Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:52 am
The great tempest broke rapidly and without warning in the darkness. The sea around Whitby convulsed, waves rising in growing fury, over-topping one another, beating white-topped on the sands, rushing up the cliffs and breaking with great spumes over the piers of the harbour. Adding to the difficulties and dangers of the night, a huge sea-fog drifted inland, ghost-like, its wet clouds so dank and cold it was as though the spirits of those lost at sea touched the living with the clammy hand of death. One by one, fishing-boats running madly for safety made the harbour, guided by a great searchlight mounted on the top of East Cliff. Finally, the searchlight picked out one last remaining vessel, a foreign schooner spotted earlier, all sails set, drifting, out of control. Somehow, miraculously, the strange vessel made its way between the piers, seeming to leap from wave to wave, apparently steered by a corpse, with drooping head, lashed to the helm. The schooner pitched up with considerable concussion on the beach below East Cliff, next to ancient Tate Hill Pier. But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched an immense dog sprang up on deck from below and leapt from the bows onto the sand. It made straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the lane below such that some tombstones actually project over where the cliff has fallen away. And there the dog disappeared, into the darkness. 1] So Dracula arrived in the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby; and the fact is, he’s never left.
Dracula, the novel, was published in 1897. It was the brain-child of actor Henry Irving’s business manager, Bram (Abraham) Stoker (1847-1912). Stoker had written short stories before and in July 1890 arrived in Whitby for a holiday, having been working on a story set in Styria, Austria, with a central character called Count Wampyr. Something inspired him during his stay in this little Yorkshire seaside town, for what emerged from his pen, told through fictional journals and fragments of letters, was one of the most powerful and enduring tales of terror ever conceived. Indeed, Dracula, one of the un-dead, ironically has a kind of immortality denied to his creator.
Visitors flock to Whitby; at times, it seems they almost outnumber the seagulls. Too many people have eaten too many chips. The town, in parts tacky and tired, in others tasty and terrific, is known for its fish ‘n’ chips, bracing seascapes, association with the 18th century explorer, Captain Cook, its world-famous jet industry (in this instance a gemstone, not a means of propulsion), as a terminus of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and, of course, the atmospheric ruins of its 11th century abbey.
“The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, through which the view seems, somehow, farther away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green, and it is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town…are all red-roofed and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of ‘Marmion’, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows. Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is, to my mind, the nicest spot in Whitby…” 2]
You can’t escape Dracula in Whitby. Allow me to elaborate: for a start, there are little bits of him and the whole bloody vampire business in various emporia throughout the town. All of this is, mostly, light-hearted; so, even if you’re not a sucker for that kind of thing and it’s not love at first bite (etc), it normally fades into the background like a kind of wallpaper, or perhaps a bad dream. The playfully curious can partake of the ‘Dracula Experience’, a cautious walk through one of Whitby’s historic houses which has been specially kitted out to retell the dreadful story using dummies, special effects and actors. And, notwithstanding some natural scepticism and the Dracula Experience’s rather badly-written website, it is quite well done. I defy you not to feel a little edgy from the outset, and predict you will jump at least once; maybe twice. It’s a few quid amusingly spent, anyway. Whitby’s association with Dracula also resonates with the Goth subculture; fans of this darker world flock to Whitby for its biannual Goth festival, the Whitby Goth Weekend, founded in 1994.
But, beyond all that, there’s no doubt that Whitby suits Dracula; or is it the other way round? Even the polished, gleaming, black jet, displayed in shops along Church Street and beautifully mounted in gold, sometimes has a slightly funereal look about it. The medieval abbey, occupying the site of a much older, 7th century, monastery dominates the town and manages to be both graceful as well as strangely brooding. Next to it, the medieval parish church of St Mary’s perches on East Cliff, its crowded, untidy, old and obviously decaying churchyard occasionally exposing and shedding human bones onto the paths below as the ground erodes. St Mary’s is a slightly odd building; in some ways not very church-like. Apart from the squat, but reasonably traditional tower, outside it seems a curious hotch-potch of structures, with large, but almost domestic-looking, windows. Inside, it is enormous, with a seating capacity for two thousand and a cramped ground floor full of box pews, like a collection of massive open-topped coffins. Most people access church and abbey via the 199 worn stone steps that curve up from the town, occasionally lit by streetlamps straight from a Jack the Ripper film set. I once stood on West Cliff on a bright sunny evening, gazing across the harbour at St Mary’s and the old abbey. Out of nowhere, a sea-mist blew in and, in moments, the headline opposite, and then the harbour, were shrouded in darkness.
“For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St Mary’s Church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and the churchyard became gradually visible. Whatever my expectation was, it was not disappointed, for there, on our favourite seat, the silver light of the moon struck a half-reclining figure, snowy white. The coming of the cloud was too quick for me to see much, for shadow shut down on light almost immediately; but it seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.” 3]
In 1885, just five years before Stoker’s holiday, a Russian brigantine from Narva (now in Estonia) ran aground in Whitby harbour, on Tate Hill Sands below East Cliff. She was called the Dmitry and she was carrying a ballast of silver sand.
“It turns out that the schooner is a Russian from Varna, and is called the Demeter. She is almost entirely in ballast of silver sand, with only a small amount of cargo – a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould.” 4]
Vampires can take the form of a black dog. Black dogs make frequent appearances in myth and legend. A mythical monstrous black dog with large teeth and claws occurs in Northern English folklore; it is called a Barghest or Barguest and seeing one is often an omen of death.
Dracula is much lampooned in these sceptical, digital, days – a caricature creature for juvenile horror movies and Halloween masks. But the novel is actually deeply disturbing, menacing, and plays on deep-rooted fears and fascinations. It is often claimed that Stoker got the inspiration for Count Dracula himself from a book he found in the library at Whitby, where he learned of a 15th century ruler of Wallachia (now in Romania), Vlad III, Vlad Tepes – or Vlad the Impaler. Vlad, as his nickname suggests, had a preferred method for dealing with people that irritated him; it is claimed he killed some 80,000 people, of which roughly 20,000 were impaled. Drac, or dracul, apparently means ‘the Devil’ in Romanian. Alternatively, I have also read that Dracula also means ‘son of dragon’ and is derived from a knightly order of the dragon bestowed upon Vlad III’s father. You’ll need a more scholarly approach than mine to get to the bottom of this one.
Some say that further inspiration for Dracula came from the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who got her kicks, and preserved her youthful beauty, by bathing in the fresh blood of virgins. The Count’s outwardly charming and aristocratic demeanour was apparently copied from Stoker’s employer, Henry Irving.
Of course, Stoker did not invent vampires. James Malcolm Rymer, writer of penny dreadfuls, or ‘penny bloods’, published Varney the Vampire; or the Feast of Blood in 1845-46, beating Bram by half a century. There were others – and I assume you’ve heard the rumours from long before that, seeping from the remoter parts of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains – home to wolf, lynx, bear, and more? Down through the centuries come horrifying tales of foul creatures, neither living nor dead, known by various names: vurculac, varcolac, wampyr – or vampire. Varcolac can also mean werewolf; there are, after all, similarities. The mythology of vampires is remarkably – and worryingly – detailed. Nor are they confined to Romania; they can be found in Russia, Bulgaria, Moravia (Czech Republic) and Albania. Beyond Eastern Europe, Whitby and Greater London, they have also been known in Brazil, China, Mexico and – it should surprise no one – the United States too.
“Within, stood a tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. The instant that I stepped over the threshold he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice – more like the hand of a dead than a living man.”
“His face was a strong – very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”
“As the Count leaned over me and his hands (which, strange to say had hairs in the centre of the palms) touched me, I could not suppress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal. The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back; and with a grim sort of smile showed more than he had done yet of his protuberant teeth.”
“As I listened I heard, as if from down below in the valley, the howling of many wolves. The Count’s eyes gleamed, and he said: –
‘Listen to them – the children of the night. What music they make!’ “ 5]
Sleep well. Remember what tricks our dreams can play.
1] Paraphrased from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Chapter VII
2] Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Chapter VI, Mina Murray’s journal
3] Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Chapter VIII, Mina Murray’s journal
4] Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Chapter VII
5] From Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Chapter VII, Jonathan Harker’s journal