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My Dark Muse: A Boy's Life with Dracula

I took four years to write my novel Dragon’s Ark (now available at your local independent bookstore, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell's, including e-book editions). I’m expending even more sand trying to persuade everyone in the English-language reading world to open its creaking door.

As I buttonhole my way around town, I'm occasionally confronted with the following response:

 ” Dracula? That old thing? Again!? But . . . why?”

With a literary and cultural figure who has been raked over (or staked over) as much as Dracula, it’s a fair question that deserves as thorough an answer as I can give.

Are you sick of vampires? Rest assured, dear reader, so am I!

But still, in all honesty, I didn't write Dragon’s Ark because “vampires are hot right now.” I’d have written it, Twilight, True Blood, or no. Frankly, the current thirst for vampires is a marketplace fluke I could have done without. Thanks to the flood of vampire fiction, I have to shout even louder with a tale that is already loud and stormy enough as it is.

Further, Dragon’s Ark is not a “vampire novel.” It’s a “Dracula novel,” to me a distinct entity, a singularity; something about a specific mythic personality who symbolizes a stark stain in the human psyche, an unpleasant unsettling idea about ourselves. It’s been crawling out of my graveyard of nightmares for a long time.

And at last, in Dragon’s Ark, he is free.

When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the other boys wanted to grow up to be spacemen or cowboys, teachers or doctors, baseball or football players.

Not me! I wanted to be Dracula! Not George Reeves as Superman in his fruity underpants and cape. I wanted to be the original Man in Black. The King of Nightmares. The Superman of Evil.

I’ve loved Dracula since the moment I saw Bela Lugosi glide with his peculiar majesty down that cobwebbed castle staircase in the 1931 film version. Such grace and power! The air split in two before him whilst his voice rang with peculiar, ethereal melody: “The blood is the life, Mis-ter Renfield!” How the words slowly poured down on wide-eyed Dwight Frye like poison syrup, his eyes blazing with a command encountered only in the dark, a “morally fatal glamor” as Peter Straub writes in his masterwork Ghost Story.

“Listen to them! Children of the night! What music they make!” I love the implication burbling behind Lugosi’s interpretation here: How can mere mortal music compare to the moonlight song of wolves calling from a faraway moonlit country? Call of the wild, indeed!

I first saw Dracula on a weekday: “Movie of the Week” on WOR-TV Channel 9, one of my favorite channels. I must have been seven or eight. Of significance to Freudians, my father, a distinctly unpleasant man, had left several years before. The smoky odor of burned bridges still haunted the fine old house down Red Mill Road.

A Freudian might say someone—or Some Thing heh-heh-heh--had to fill the parental vacuum. But I believe my response to Dracula was much more elemental than the cliché of absent fathers.

Anyway, I was a little boy, incapable of such insight. To me Dracula’s greatness—which struck like black lightning—lay in his freedom and his power.

Think about it: Dracula gets to stay up all night. He lives free in a world that never says “no,” a world without parents, bullies at home and school, teachers, police, government, workplace bosses, or any of the rules that make the rational flesh and mud of the human world a prison. World without end. World without rules.

And, most magical of all, Dracula controls the elements, down to the subatomic particles of his body. He can shape-shift at will into a bat, a wolf and . . . Gee whiz, my young psyche whirled. Why stop at bats and wolves? What else can he do? If only I had such power!

He attitude toward physics is insolent, and all humans freeze and tremble under his stare! He rules every living thing that passes by his hidden shadow. No one dares argue with him. If I were Dracula, every single bully at both home and school would never lay their brutish hands on me again. They’d be my slaves or be gone in terrible grotesque suffering! By my wish, by my will, they would die! Die I say!

It took awhile to find a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, a Dell/Laurel Leaf paperback for 25 cents from 1965, with Dracula looking like as Stoker described him so well, a bit like Charlton Heston, too. I read the book all the way through. Though often smothered in Victorian sugar, it was even better than the movie, which even I sensed was not as good as it should have been, even with Lugosi as its star.

I cast my own shadow as Young Dracula around the schoolyard at George Washington Elementary in Mohegan Lake and, later on, at Lakeland Middle School in nearby Cortlandt. I knew everything about all the other monsters in Universal Studio’s great pantheon of wonderfully impossible creatures: the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy.

But the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man were victims, unable to help who they were. Dracula chose his life, and so became their Lord and Master. And perhaps mine.

The other kids no doubt rolled their eyes at my monster obsession. The teachers worried about my taste for “blood-and-thunder.” It became something of a joke. One afternoon, a kid named Christopher Ryan tumbled off the gym bleachers at Lakeland Middle School during a mild recess rumpus. As a teacher pulled Chris to his feet, he jabbed a finger in my direction: “He made me fall! He looked at me with his Dracula eyes!”

Ah . . . such Power wielded so shamelessly! It is, indeed, a good thing that children do not rule the world . . . or do they?

As for the sexual implications underlying Dracula, that realization only came later and—unusually for me—I shrugged them off--Dracula as Sex never captured me. As I grew older, my ambition to be a Sociopath with Supernatural Powers, or for any kind of naked criminality, matured to the prosaic, pragmatic liberalism that marks my thinking now.

But still, the dream of Dracula remained alive, a shadow in my lively moonlit attic of dreams. Sometimes I saw him reflected in individuals in real life, mostly male, but all with one thing in common: a casual drive to dominate, to exploit. These people often spoke glibly of freedom, but only cared for their own. I found them in the history books, in the news, and, sometimes, at my side, intelligent, calculating, charming, compelling but deadly to body and soul.

For me, Dracula has always been about freedom without attachment, power without responsibility, action without consequence, life without end, tempting things all, especially for the human male. I try to stir this theme to the surface of the blood-rich pool of Dragon’s Ark, something that I don't recall any adaptation, film or print, has ever expressed fully. In this book, I'm not digging up suppressed sexuality, drug addiction or moony teenage passion, but the craving for eternal life, absolute freedom and transcendent power.

In Dragon’s Ark, Dracula wants more than our blood.

For him, liberty and license are one and indistinguishable. The individual is all, inviolate and untouchable. He’s a Demon God who cheerfully thumbs his nose at an indifferent Universe, or scorns its oppressive Creator (against Whom he is a negative image); a sociopathic terrorist who mocks whimpering, cowardly humanity; a vicious prankster who torments his enemies to insanity with cruel bizarre tricks while feeding off the dozing human cattle as though we were fuel dumps, happiest when the world is darkest.

As for the rest of us well, if we ain’t got it, too bad, bubs (though we may secretly envy him). The world in Dragon’s Ark is Dracula’s world. We just live in it , at best. only dimly awareness of our chains; Dracula is a fascist/authoritarian dream for a certain kind of faux libertarian maybe, but a nightmare for the rest of us.

Dragon’s Ark is also a devious love letter to a fabulous legend, to a grand but terrible and deadly demon from ancient myth, civilized history, and the childhood fantasies of one little boy. He’s a force of both nature and of our unexplainable selves, here, I hope, seen through a prism of a moral curiosity that is often absent from the fantasy lives of boys and always from the moral insanity of terrorists and tyrants.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published April 26 by Ambler House Publishing and can be ordered through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon and as an e-book. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.