Why the Icelandic "Dracula" Adaptation Is Probably Not Evidence for a Lost Original Version of Bram Stoker's Classic Vampire Novel
Yesterday I discussed the “lost” Icelandic version of Dracula that was recently translated into English by Hans de Roos and published as Powers of Darkness. I was curious enough about the claims made by de Roos in his lionization of the 1900/1901 Icelandic adaptation of Dracula--that the book was based on early drafts of the novel and contained Stoker’s abandoned first ideas—that I ended up going to check out Bram Stoker’s notes (in facsimile) in order to evaluate whether de Roos is right that Stoker’s notes must be the source of some key details in the Icelandic adaptation called Makt Myrkranna produced by Valdimar Ásmundsson. When I first read de Roos’s claims, I wanted to believe them, and as you can tell from my blog post yesterday, I was more or less happy to go along with de Roos because the subject was so interesting and, with decades of Dracula scholarship under his belt, de Roos seemed like a credible scholar. But like the art historians who sensed the Getty Kouros was fake before they knew exactly why, my unconscious mind kept telling me something was wrong even before I knew what. The particular claim that caught my eye was the allegation that the mute housekeeper in the Icelandic version of Dracula must have come from Stoker’s abandoned notes for the novel. Once I started digging, everything fell apart.
Here is how de Roos puts it in his introduction to Powers of Darkness: “The notes feature a deaf and mute housekeeper woman acting as the Count’s servant. Exactly such a woman is described in Makt Myrkranna.” In interviews, he was much more enthusiastic in describing this as one of seven similarities that could not be a coincidence: “In these notes, for example, we find the idea that the Count had a mute housekeeper woman; exactly such a rare character is included in Makt Myrkranna, but not in Dracula. Taken all together, the chance that all such similarities occurred at the same time by pure coincidence is extremely low.”
So, what do Stoker’s notes actually say? The notes were published in a facsimile edition, so we don’t have to look too hard. The results were underwhelming. The entirety of the reference is as follows: “<A Deaf Mute Woman> <A Silent Man> English servants of the Count.”
Here is where it becomes troublesome for de Roos’s thesis. The servants of the Count are described as English; therefore, they cannot be the same as the servant in the Makt Myrkranna. In that book, the deaf-mute housekeeper is Hungarian and lays out the meals in Castle Dracula. Here, Stoker’s intent seemed to be that the servants would belong to Dracula while in London, a very different proposition. De Roos argues that a deaf-mute servant is too rare a character to be a coincidence, but this is decidedly not the case. Not only was housekeeping a popular profession for actual deaf-mute people in the nineteenth century (some schools for the deaf trained more than three-quarters of their students for domestic service), but the Icelandic translator would have been quite aware of the penchant for certain noblemen to keep deaf-mute servants. St. Francis de Sales, for example, kept one. The Turkish grand vizier also kept deaf-mute servants, as the American Annals of the Deaf reported in 1878: “It is said that the servants employed by the Grand Vizier of Turkey in cabinet meetings, and on other occasions where secrecy is desired, are all deaf-mutes, but that even this precaution does not suffice to guard the secrets of state.” Deaf and mute servants, especially old women, occur in other Victorian stories. Heck, the idea of deaf servants even appears in the Bible (Isaiah 42:18-19). We need not suppose literary dependence to recognize that in terms of pure plot mechanics, to keep Dracula’s secret, his staff had to be silenced in some way. We should, however, consider the fact that only one of the two servants appears in Powers of Darkness, in what seems to be a completely different location and for a different purpose, and with a different ethnicity.
But let’s not mince words: There were plenty of ways Stoker and Ásmundsson could have derived the idea independently. For example, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose “Carmilla” was a huge influence on Dracula and whose Gothic stories seem to have influenced Ásmundsson’s adaptation-translation of Dracula, included just such a character in a story published in a popular magazine, though one not identified as his until after his death. In “Wicked Captain Walshawe, of Wauling” (1864) Le Fanu speaks of the “old deaf servant” who was faithful retainer to the wicked captain, cursed by a witch.
Similarly, the rest of de Roos’s list of seven points of alleged plot similarities seems to be grossly overstated. Let’s go through the points one by one.
The second point is that in the notes, Stoker planned to have Dracula pay a social call on Lucy Westenra in her illness. This does not occur in the novel, but in the Icelandic text the Count pays social visits to Lucy rather than sneaking into her room. Given that social calls were a regular occurrence in nineteenth century society, and the socialist Ásmundsson had revised the character of the Count to make him a member of London social scene, in keeping with his ideological revision to cast the Count as a debauched predatory aristocrat. Therefore, the revision to the Lucy scenes follows logically from the plot change and requires no knowledge of the notes. Verdict: Knowledge of the notes is somewhat possible, but not necessary.
The third point is that Stoker first thought to place Carfax Abbey and Seward’s Asylum in London but later moved them out of town, adding a separate London property for the Count. In the Powers of Darkness, Dracula’s house and Seward’s asylum are both in London. This does not require knowledge of Stoker’s notes to have occurred. The Icelandic author condensed the English portion of the novel to a scant 40 pages and consequently shrunk the geography as well. Since his audience in Iceland would know of London but not probably the details of the country beyond it, reducing the action to one familiar location is logical. Verdict: No proof of knowledge of Stoker’s notes.
The fourth point is that in Stoker’s notes, Dracula has a secret “blood red room” in his London house. In the Icelandic novel, the Jonathan Harker character finds a secret chapel in Dracula’s castle where blood rituals take place. There is no reason to connect these. The fact that Dracula mentions that many rooms of the old castle are locked and off limits suggests a likely origin point for the Icelandic secret ritual room, which might also have been inspired by the sealed chapel at Carfax Abbey and the chapel in Castle Dracula. The last of these is described thus: “At last I pulled open a heavy door which stood ajar, and found myself in an old, ruined chapel, which had evidently been used as a graveyard.” Verdict: There is no evidence of knowledge of Stoker’s notes here either, only amplification from elements of the original novel.
The fifth point is that Stoker listed a police detective named Cotford in his preparatory notes, but “the police are not active at all” in his novel. In truth, they are mentioned eight times, in passing reference to background action, but are unaware of the vampire menace and therefore cannot understand why children are disappearing around Hampstead Heath. The Icelandic version has an active police investigation. Since a police investigation is a standard element of the era’s mystery, detective, and horror fiction, there is no reason to presuppose knowledge of the notes, or any sort of intuition of what Stoker had originally planned for the undeveloped character name. Verdict: Not proof in the least.
Well, this is less impressive by the minute, and we still have two more to go!
The sixth point is just silly, but it takes a little time to explain. In Stoker’s notes, he planned a dinner party thrown by a mad scientist (who seems to have been split into Dr. Seward and Renfield) in which Dracula made a dramatic entrance:
The dinner party at the mad doctor’s
As the editors of Stoker’s notes point out, this scene is pretty much a fictionalized copy of the famous dinner party at which Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and John Polidori created the vampire Lord Ruthven, the fairly obvious inspiration for Dracula. Here, the number of guests is meant to echo the Last Supper because Dracula is the Anti-Christ. This survives in the novel in the vampire’s penchant for quoting the New Testament Devil in his dialog (“All these lives will I give you…” “fall down and worship me…” etc. etc.).
De Roos says that this scene shares uncanny similarities with a party in the Icelandic novel, one thrown by the Count, in which Dr. Seward is the only English guest. The Count enters last, as a dramatic culmination to the event. Since the scene has no thematic connection to the Last Supper, occurs in a different context and for a different purpose, and is thrown by a different person, I see no connection whatsoever. Parties were a staple of Victorian social life. A dramatic entrance is pretty de rigueur for a supervillain. Verdict: No connection proved, or even suggested.
The final point is the only one of real interest. In the notes, as I mentioned above, Stoker describes a character called the “mad doctor” on pages 1 and 5, revised on page 7 to “Doctor of Madhouse <xxx> Seward.” The ambiguity and brevity of the notes makes it difficult to determine whether Stoker originally meant for the doctor to be insane, or whether he was abbreviating “doctor of the madhouse” to “mad[house] doctor.” De Roos reads it as intending for the doctor to be insane, and therefore he compares this favorably to the fact that in the Icelandic novel, Dr. Seward is driven insane. However, while this might be the closest de Roos comes to finding a striking parallel, there is less than meets the eye. De Roos omits to note that that Icelandic adapter omitted the insane character of Renfield from his version, which means that he likely displaced the insanity onto the closest character to him, Dr. Seward. Thus, if Seward is driven insane, he takes on characteristics of Renfield, with no knowledge of Stoker’s notes needed to achieve this result. Verdict: Close, but no cigar.
And there you have it! Seven points of similarity between Stoker’s notes and the Icelandic plot, and seven points that could easily have been achieved with no reference to the notes, or to the early drafts of Dracula in which some (though not all) of these elements appear. Given that these seven changes are seven among a constellation of differences that have no connection whatsoever to the notes or to early drafts of Dracula, the most parsimonious conclusion is that they are the invention of the Icelandic translator-adaptor, alongside all the other changes.
Consequently, that leaves us with one major stumbling block: De Roos notes that the preface Bram Stoker wrote for the Icelandic serial contains references to the plot changes of the new version, specifically references to various murders in London. The 1986 Joel H. Emerson translation gives the key paragraph this way:
But the events are incontrovertible, and so many people know of them that they cannot be denied. This series of crimes has not yet passed from the memory -- a series of crimes which appear to have originated from the same source, and which at the same time created as much repugnance in people everywhere as the murders of Jack the Ripper, which came into the story a little later. Various people’s minds will go back to the remarkable group of foreigners who for many seasons together played a dazzling part in the life of the aristocracy here in London; and some will remember that one of them disappeared suddenly without apparent reason, leaving no trace.
De Roos assumes far too much about this paragraph. He, like other Dracula scholars, wrongly assumes that the group of foreign aristocrats are fictitious characters in the Icelandic Dracula—the Satanic cultists—rather than real foreign dignitaries of the kind London routinely played host to—the ex-Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and his son, the ex-Prince Imperial, among them. London was home to all manner of deposed leaders, dispossessed aristocrats, etc. I would read that part as true, like the Ripper, with the one who disappeared perhaps being Dracula, a fictitious interpolation.
Anyway, we have a range of possibilities: (a) Valdimar Ásmundsson wrote the preface himself for Stoker to sign off on, (b) Stoker wrote the preface in consultation with Ásmundsson, (c) Ásmundsson edited and revised a preface Stoker wrote to conform to his changes to the book, (d) Stoker wrote the preface himself with Ásmundsson only translating it. Because the text survives only in Icelandic, we have no original English version to compare it to. The literary arguments are therefore speculative, and based on linguistic analysis. Because de Roos assumes (b) or (d) must be true, rejects (a), and failed to seriously consider the impact of (c) (but see here for his 2014 view), he therefore concludes that the preface is evidence of Stoker’s complicity in passing along his notes on Dracula. However, option (c) removes this necessity and is in keeping with the method seen in the novel, and my reading above removes the need for even this level of alteration. But, even if we follow de Roos’s reading, we know that Ásmundsson had no problem with altering the book itself. The preface was not meant as a nonfiction document but as a piece of fiction—Stoker falsely claimed in it that the book was a true story! Therefore, everything we know about the text tells us that Ásmundsson would have had no problem loosely translating Stoker’s preface to make it conform to the changes he made to the text. (Alternately, he may have altered the book to conform to a misreading of what Stoker intended in the preface.) Stoker need not have been involved in these changes to the preface. While de Roos claims it would have been a crime under international law for Ásmundsson to have fabricated the preface, he neglects to note that it was no crime to freely adapt a piece of fiction under license from the publisher, and this preface was decidedly fiction.
The long and short of it is that on every single count de Roos has grossly overstated his evidence and has drawn conclusions for the importance of the Powers of Darkness well beyond the book’s real value. It appears from the available evidence that this was, and remains, an interesting but unimportant adaptation of Dracula.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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