Virginia Festival of the Book — Dracula vs. Frankenstein: A Monster Mash of Fact and Fiction

Do you have a collection? An interest? An obsession? If you are, you are very much like two of the presenters at the Virginia Festival of the Book: Susan Tyler Hitchcock, a Frankenstein expert (among many things), and Paul Bibeau, a fan of vampires.

Bibeau was literally scared into his obsession, with a tormenting older sister who knew her brother’s Achilles heel and popped out of dresser drawers and from behind doors wearing glow-in-the-dark fangs. Years later, his new wife would find herself spending her honeymoon in Romania looking for Vlad the Impaler’s castle (which Bibeau knew was not in Transylvania). His obsession led to his book Sundays with Vlad: From Pennsylvania to Transylvania, One Man's Quest to Live in the World of the Undead.

Hitchcock was a fan of Mary Shelley’s creation since her youth. Not only did she collect all things Frankenstein, she became the expert who could teach “Technology in Literature” to engineering majors and knew from research the 1818 novel by the then-teenager was the first novel that featured machinery and technology. Among her books is Frankenstein: A Cultural History.

The two authors were pitted “against” each other in the discussion “Dracula vs. Frankenstein,” which was rollicking good fun and a treat for the mind as well as the funny bone. These two very knowledgeable and passionate authors discussed the origins and paths of their very famous subjects.

These two legends present vastly different characters: one recognized as evil and one ambiguous in his intentions. Mary Shelley never villainized her creature, nor did subsequent tellings of the tale, plays and stories based on this unfortunate creation. In fact, Hitchcock agreed with Carole that the created human being was more a creature to be pitied. It was instead his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who rejected his creation at the moment of his birth, that caused the creature feel disconnected and unloved, and to lash out in response.

While we loosely use the word “monster” to describe him, Hitchcock noted that he was not an evil creature. Unlike Dracula, whom even Bram Stoker identified with the Devil, Frankenstein “allows us the hope of goodness. He was not made bad.” In fact, she said Sara Karloff, daughter of the man whose performance in the first movie defined the character for generations to come, noted that her father never called hima “monster,” just “the creature.”

“To know [Frankenstein] is to know ourselves,” Hitchcock noted.

Bibeau, in contrast, noted the “deep-down” evil in the myth of Dracula. Whether Stoker was familiar with the legend of Vlad the Impaler is up to debate or just used the name as his inspiration, Americans have made him their own. “Americans are always looking for the legend beneath the story,” Bibeau noted. “Why couldn’t the Romanians take the legend of Vlad the Impaler and make money on it? Because he belongs to us.”

Interestingly enough, the two creatures, though created nearly a century apart, have been almost inseparable from the beginning. At the time Shelley wrote her “ghost story,” a fellow storyteller conceived The Vampire. In the mid- and late 19th century theater, these two stores were paired in performances.

Stoker’s Dracula was a novel very much based in the fears of the time, Bibeau noted, and was very much a treatise on immigration. At the turn of the 20th century, it was said “the sun never set on the British Empire.” While this put English culture in every country, it also allowed for other cultures to affect England.

“In 1897, when Stoker’s book came out, it was the story of immigration and the slipperiness of culture, and fears if tainting Anglo culture.” Think about it, he noted: the foreigner Dracula had a library full of English books and was planning to purchase land in the middle of London. Though he respected and valued this culture, his presence and ownership diluted the “purity” of Anglicanism.

Stoker equated Dracula with the Christian Devil, Bibeau noted. "In his notes, he wrote 'Dracula 'equals' Devil," he said, and an author can't really get more specific than that.

What fear did Frankenstein stoke? “The fear of possible negative consequences of doing something beyond our [capabilities],” Hitchcock noted. The fear remains in a world where sometimes science gets ahead of humanity; choose your poison.

Myself, I love “scary” stories with inexplicable creatures that incite fear. I have loved and feared both of these characters since my childhood and I was thrilled to hear these two authors discussing them in such an enlightened and joyful manner. It was one of my favorite events and I look forward to reading their books.

My friend Collin has an obsession with zombies, and I can’t wait to see how far he will take it. In fact, Carole, didn't he mention Max Brooks?


Carole said...

I remember seeing an interview with Elizabeth Kostova regarding The Historian. She said she had a similar experience on her quest to tour all things Dracula.

She found it fascinating that Romanians were completely unaware that this character had been so influential in our culture, at least during the Cold War. Now they are all about capitalism and the Dracula money-making industry is in full swing over there.

I enjoyed this discussion immensely!

Carole said...

Yes, he did mention that Max Brooks' work was amazing (I believe he said, 'I hate that guy' in regards to how good he is at what he does). I'm looking forward to our World War Z chat.

Collin is already enjoyed Sundays with Vlad and I hear him chuckling every couple of pages.

Chris said...

I'm glad it's so enjoyable. Anyone who considers LARP as research should have one rip-roaring book!

And I think I will have to re-examine my own Dracula-mania. If it's as prevalent as time travel, I could be on to something....