By Meredith Allard
Steven P. Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide.
Meredith Allard: It seems like you’re a big fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What was your first experience with that novel? Are you a fan of paranormal fiction in general, or were you just captivated by that particular book?
Steven Unger: Growing up, I voraciously read science fiction books and horror comics, and especially loved watching the old Hammer Films about Count Dracula on TV. They were produced between 1958 and 1974 and almost always starred Christopher Lee in the title role. Although they plummeted in quality from superb to abysmal over the years, I saw them whenever I could.
Around 1980 I found a large-format paperback published in 1975 titled The Annotated Dracula, with surreal artwork by Sätty, copious notes, maps, and even a calendar of events. I read every word. I loved Bram Stoker’s imagery and his skillful foreshadowing of dire events; at the same time the annotations helped me to understand how his imagery boiled up from the collective unconscious of the Victorian mind and the sexual repression of the 1890s when Dracula was conceived.
M.A.: What inspired you to write In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide? When did you first come up with the idea? Why did you decide to write it?
S.U.: My obsession to travel to every site related to either the fictional Count Dracula or his real historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, grew out of a visit to Whitby, England, where part of the novel Dracula takes place. I stood on the cemetery hill where, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray spent hour after hour sitting on their “favourite seat” (a bench placed over a suicide’s grave near the edge of the cliff), gazing out toward the “headland called Kettleness” and the open North Sea beyond—while Count Dracula slept just beneath them.
In my mind’s eye, I could see the un-dead count rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide’s gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.
The graveyard where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the ever-present North Sea winds. That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.
Old Parish Church Cemetery—Whitby, England
At that moment I decided to visit and photograph every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler—to literally walk in their footsteps and to write a book about my experiences.
But my journey would have to be postponed. The country of Romania was in the grip of the ruthless regime of Nicolae Ceau?escu, and travel there was impossible. I waited for years and continued my research; when Romania was opened to Western tourists and I could finally fly there, I planned my return trip to Whitby to coincide with its April Gothic Weekend (seehttp://wgw.topmum.co.uk/.) My pictures of Whitby’s Dracula-related sites would be enhanced, I was sure, by the costumed revelers thronging the town. I wasn’t disappointed.
M.A.: What was your process for writing the book? And how did you combine your research with your travel experiences?
S.U.: The initial research took many months. The primary scenes in Draculatake place in Whitby, where much of the book was written; London; and, of course, the Borgo Pass in Transylvania, the site of Count Dracula’s castle. I knew I would travel to those places.
Researching the life of Count Dracula’s historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, took considerably more time. I read all I could find on him, tracking down obscure references and unpublished theses online. I needed to separate myth from reality (he was not a vampire, but he certainly was bloodthirsty, with a penchant for impaling his victims regardless of gender or age), and to eliminate from my itinerary those places in Romania that were geared toward tourists on the Dracula Trail but had no connection to the real Vlad the Impaler.
I decided to go to his birthplace, Sighi?oara; his center of power, T?rgovi?te; his hidden fortress, Poenari, and his purported tomb, on Snagov Island. I also tried to research how to journey to those places using public transportation, and got nowhere. There are no tourist offices in Romania as there are in Western Europe, and I wound up waiting until I arrived at one site to find out how to travel to the next, whether by bus, by train, or by the Romanian equivalent of stuffing a telephone booth, the Maxitaxi. That was all part of the experience, certainly, but not one that I would wish upon my readers.
Therefore, for the independent traveler who would leave his armchair for the Great Unknown, In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide contains a Practical Guide to the Dracula Trail, with a complete sample Itinerary featuring recommendations for lodging and detailed instructions on traveling to each British or Romanian Dracula-related town or site.
M.A.: Most authors (even Bram Stoker himself) are content reading about and looking over pictures when they are writing about other countries and cultures. Why did you decide to travel the Dracula Trail for yourself?
S.U.: I love traveling, I love writing, and most of all, I love travel writing. I’ve had photo articles published on Etruria, bicycling from Madrid to London, and tree soaring in Colorado, among others, and this seemed like a perfect—and as yet untapped—subject for what would become a mix of travel guide, memoir, and historical revelation.
M.A.: As you did your research, what did you find most interesting about Dracula, either the fictional count or the real-life man he was based on? What was something you learned that most people don’t know about the vampire count?
S.U.: In my research and travels I discovered two fascinating coincidences linking the historical and the literary Draculas. First, Bram Stoker chose to name his villain “Dracula,” based on the translation of the Romanian word “dracul” into “devil,” never knowing that the historical Voivode (Prince) Dracula he had read about was also Vlad the Impaler, with a horrific biography of his own.
In fact, Bram Stoker’s Transylvania bore little resemblance to any Romania that ever existed. For example, Stoker wrote of “hay-ricks [haystacks] in the trees” based on illustrations of Transylvanian haystacks built around stakes, with the ends of the stakes poking out like branches. Thus, generations ofDracula readers assumed that Transylvanians put their haystacks up in trees.
Haystacks on Transylvania’s Borgo Pass
The second coincidence is the uncanny resemblance of the real Castle of Dracula—Vlad ?epe?’ fortress at Poenari, which Stoker had no knowledge of—to Count Dracula’s fictional castle in Transylvania. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari, in its time, mirrored Count Dracula’s fictional castle at the top of the Borgo Pass almost stone for stone.
M.A.: What did you enjoy most about writing this book? What was the hardest part about writing this book?
S.U.: The same answer applies to both questions: it was the traveling itself, particularly in Romania, that proved to be a constant mix of frustration, trepidation, and sheer exhilaration. I was warned of bandits that never appeared, there were cab rides to Maxitaxi stations that passed through the half-abandoned outskirts of towns flanked by smoldering fires of gypsy encampments—and I couldn’t even ask the driver where exactly he was taking me because I couldn’t find the words in my Romanian phrasebook.
And yet, there were moments of such high adventure, especially at Poenari. I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poenari. Near Albania’s southern border, I hiked the Vikos Gorge, a dozen miles from the nearest stone-housed village. I baked beneath the unrelenting sun of the Timna Valley close to the Red Sea, where 120º in the shade is considered picnic weather. But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad the Impaler’s mountaintop fortress. The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can’t recall hearing the song of even a single bird.
The ascent was exhausting. At last, I encountered a grizzled, elfin gentleman sitting on almost the very top step, who indicated with his fingers the amount of the small entry fee. From there the lone approach to the fortress is by a wooden footbridge.
Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad the Impaler, only at Poenari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch. Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the F?gar?? Mountains of southern Romania , Poenari remains pristine and almost inaccessible.
Thousands of boyars and their families had been force-marched there from T?rgovi?te to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble. And it was here that Prince Dracula’s wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.
M.A.: Why do you think people are still so fascinated by Dracula? By vampires? After all, vampires are more popular today than ever before.
S.U.: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its imagery and sheer sexuality, much of it stemming from Stoker’s unconscious mind, captured the imagination of the public in 1897 and has never been out of print. Dracula was published during the height of Victorian sexual repression—two years later, in 1899, Freud would publish The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s not a coincidence that vampires have remained so popular. They’re immortal, powerful, and seductive—who wouldn’t want all of those attributes? Or at least two out of three.
Above all, vampires are creatures of the night, as are dreams, and, just like dreams, they can never be controlled.
M.A.: What are you working on now?
S.U.: I’m writing the accompanying text and the Preface for Before the Paparazzi : Thirty Years of Extraordinary Pictures, a collection of over 300 photos taken by Arty Pomerantz, staff photographer and assignment editor for the New York Post from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Almost all of the pictures in Before the Paparazzi appeared in the Post, and a great many of them were on the newspaper’s front page. The text and Preface for Before the Paparazzi, about 23,000 words, were gleaned from extensive research and hundreds of hours of interviews with Arty.
In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide is available from World Audience.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.