Dracula: A Bloody Good First Edition

October 23, 2020 | Myrna

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Since its release in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become an icon of vampire and horror literature. The story of Count Dracula's blood thirsty crimes in Transylvania and England is read around the world. But the book’s journey to global fame was not straightforward.

Books in our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy — one of the world's top research collections for speculative fiction (which includes horror) — tell the backstory of Dracula and how it went from literary acclaim to international fanged sensation.


A scandalous yellow cover

The Merril Collection has a first edition of Dracula, which you can view in person at the Lillian H. Smith Branch, or read online. Early editions of Dracula have dramatic yellow covers and blood-red text. For 19th-century readers, Dracula’s yellow cover signaled something about it’s contents. Yellow was associated with novels featuring racy and controversial content. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian is "poisoned" by a "yellow book."

A bright yellow hardcover of a book with a thin red border. The title at top reads "Dracula"
First edition cover of Dracula (1897) from our Merril Collection.


Dracula’s reviewers agreed that readers should be cautious. One reviewer recommended that you "[k]eep Dracula out of the way of nervous children." Another reviewer found the yellow cover insufficient and suggested "Mr. Bram Stoker should have labelled his book 'For Strong Men Only.'"


Who was Count Dracula?

Among English speakers, Vlad Dracula — also known as Vlad the Impaler — is infamous for inspiring Stoker’s Count Dracula. In the 15th century, Vlad ruled Wallachia (now a region of Romania). When Vlad was alive his enemies circulated rumours about his cruelty. These rumours included tales of impaling people on sticks and cannibalism. Readers have speculated that Vlad was the model for Count Dracula.

Portrait of Vlad III Prince of Wallachia
Portrait of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, or Vlad Dracula (circa 1560). Image is from Kunst Historisches Museum and is in the public domain.


But Stoker’s research notes reveal a more complicated backstory. These notes can be found in a facsimile edition of Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula (always available in the Merril Collection).

Evidence suggests that Vlad Dracula inspired Count Dracula’s name, but not the character’s supernatural powers. Stoker's notes on Vlad do not mention any of the more brutal rumours. Instead Stoker focused on Vlad’s name, mentioning that "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL."

Stoker’s vampire mythology draws more on an article "Transylvanian Superstitions" (1885). This article by Emily Gerard details Romanian blood-sucking legends. The novel’s vampires also mirror earlier English language vampire stories, such as The Vampyre by John William Polidori and Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Polidori and Le Fanu’s vampires are both shadowy aristocrats, a literary tradition which Stoker’s Count Dracula continues.


Bram Stoker did not become rich from Dracula

Dracula received warm reviews when it was released in 1897. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, declared it "the very best story of diablerie [black magic] which I have read for many years."

Autographed photograph of Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker by W. & D. Downey, photogravure, 1906 NPG x3769. © National Portrait Gallery, London.


Stoker trained as a lawyer and negotiated his own contract for Dracula. He managed to bargain for a generous 20% royalty fee on sales in Britain. Despite critics’ praise and a savvy contract, Dracula did not make Stoker a wealthy man. By 1911, Stoker’s finances were in bad shape and he had to apply for a grant from the Royal Literary Fund.

After Stoker’s death, his widow Florence Stoker sold his Dracula notes at auction for two pounds, two shillings. In today’s currency that would be around 125 pounds (or $213 Canadian dollars).


A Nordic translation mystery

Dracula has been translated into more than 30 languages. Yet, during Bram Stoker's lifetime the novel was not widely translated.

In recent years, the book's Icelandic and Swedish translations have attracted attention from Dracula fans. The translations were published in 1899 and 1900 and titled Mörkrets makter/Makt myrkranna, or Powers of Darkness. In 2017, an English translation of the Icelandic Powers of Darkness was released. English speaking Dracula fans can now read the Icelandic translation for themselves. 


Why are Dracula fans fascinated by Powers of Darkness? It's because the Icelandic and Swedish translations are very different from the English novel. More of the book is set in Transylvania, introducing scenes, characters and plot lines which don't exist in the English text. There are several theories about the origins of these differences. Did the Nordic translators take creative liberties? Or did they have access to one of Stoker's early Dracula manuscripts? Dracula scholars continue to seek answers.

Powers of Darkness is an early example of how flexible Dracula's story and characters are. Translator Hans Corneel de Roos argues that some of the changes improve the novel. De Roos writes:

"[Dracula] is filled with sentimental conversations in which the characters assure each other their appreciation, friendship and loyalty instead of letting their actions speak...Powers of Darkness, by contrast, is written in a concise, punchy style; each scene adds to the progress of the plot." 


Dracula on stage and screen

Dracula’s fame grew after Stoker’s death thanks to theatre and film adaptations. Stoker worked in theatre, managing the Lyceum Theatre in London for 27 years. He imagined Dracula as a stage play starring his employer Henry Irving, but according to Stoker "[w]henever I talk about it, he laughs at me."

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu DVD cover

The first film adaptation of Dracula was unauthorized, the silent Nosferatu (1922) directed by F. W. Murnau. Florence Stoker defended her copyright and got a court order to have the film destroyed. Somehow a few prints of Nosferatu survived and the film is now considered a cinematic masterpiece.

In 1924, Florence Stoker gave permission for a theatre adaptation which toured England and later the United States. The stage show grew the story’s fame in the United States. Inspired by the stage play's success, Universal Studios released an authorized Dracula film in 1931. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula, the film premiered to delighted (and terrified) audiences.

Dracula would become a regular in the Universal Classic Monsters shared universe. There he starred alongside Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Film adaptations cemented Dracula's status as a pop culture icon. Bram Stoker's work continues to be remixed and reimagined. Dracula shows up in everything from graphic novels to pop-up books.


Further reading



Edited October 30, 9:15 am: Removed extra blank line in block quote.