Gothic Literature and the Influence of Dracula: Background information when reading Undermajordomo Minor

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Undermajordomo Minor

by Patrick deWitt

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt X
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 336 pages

    Jun 2016, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sinéad Fitzgibbon
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Gothic Literature and the Influence of Dracula

This article relates to Undermajordomo Minor

Print Review

A vintage 1931 poster of the Hollywood adaptation of Dracula Dracula by Irish author Bram (Abraham) Stoker is widely considered to be a classic of Gothic horror literature. With the possible exception of Frankenstein, it is perhaps the most recognizable and influential of all such novels. Stoker's most famous work was not, however, at the vanguard in the development of the genre; at the time of its publication in 1897, Gothic literature was already well established. Over 130 years had passed since Horace Walpole had written The Castle of Otranto, the first ever Gothic novel in the English language, in 1764. In the intervening time, many authors made important contributions to the canon. Ann Radcliffe was a notable pioneer of the form in the late 18th century. Her work greatly influenced the likes of Walter Scott, the Marquis de Sade, and Edgar Allen Poe; and two of her novels in particular, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) are still widely read today.

Fittingly, the disastrously dark and inclement European summer of 1816 (a year in which the world's meteorological conditions were thrown into chaos by what modern-day scientists attribute in large part to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia) saw two significant contributions to Gothic literature. Cooped up in the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Italy, the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, together with Percy's wife, Mary, and another writer, John Polidori, sought to amuse themselves by challenging each other to write ghost stories. The aforementioned Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre were the two most notable results.

While Polidori's effort is believed to be the first English-language vampire prose fiction, (followed by James Malcolm Ryder's Varney the Vampire¸ who appeared in a number of penny dreadfuls between 1845 and 1847; and Sheridan le Fanu's lesbian vampire novel Carmilla, published in 1871), it fell to Stoker to master the form.

Dracula had all the elements of the Gothic — a strange and sinister remote setting; undertones of threatening menace; echoes of eroticism; and the presence of the paranormal. All this, combined with the compelling characterization of Dracula himself, elevated this book above all its vampiric predecessors.

Immediately popular with late Victorian literary critics, Dracula was, however, a slow burner in terms of sales, failing to earn much in the way of royalties for its author, who died relatively impoverished in 1912. It was only in the modern era that Dracula truly came into its own. A 1922 film adaptation of the novel called Nosferatu by the German director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, proved popular with everyone other than Stoker's widow, who took exception to the fact that the movie infringed on her copyright. A legal case ensued, which was eventually settled by a ruling in favour of Stoker's heirs, and most copies of the film were destroyed by official order.

This legal battle brought Dracula to the attention of the general public, and interest in the novel was reignited. In 1931, Hollywood came calling with the release of an authorized film version, which proved wildly popular with audiences. The novel has since been a staple on bookstore shelves, never once falling out of print.

Over the years, Dracula has spawned many homages and spin-offs. The character of Count Dracula has appeared in over 200 movies, while he has also provided the inspiration for many other literary, televisual and cinematic vampires, including Barnabas Collins and Anne Rice's Lestat. In recent years, there has been another upsurge in the popularity in the vampire genre, with TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood and even a web series based on Carmilla. And let's not forget the phenomenon that is the Twilight series of books which has brought the vampire legend to an entirely new audience of fans.

Arguably, none of these newer additions to the vampire collective can match Stoker's creation — but, as the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Dracula poster from IMDB

Filed under Books and Authors

This "beyond the book article" relates to Undermajordomo Minor. It originally ran in September 2015 and has been updated for the June 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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