Two Victorian characters and their eternal influence (Column: Bookends LIII)

By Vikas Datta (09:16) 

Who are the most famous fictional characters? The answers may vary, according to your choice of reading, from Don Quixote to Jeeves to Tintin to Harry Potter. But as to the most pervasive, it can only be these two late-Victorian era creations whose original works never lost popularity while they also went on to feature in many adaptations across all media: books, films, TV shows, plays but also video games, comics, cartoons and rock songs. They are also the most well-known of their kind – be it a detective or a vampire.

Scottish physician-cum author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Irish author Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker’s Count Dracula appeared a decade apart in 1887 and 1897 respectively. Since then, both have gone far beyond the original 56 stories and four novels featuring the cerebral but quirky detective and the single novel and one story the suave, menacing but blood-thirsty aristocrat flits through to leave their lasting imprint on culture.

Though not their genres’ pioneers – Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq preceded Holmes, while Dracula was the latest of the 19th century’s literary vampires (after Lord Ruthven of John Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, 1819; Sir Francis Varney of James Malcolm Rymer’s “Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood”, serialised 1845-47; and Carmilla in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 eponymous novella) – both have become a template and are popular for writers – established and new – to test their skills upon.

Among those who have created all kinds of new adventures – both pastiche and parody – for the sleuth of Baker Street are Boris Akunin (of Tsarist-era detective Erast Fandorin fame), Poul Anderson (of “Time Patrol” stories), Jeffery Deaver, Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse’s creator), Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Vonda N. McIntyre (known for Star Trek novelisations) and Tibetan author Jamyang Norbu.

As for Dracula, Valdimar Ásmundsson, in his 1901 Icelandic version of Stoker’s work, rewrote it to introduce more characters including a host of villainous aristocrats, Kim Newman brings him into popular culture with his “Anno Dracula” series, Dacre Stoker’s “Dracula the Un-dead” (co-written with screenwriter Ian Holt) is a sequel to his great grand-uncle’s work, and Freda Warrington’s “Dracula the Undead” is an unofficial sequel. Fred Saberhagen, in his “Dracula Tape” and subsequent works, tells the story from the count’s point of view, and Elizabeth Kostova in her eerie “The Historian” presents parallel (but connected) accounts of several scholars whose research has led them too close to Dracula as they hunt him across a few tumultuous decades of 20th century Europe.

While Dracula in his new outings is more or less the same, Holmes’ new exploits can be divided into those reprising the conventional style or those which either add a supernatural tinge or introduce real and fictional contemporary characters – Theodore Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud, Jack the Ripper or even Dr Jekyll (and Mr Hyde), Prof Challenger (from ‘The Lost World”), Fantomas and others.

Does one see together the two polar opposites – one embodying reason and the spirit of inquiry, and dedicated to solving conundrums and crimes, and the other, a dark supernatural creature representing terror and lust and only bent on satiating his unearthly thirst. Holmes’ view is characteristic – and unambiguous: “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy” (‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ from “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes”)

But at least half a dozen writers have risen to this challenge.

The sub-genre’s first is a tie between Loren D. Estleman’s “Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventures of the Sanguinary Count” and Saberhagen’s “The Holmes-Dracula File” (both published in 1978). While the first adds Holmes to the matrix of Stoker’s novel from the time the count arrives in England and sees the detective join the struggle against his diabolical machinations till Dracula is driven away after which the story follows its existing course, the second subverts established order by both combining forces to foil a terror plot in 1897 London.

Saberhagen’s “Seance for a Vampire” (1994) brings both together again and sees them travel up to Russia (where they encounter Rasputin) while David Stuart Davies’ “The Tangled Skein” (1995) breaks new ground, drawing Holmes (aided by Van Helsing) back to desolate Dartmoor (scene of “Hound of the Baskervilles”) to battle Dracula.

Then there is Christian Klaver’s novella “The Adventure of the Solitary Grave” (2009) and Gerry O’Hara’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Affair in Transylvania” (2011), where Holmes travels to Castle Dracula.

Despite being centenarians, both the characters haven’t lost potential for new interpretations and seem set to rule imagination for at least another century!

(15.02.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in <mailto:vikas.d@ians.in> )

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