You’ve Been Reading The Wrong Dracula
And so is everyone who doesn’t live in Reykjavik
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula may be an English-language greatest hit, and it’s certainly the novel that horror movie buffs most often lie about having read, but it’s not without it’s problems:
-Why does Dracula travel all the way to England to bite a few one percenters? Is there no greater motivation?
-Why do we spend so much time away from the spooky Carpathian Mountains? For all it’s charm, Whitby is hardly foreboding.
-Who is the protagonist here? Is it Harker? Mina? Van Helsing? Is it Dracula himself?
These questions wouldn’t be so nagging if we weren’t all reading the wrong version of Dracula.
So popular was Stoker’s original novel, that it was translated into multiple languages in the late 1890s/early 1900s. One of these was Icelandic, and for over 100 years, no one thought to check the translator’s work.
And why would they? There were Worlds to War and Berlins to Airlift and Ys to Two-Kay. So when someone finally got around to side-eyeing the Icelandic translation in 2017, after what I imagine was several spit-takes and an audible “Dafuq?”, the village church bells sounded.
See, the Icelandic version of Dracula, what is called “Makt Myrkranna” or “Powers of Darkness”, isn’t a little different from the English version. It’s a LOT different. I’m not talking about the difference between the comic book Spider-Man and the movie Spider-Man; I’m talking about the difference between the comic book Spider-Man and Nelson Mandela. Somewhere along the line, the story we think we know got crossbred, vivisected, electroshocked, reanimated, and taught karate.
And it’s awesome.
First, the Count now has a clear motivation. Remember that in the past, filmmakers who struggled to find Dracula’s motivation in the book would reinterpret that motivation as a quest to be reunited with his lost love, who looked a lot like Mina Harker. Which was always a stretch — how many people would you murder to be with someone who looks a little like your high school sweetheart? I doubt it’s more than three. But in Makt Myrkranna, the Count’s battle plans are clear: he’s going to London because England is the center of the world and it’s from there he will take over EVERYTHING. It’s no longer about seducing Lucy or Mina or Winona Ryder, it’s about global domination.
Second, Makt Myrkranna adds some 15,000 words to the Romanian sections of the story — a 63% increase in pages. And it deletes or abridges most of the story taking place in England — cutting over 125,000 words or 93% of the Whitby/London pages. The balls on this Icelandic translator, you say?
But come on, the best stuff happens in Romania, amiright? When you hear about Dracula, the first images that come to your mind — I’m betting all the profits from this blog — are in Romania. Tell me I’m wrong.
Third, it’s bawdy. At least when compared to the original. While the men in Dracula are cuckolded by the title character, Harker is actually allowed to get erections in Makt Myrkranna. He lusts — and I mean lusts — after the strange undead girl who lurks in Dracula’s castle. He can’t stop writing about her body in his journal. He does everything but doodle her tits in the margins. And Little Miss Chomp Chomp is a fascinating character, moreso than the three “brides” in the English version. I didn’t do a word count, but he definitely devotes more space in his journal to the mysterious biting girl than he does to his own betrothed lady back in England .
The sexual desire on full display. The clear, sinister motives. The monstrous humanoids in the bowels Castle Dracula who partake in a murderous Eyes-Wide-Shut party. I’m saying — Makt Myrkranna turns the creepiness up to Thomas Harris* levels.
Yes, I flipping said it: the Icelandic Dracula is better.
Okay okay, it’s not without issues. The last 1/3 of the book is written like a Wikipedia plot synopsis. It doesn’t read anything like the first 2/3 which are eerie and wonderful and written in the first-person in the form of Harker’s journal (some thoughts on this below). But the skeleton of the plot — it’s strong. Stronger than the original — I say blasphemously — even if it’s told in a dull manner absent any poetry. There’s so much cool stuff outlined that, if fleshed out, would creep you out like a bachelor who watches Daniel Tiger episodes all alone.
Let’s get those movie rights to the Icelandic Makt Myrkranna optioned because this is way more adaptable than Dracula. I’ve already lined up Bjork for the soundtrack. Someone tell Netflix I’m available to showrun.
How did it come to this?
Consign my literary critiques to the dungeon below Icelandic Dracula’s castle. How did all this strangeness happen? Did translator Valdimar Ásmundsson think that Stoker’s text needed not a punch-up, but a page one rewrite? Was he so arrogant that he figured that in a few months he could outdo Bram Stoker’s seven years of work? It’s a good question, and one we don’t know the definitive answer to just yet. But there’s fascinating evidence that points in a couple directions.
The most obvious difference from the outset is that the “found footage” mode of storytelling that Stoker employed isn’t present here. As mentioned, the first 2/3 of the book are notes in Harker’s journal; the final third is told third-person by an omniscient narrator. That’s kinda odd, right? It’s like getting halfway through the March issue of Guns & Ammo only to find seven tips for reading Proust. All this might be perfectly acceptable when the story is told in serialized form (as Makt Myrkranna was originally published, in an Icelandic newspaper) but it makes for a strange read in a book.
Makt Myrkranna contains allusions to Norse mythology and Icelandic customs; far more than could be accidental. Stoker was an educated man but we don’t have evidence he was studied enough in things like the Norse sagas and Eddas to think he would have referenced these things himself — but even if he was conscious of them, why would he suppose his audience would be? It doesn’t make sense that Stoker added Norse tidbits in a story about a Transylvanian terror for an English audience.
Stoker was also very careful in his mapping out of the story — we have lots of notes to show this — and so the occasional inconsistency or continuity error in Makt Myrkranna (Harker doesn’t know where the Count sleeps, then he does; he indicates a tower was on his right, then later says the same tower was on the left; he goes into a room only later to tell us he hasn’t explored there) suggests the work of someone less meticulous in their planning.
In Makt Myrkranna, vampirism definitely occurs — Dracula’s catacomb-dwelling minions are big fans of virgin blood, and the waif that gives Harker permanent tight trousers is a biter. But Dracula himself? Dracula never bites anyone.
There’s the addition of new characters, and disappearance of old characters: no Renfield, no Bloofer Lady, no triple vampire brides; but added is a mute housekeeper, several noble men and women, a police inspector, a sacrificial virgin, and of course the lithe vampire girl that Harker can barely keep his Levis on for. Fictional characters don’t typically disappear or spontaneously generate over the course of a translation, right?
Cleary, translator Valdimar Ásmundsson has pulled some 1984 shit on us. He’s redacted one of the great novels of western literature and a foremost gothic horror tome. He should be exhumed and staked for this.
Strap yourself into your coffin, because it’s about to get weird
Remember those copious notes Bram Stoker made when he was writing Dracula for an English audience?
Guess what you find buried in those notes? You find characters that didn’t make it into Dracula, but that DO appear in Makt Myrkranna.
Also, the very end of Makt Myrkranna does not match the end of Dracula. But guess what it does match? It matches an ending for an early version of Dracula that Stoker rewrote before publication.
And and and the Icelandic Dracula dons a wardrobe that resembles nothing found in Stoker’s book or notes… but it is exactly the clothing that Dracula wore in Hamilton Deane’s play and that Bela Lugosi wore in Tod Browning’s 1931 movie. It’s almost certain that Deane and Browning never read Makt Myrkranna, but yet somehow Valdimar Ásmundsson skipped in line past everyone, anticipating the formal clothing that is part of the Dracula canon.
A quandary we find ourselves in. A translator gives his countrymen a bastardized version of Dracula; yet we find many items from that bastardized version in Bram Stoker’s early notes.
How is this possible?
There’s only one possibility that works for me: Makt Myrkranna isn’t a translation of Dracula at all. It’s Bram Stoker’s director’s cut. He pulled out an earlier draft that he liked but couldn’t publish in English for various reasons and handed it over to a Valdimar to interpret; allowing Valdimar to add flavors of Norse culture that would resonate with the only audience it was ever intended for: hard drinking, puffin-eating Icelanders.
There’s a decent chance that Stoker was fully aware of the spirit of Valdimar’s changes, though probably not specifics. After all, Stoker wrote a foreword to Makt Myrkranna.
There’s some outside evidence for this hypothesis, highlighted by John Edgar Browning and Dacre Stoker and retranslator Hans de Roos. But then again, none of it is ironclad. The Kolchaks of today are still missing key evidence that could really spell out how the gothic canon got so twisted.
Better minds than mine are studying this text, but I’ll say what they are too responsible to say without further evidence: I’d wager that the final 1/3 of Makt Myrkranna wasn’t even written by Valdimar Ásmundsson. The writing is too choppy and there’s barely a line of dialogue. There’s certainly no effort given to suspense or surprise. If I was a betting man and the blinds were low, I’d wager that the last 1/3 of Makt Myrkranna was a quick finish, based on Stoker’s notes, by someone else, done to wrap the story up in the serialized form ahead of some arbitrary deadline.
Perhaps when the Swedish edition of Dracula gets retranslated back to English — expected soon — some light will be shed. It’s already been suggested that the Icelandic Makt Myrkranna was adapted from the Swedish version. But is it? What if the Swedes went off script in a completely different direction?
There are only twenty surviving copies of the original printing of Makt Myrkranna aka Powers of Darkness known to us. Now that it has been republished, I hope you have a chance to pick up this incredible find. Let me know what you think!
*He wrote Silence of the Lambs, you Philistines.
Image credits: Overlook Press, Shutterstock, Fjall Konan (defunct), HBO, Universal Television, the collection of Hans DeRoos.