When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, he created a legend. Practically everyone knows the story of the vampire count who attempts to spread his contagion through the "whirl and rush" of Victorian London. Even those who have never read Stoker's book will know at least one, two or a dozen of the movies that are based - usually very loosely - upon it. Dracula is one of the most important and commercially lucrative works of fiction every published, which makes Powers of Darkness, the long lost Icelandic translation of Stoker's novel, really something to celebrate. And the fact that Powers of Darkness (or Makt Myrkranna as it was originally entitled when it was published in Iceland in 1901) gives an almost completely fresh - if not entirely successful - perspective on the original tale is icing on the undead cake.
It’s unclear whether Bram Stoker actually collaborated with newspaper journalist Valdimar Asmundsson on this translation, although Powers of Darkness contains a few plot elements that Stoker included in his story notes but abandoned when he wrote his finished novel. There’s a horny female vampire who is obviously some nubile relative of Dracula’s (possibly even his murdered wife) who replaces the three vampire brides in Stoker’s novel and spends most of her time attempting to seduce solicitor Thomas Harker (note the name change) after he arrives at Dracula’s castle. There is no Renfield, no Dracula slithering so evocatively down the castle wall, no memorable staking of Lucy Westenra, and Mina Harker is now not only called Wilma but is reduced to little more than a damsel in distress who faints at the worst possible moments like the waif in a silent movie. This devolution of Mina’s character is a particular disappointment, especially considering how vital and protofeminist Mina is in Stoker’s version. But it’s the differences in Dracula’s character that makes this very loose translation / re-envisioning so fascinating.
In Powers of Darkness, Dracula is much closer to the character he’ll become in two of the least successful Hammer movies, Dracula 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. He’s a debauched aristocrat who throws parties and prefers to watch as his neanderthal acolytes sacrifice naked virgins in dark subterranean caverns (look closely, and there’s something a bit pre-Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu about this interpretation). There’s an interesting if barely-there subplot about a group of powerful European nobles who are working with the Count to incite some kind of revolution on the streets of London, and the revelation that the Count – far from being the well-read scholar of Stoker’s book - seems to have quite the pornography collection. Gone, too, is the sensuality of Stoker’s writing, which was arguably one of the biggest reasons his novel was such a success.
But it’s in the ending where Powers of Darkness really stumbles. The vast majority of the book focuses on Harker’s imprisonment in Dracula’s castle, and the final act is a whirlwind wrap-up that misses most of the characters we’ve grown to know and love and races towards a denouement which is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that you barely have time to realise the story’s finished.
Having said that, Powers of Darkness is a hugely entertaining read, and – although it’s supposed to be a translation – it often feels like an entirely new novel. Some fans of the Count will love this new variation on a theme whereas others will be mystified and a little frustrated by it. Personally, we enjoyed every moment of it. The design of the book is quite gorgeous as well.
POWERS OF DARKNESS / AUTHORS: BRAM STOKER, VALDIMAR ASMUNDSSON / PUBLISHER: GERALD DUCKWORTH & CO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW