Not Your Mother’s Dracula

*A Guest Post by the indomitable Kate Paulk*

I’ve already devoted a fair amount of pixels to my rather less than orthodox view of Vlad III Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula (his choice of name, based on his letters). In The Allure of Evil (http://madgeniusclub.blogspot.com/2011/02/allure-of-evil.html) posted to the Mad Genius Club I talked about the phenomenon of the person who serves good but does evil and how that concept applies to Vlad. The Kindness of Cruelty (http://nakedreaderpress.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/the-kindness-of-cruelty/) posted to Naked Reader Press, is about Vlad’s world and the way that impacted his decisions. Over at Kate’s Corner (my blog), The Man Behind The Monster (http://www.katepaulk.com/writing/the-man-behind-the-monster/) covers how I portrayed Vlad the man and some of the decisions that I needed to make while I was writing Impaler.

That makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? Of course, the fact that I could ramble for days over various aspects of Vlad’s life, times, and likely beliefs and actions doesn’t help matters. Researching someone that deeply tends to bring them to life, and make them part of you in that odd writer-specific way that lets a writer channel someone’s personality enough to depict them in words.

One aspect of Impaler that’s going to get interest is that most people immediately associate Vlad with the Bram Stoker creation – and of course, vampirism (please don’t go giving me counter-examples from Romania or from non-Western cultures. I know I’m speaking within a particular cultural framework. It just happens to be the one where Impaler stands a chance of selling a few copies (and yes, I’d love it to sell way more than a few copies)).

The identification of Vlad with Stoker’s Dracula (please ignore the movie for the moment – I’m talking about the book) is so strong it’s next to impossible to write a Vlad story without invoking the vampire mythos in some form even though if he’d ever run into any vampires he would have staked them through the heart – eventually. It takes a while for a stake to get that far in an impalement.

Possibly the biggest conceit in Impaler is the way I’ve handled the Vlad-as-vampire mythos: what modern readers would identify as vampirism – the need to drink fresh blood, preferably human blood – is something Vlad sees as a curse imposed on him by Mehmed II (also known as Mehmed the Conquerer, although Vlad is never that polite: Vlad usually refers to Mehmed as “Mehmed, may he rot in Hell”). The backstory for this is hinted at when Vlad’s oldest son Mihnea asks if the curse can be passed on to his children, a prospect that horrifies Vlad. There are other hints: mention of relatives who died young because of a mysterious wasting disease.

My theory here – which may or may not hold as medical science advances – is the existence of an inheritable auto-immune disorder with results that resemble anemia on steroids, combined with Vlad’s unpredictable and often berserker temper. Of course, I’ve boosted the effects of fresh blood – which could be a psycho-somatic response, too. For the purposes of the novel, it works. Vlad sees himself as cursed, and believes he may be permitted to atone for the sins the curse drives him to commit if he uses the curse in God’s service.

Traditionally, of course, the vampire is an inherently profane creature, unable to abide sacred ground or the sight of a holy symbol (this would make it horribly uncomfortable for Islamic vampires when the moon is a crescent, but the question of which holy symbol will chase off which vampire is its own post – to quote from a movie I never saw but has at least one memorable line which I read in the Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman compilation Ghastly Beyond Belief (http://www.amazon.com/Ghastly-Beyond-Belief-Neil-Gaiman/dp/0099368307/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297301881&sr=1-1), with a Jewish vampire saying to a cross-waving peasant girl, “Oy, yoy, have you got the wrong vampire!” Anyway…).

Vlad is deeply religious, although I’ve taken a few liberties with just how he deals with religion. In his first reign, he clearly favored his native Orthodox faith, and scared the crap out of visiting Roman clerics – to whom he was somewhat hostile, as he presumably saw them as imposing foreign mores on his people. During his time in Hungary, he was offered freedom and a wife if he converted to Roman Christianity. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Matthias’s offer came with the unspoken “or spend the rest of your life in my prisons” – he’d already betrayed Vlad once, and had no reason to assume he’d be safe if Vlad wasn’t securely attached to him by something stronger than a sworn oath (which, incidentally, I haven’t found any evidence of Vlad breaking. His contemporaries treated sworn and signed oaths as inconveniences, but he seemed to attach a good deal of importance to keeping his promises – perhaps because he was betrayed so often by so many people he should have been able to trust). At any rate, when Vlad left Hungary to try to recapture Wallachia, he had a Hungarian wife who was also Matthias’s cousin.

I took the view that in that position, having converted for political reasons, he’d maintain the appearance of Roman practice (it wasn’t commonly known as Catholicism at this time), and probably support both branches of Christianity. Also, being familiar with both branches, I considered it likely that he’d recognize them as fundamentally similar, and that they needed to come to some kind of accommodation if the much greater threat of the Mohammedan Ottoman Empire was to be defeated. Vlad – correctly – recognized that if Europe’s Christian powers didn’t unite to stop the Ottoman advance, there would be no part of Europe safe from them. The fact that his country was one of the most likely Ottoman targets no doubt sharpened his perception of the risk, as did the well-known tendency of the Ottoman Sultans to foment wars of succession and other instability in realms they’d targeted.

The accuracy of his concern is proved by two pieces of history: within 100 years of Vlad’s death the Ottoman Empire had conquered Hungary; and less than 50 years after his death the Pope fled Rome ahead of an Ottoman invasion that was stopped only because of Mehmed II’s death and the battle for succession between his surviving heirs. By that time, Wallachia was a vassal-state of the Ottoman Empire, and remained one until the 1800s.

One of the other substantial twists on the vampire mythos in Impaler is that there are no fangs. Vlad might need blood, but he doesn’t gnaw on people’s necks to get it. Actually, he prefers to get it in the middle of a battle, but since he can’t really be slicing and dicing his many enemies every few days, he has to use other methods – principally volunteers: something that makes him intensely uncomfortable.

I find it difficult to imagine most vampires of fiction having any difficulty with someone offering them blood (this has changed somewhat in the last few decades as vampires have morphed from the always evil undead predator to sparkly sex symbols – a change I devoutly hope will not be permanent), much less preferring not to know who donated it.

Ultimately, while he’s technically a vampire (he needs to drink human blood if he wants to survive), Vlad is without doubt not your mother’s vampire. And, no, I don’t want or need to know why your mother keeps a vampire.

One response to “Not Your Mother’s Dracula

  1. Oh, my… I think the writing challenge is to write the short story that goes with the title “My Mother’s Vampire.” Or should it be “Mom’s Vampire?” Whichever…