Saints (1992) by Dr. John.
Goin’ Back to New Orleans, like Gumbo before it, saw Dr John revisiting the musical history of his native city. Most of the songs are old jazz and blues covers with the notable exception of this opening number, another voodoo invocation. A great string arrangement and vocals from the Neville Brothers; I’d love to hear a whole album like this.

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Zombie’ites (1993) by Transglobal Underground.
Zombies are a voodoo staple despite their current degraded status as the cuddly monster du jour, a development which has made me tire of seeing the word “zombie” in almost any context. A shame because I used to have a lot of time for films such as White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and the later George Romero movies. White Zombie was the first zombie film and stars Bela Lugosi in a weirder and more effective piece of horror cinema than the stagey Dracula which made his name; I Walked With a Zombie was one of Val Lewton’s superb noirish collaborations with Jacques Tourneur; both films have their voodoo chants sampled on this track by Transglobal Underground from Dream of 100 Nations, with the opening chant from White Zombie forming the pulse that drives the piece. Along the way there’s another invocation from Voodoo in New Orleans—”L’Appé vini, le Grand Zombi / L’Appé vini, pou fe gris-gris!”—samples of Criswell from Plan 9 from Outer Space, and a moment of pure bliss at the midpoint when singer Natacha Atlas rides in on a magic carpet made of Bollywood strings.

Happy Halloween! And don’t forget to feed the loas…

Vampire-hunting in New Orleans

Previously on { feuilleton }
Voo-doo: Hoochie Coochie and the Creative Spirit
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
Exotica!
White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Exuma: Obeah men and the voodoo groove
A playlist for Halloween
Ghost Box
Voodoo Macbeth

A literary recluse: The mystery of Pynchon

pynchon_simpsons.jpgThe cult writer is about to publish his first novel for nine years. But the best-selling author of V and Gravity’s Rainbow remains an enigma to his millions of fans. By Louise Jury

August 17, 2006
The Independent

He is so elusive a writer that he makes Harper Lee appear a socialite. He gives no interviews and shuns all photo opportunities. Thomas Pynchon, cult figure of American prose, is a nightmare for his publicists.

But the mystery surrounding the 69-year-old author will serve only to increase the clamour when his next novel, Against the Day, is published in December simultaneously in the UK and the US. It will be his first novel in nine years and only his sixth—plus a collection of early fiction—since his astonishing debut with V in 1963.

Finally announcing the date yesterday, Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape, his British publisher, said that to have a new work was “incredibly exciting”. He added: “Against the Day is an epic that is awesome in its scope and imagination.”

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