Sinking his critical teeth into ‘Dracula’
After writing nearly 2,000 footnotes for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes corpus, one might think Leslie Klinger would take a respite. After all, he has a thriving tax law practice in Los Angeles. But when the three volumes of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” received glowing reviews upon their publication beginning in 2004 and wound up selling more than 50,000 copies, Klinger felt emboldened to ask his publisher, W.W. Norton, what his next project might be.
“Norton was taken aback by that,” said Klinger, who had edited previous editions of Holmes novels. “I mean, that was a terrible way to start out as a writer -- with a taste of success.”
Klinger may be one of the world’s leading Sherlockians, but he wanted to stretch a bit. His wife suggested Dracula. After all, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is arguably the most famous book of the late Victorian era, and Stoker was a contemporary of Doyle’s. “Arthur Conan Doyle actually interviewed Stoker for a magazine late in his career,” said Klinger, who lives in a house overstuffed with Holmes books in the Malibu hills. “Doyle was a great admirer of ‘Dracula.’ ”
But Klinger wanted to make sure he would be contributing original scholarship about a book that has been studied and deconstructed for more than 100 years. The result is “The New Annotated Dracula,” a lavishly illustrated volume overstuffed with arcana that’s both authoritative and lightheartedly nit-picking, leavened by Klinger’s playful stratagem of treating Stoker’s novel of the great vampire as reportage.
Bram Stoker, born to a civil servant, was an unlikely candidate for literary immortality. But his association with the great artists and writers of his day was extensive, as he was manager of London’s famed Lyceum Theatre. Yet it was only years after his death that “Dracula” came to be recognized as a horror classic.
The Dublin native suffered from unidentified maladies that confined him to bed until age 7, when he swiftly recovered. This “memory of revivification,” Klinger writes in the introduction, might have “put its stamp on the narrative.”
While at the Lyceum, Stoker began writing stories in his spare time, but nothing much came of them. He began jotting down ideas for “Dracula” while studying for his law degree, but it took him seven years to complete the novel. Ironically, the bestselling of Stoker’s books during his lifetime was a two-volume biography of actor Henry Irving, his Lyceum boss. “Stoker was a wannabe writer for a long time,” Klinger said. “But most of his books are garbage. ‘Dracula’ was the one book that he took time with, to which he gave a lot of thought.”
Stoker’s “Dracula” was not the first vampire novel, but it is, according to Klinger, the best. “There were a number of successful plays, short stories and poems. Also a popular novel called ‘Varney the Vampire,’ by James Malcolm Rymer,” said Klinger. “But it’s awfully long and has no lasting value.” What’s astonishing about Stoker’s book is its formal daring. For its narrative armature Stoker uses the journal entries of his character Jonathan Harker, a solicitor who has been summoned to Count Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian mountains to assist in a real estate transaction. Stoker also uses correspondence, diary entries and newspaper stories to heighten the frightening verisimilitude of the novel, which becomes an eyewitness account of Dracula’s darkly elegant transgressions.
Picking up on Stoker’s conceit, Klinger decided to frame his annotations around the idea that Harker’s journals were real and that Stoker had been approached by the solicitor to set down the events. Not long after Stoker completed the novel, so claims Klinger in the book, Dracula paid him a visit and made the author amend certain passages in order to promulgate the myth that Dracula had been destroyed along with his castle -- thus giving Dracula cover to search for fresh blood.
Klinger’s literary “game,” a pastime among Sherlockians, allows him to justify some of the mistakes in the text when checked against the original 550-page manuscript, as well as a subsequent edition abridged by Stoker.
Throughout the book, for example, Dracula’s nemesis, Professor Van Helsing, claims that the only way to kill a vampire is by wooden stake. Yet Dracula is stabbed with steel knives. “How to account for that inconsistency?” Klinger asked. “Well, surely Dracula himself changed it, which means he is still alive.”
Acquiring some of the source material took some doing. The original “Dracula” manuscript is one of the rarest artifacts of Victoriana. It had been offered at auction, and Klinger tried to find it. A year later, during a reading at a Seattle bookstore, a woman approached him and said, “I’m here to talk to you about Dracula.” As it turned out, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owned it and consented to let Klinger read it, but only under the most stringent conditions. “I spent two weeks with a curator holding my hand. I couldn’t be alone with the document,” he said.
The reading yielded revelations. “There are copious handwritten changes by Stoker and his editor, as well as notes from Stoker’s doctor brother,” said Klinger. “Bram wanted to make sure all of the medical facts were accurate.”
In addition, Stoker had cut and pasted numerous passages on top of old ones -- by holding the pages up to a bright light, Klinger could decipher the palimpsest and was then able to annotate all the jokes, asides and other additions that didn’t appear in the published text.
Klinger also delves into other asides: the methodology of blood typing and trepanning, as well as 19th century train schedules and tide tables.
It wasn’t easy. For starters, Klinger had to do the work during off hours. And despite the fact that his books have garnered praise from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, Klinger doesn’t really consider himself a writer. “The thought of sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper terrifies me,” he says. Nonetheless, he is about to embark on a collaboration with Gaiman (who wrote the introduction to “Dracula”), and he’s looking for another book to annotate.
“I’m not exactly giving up my day job,” he said. “But I told my law partners, if ‘Dracula’ sells a million copies, I’m outta here.”