REVIEWED BY JOE YOUNG
The English translation of the Icelandic writer Vladimar Ásmundsson’s Makt Myrkranna.
By Hans Corneel De Roos.
Foreword by Dacre Stoker.
Afterword by John Edgar Browning.
Published by Overlook Duckworth/Peter Mayer Publishers.
It’s one of those names which automatically fills in its own back-story. In 1897 Bram Stoker created what has turned out to be a phenomenon, a 19th Century horror novel which is still enjoying global popularity in the 21st Century and will most probably still be entertaining people for centuries to come. It is as seemingly immortal and indestructible as the Count himself.
I’d say it’s a fair bet that there will be very few locations and very few peoples globally who are unfamiliar with at least some aspect of the Dracula legend, either of Vlad Tepes or Stoker’s creation, or indeed of vampires in general, so it could be fair to say that it’s all a bit commonplace. Regardless of the saturation, when the word was put out at the Ginger Nuts of Horror that there was an ‘alternative version’ of Dracula coming up for review I pounced on it hungrily. Here’s why:
At the present time I am on the silent approach to 52 years old, which may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of book reviewing, but bear with me as in this instance I feel it is worth pointing out, as very early in my life, probably around 48 of those years ago, I first encountered Dracula on film. At that time it was black and white Bela Lugosi in perhaps his finest hour (or indeed 85 minutes), and I saw only a small part of it from my vantage point on the staircase peeking through the rail. I saw enough to influence my taste in entertainment for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong, Dracula hasn’t been an obsession of mine, more an appreciation. After seeing Lugosi’s Dracula I saw many other silver screen versions, the Christopher Lee ones in particular always thrilled me with their Technicolor bloodlust, but then, for me, came the novel. My age not quite in double figures I delved into the novel expecting the Dracula Vs Van Helsing battle Royal, but the novel was very different. To the modern reader it could be considered archaic, to my peers of the day it was largely incomprehensible, yet I was lost to the bizarre fantasy of it. Having read Moby Dick, War and Peace and having a copy of Paradise Lost which I took to school to read in the playground I was no stranger to what many consider to be heavyweight and somewhat dusty antiquarian prose, but Dracula was something apart.
The original novel of Dracula did for me what any great book should do; it took me out of my reality into a world of the fantastic, where time and external issues melted away. There’s a quality in reading any book which is often lacking in film or TV versions, and in the case of Dracula it is that I felt Jonathan Harker’s journey was my own, that I was experiencing the travel to new destinations and meeting exotic peoples and situations, that it peeled away reality and exposed new possibilities. At that age I knew few people outside of school, and my travel experiences were limited to within England, so the novel had a much deeper effect than it may have had were I older and more of a globetrotter.
This, what I’m going to tentatively refer to as a ‘new version’ took me on that journey again.
Now, before I get into the review proper it is probably wise for me to point out that although this ‘new version’ is something of a find and indeed a revelation, the story of it is complex and looks to be far from finished with, as it appears that since this new book was printed there appears to be an even earlier version of the Dracula story on which this new book could be based. Investigations are ongoing, but the Makt Myrkranna (Literally ‘Powers of Darkness’) shares many similarities with a Swedish version Mörkrets Makter dating from 1897, predating the Makt Myrkranna by several years. It remains to be seen just how the Swedish version holds up in documentation and I have few other details on that other than that it exists and has several of the commonalities to Makt Myrkranna which don’t appear in Stoker’s original.
Onwards to Powers of Darkness. It’s an exceptional work, apparently, at least, in part collaboration with Bram Stoker himself. For reasons which can only be hinted at there are some basic changes which would appear to make little sense, changing Jonathan Harker’s name to Thomas Harker is one example. Other changes are much broader in scope; with much more content focusing on the actual character of Dracula than there was in Stoker’s original version, in this case making the Carpathian Count a much more grandiose figure with far greater indulgence of his aristocratic social standing. I approve of that, mainly because I found the original version to have too heavy a bias in favour of Jonathan Harker. This version’s Harker is also presented with something of a lighter touch, actually appearing to enjoy some of the events he experiences during his stay at the castle. Other characters are also given a different treatment in that new characters are introduced, such as a seductive blonde vampire who may well be Dracula’s wife, whilst some who died in Stoker’s version survive in this one and other characters such as Van Helsing get precious little presence in what appears to be a rather rushed final few chapters. There is however one character completely omitted from Makt Myrkranna which I found to be extremely disappointing… Renfield. I’m not sure why Ásmundsson had chosen this particular cull, but to my way of thinking it was a bad move. Perhaps the serialisation gave limitations to character content, which could also explain the rushed chapters, but that wouldn’t explain the inclusion of the aforementioned blonde vampire. I think it is more likely that Renfield’s zöophagic tendencies may have been offensive to the Icelandic sensibilities of the time. Curiously enough Renfield appears in the earlier Swedish version.
Aside from the actual story content Hans Corneel De Roos, quite possibly the foremost expert on Stoker’s creation, has provided copious annotation throughout, and the book is laden with illustrations and photographs, not the least of which are the supposed actual floorplans for Castle Dracula with outline descriptions of what goes where and why. This floorplan alone, to me as least, is worth the price of the book. There’s so much extra content, forewords, afterwords, articles and background information that the new version of the story proper doesn’t begin until page 67. I love this, as it makes not only this new version even more interesting but also gives exceptional insight into the original version and of course has several pages of reference sources to the rear of the volume for those who wish to delve further.
I’m very tempted to discuss more of the plot, however even though the story will be largely familiar to the majority there are so many differences that to do so would require a huge spoiler alert. Suffice to say that any true fan of Dracula aside from argumentative purists would probably love this new take on the familiar tale as much as I have.
Going through it for this review was not the simplest of tasks, mainly because it is actually not just one book but two, possibly even three. First of all, obviously, is the alternate working of Dracula. It is something I will read again, simply for the pleasure of it while giving my analytical side the night off. The second book is the authoritative definitive reference book of pretty much all things Dracula, which along with the annotations, illustrations and floorplans is essential reading for connoisseurs of vampire lore. I said it is possibly three books; this is because the book as a whole is something of an adventure story in itself, one of discovery and the quest for truth. I cannot even begin to contemplate the determination required to undertake the translation and documentation of such a wealth of information.
Although reluctant to call Powers of Darkness a ‘masterpiece’ I think it’s as close to one as I’m likely to read.
It’s a beautiful volume and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Powers of Darkness is an incredible literary discovery: In 1900, Icelandic publisher and writer Valdimar Asmundsson set out to translate Bram Stoker's world famous 1897 novel Dracula. Called Makt Myrkranna (literally, "Powers of Darkness"), this Icelandic edition included an original preface written by Stoker himself. Makt Myrkranna was published in Iceland in 1901 but remained undiscovered outside of the country until 1986, when Dracula scholarship was astonished by the discovery of Stoker's preface to the book. However, no one looked beyond the preface and deeper into Asmundsson's story. In 2014, researcher Hans de Roos dove into the full text of Makt Myrkranna, only to discover that Asmundsson hadn't merely translated Dracula but had penned an entirely new version of the story, with all new characters and a totally reworked plot. The resulting narrative is one that is shorter, punchier, more erotic, and perhaps even more suspenseful than Stoker's Dracula. Incredibly, Makt Myrkranna has never been translated or even read outside of Iceland until now. Powers of Darkness presents the first ever translation into English of Stoker and Asmundsson's Makt Myrkranna.Powers of Darkness will amaze and entertain legions of fans of Gothic literature, horror, and vampire fiction.