Fangs for memory...Dracula experts pool ideas

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FRIDAY the 13th may be unlucky for some.

But for scores of academics heading to Whitby today for a conference marking the centenary of the death of Dracula author Bram Stoker, the date merely adds a welcome frisson to already chilled spines.

The three-day event, which ends at Hull University tomorrow, both celebrates and explores a literary classic forged in Yorkshire that transformed the Gothic horror genre and gave birth to a legend.

As the Count says in the quote chosen to advertise the conference by organiser Dr Catherine Wynne: “my revenge has just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.”

The conference, Bram Stoker and Gothic Transformations, examines how Stoker’s Dracula has evolved into more modern vampires that haunt new audiences on TV and film.

Dr Wynne said part of the novel’s power was that it touched issues that continue to captivate while also offering the thrill of fear.

“The notion of a vampire is that it’s a being that lives forever and people are fascinated with ideas around immortality.

“That particularly speaks to the time it was written; in the 19th century there’s a great deal of religious doubt, with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, and in the decades that followed there were all types of questioning about religion and notions of human progress and a vampire is a being that can change into different life forms.

“And there’s also the fear of how are we going to progress. Are we going to progress, or the possibility, particularly after Darwin, that we might be going backwards on the evolutionary scale.”

She added: “If you are reading Dracula you know you are reading a novel, you are safe, you can put it down and walk away, but it gives the reader an ability to enter another imaginative universe because it excites fears and terrors and generates a sense of panic.

“One of my friends read it before me at university and had to lock herself in her student room because it had that effect.”

Also speaking at the conference was the author’s great grand-nephew, Dacre Stoker, who with Professor Elizabeth Miller has just edited a new book, The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker, based on his recently discovered diaries and other original source material, which has given a new insight into the man.

He said: “I realise now that Bram was a very interested and enlightened person on many things. He was concerned about these things because he took the trouble to write them down; things about street life in Dublin that are not all pleasant, the way men treated women in those days.

“There’s also humour which shows me, thank goodness, Bram is not all dark. There’s also the side of love and romance and he’s made some attempts at romantic poetry.”

The research also found that Stoker, who began writing Dracula in Whitby after taking holidays there, had based Dracula’s ship, the Demeter, on a real Russian boat shipwrecked off Whitby – he had records of all the shipwrecks that summer - and that when the Count galloped up the 189 steps of the Abbey in the form of a dog, this was based on a story from local folklore.

Archaeologist Dr Joann Fletcher gave a talk on the mysterious Egyptian mummy that Stoker is believed to have seen in Whitby in the 1890s which inspired him to write The Jewel of Seven Stars. The mummy was bought in 1930 by Hull museums curator Thomas Sheppard and is now in the city’s Hands on History museum.

Writer and critic Sir Christopher Frayling is today’s keynote speaker, who will talk about his book The Birth of Horror in the town that inspired Stoker.