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Literature / The Dracula Tape

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A 1975 comic-horror-adventure novel by Fred Saberhagen, which offers an alternative perspective on the horror novel Dracula. Specifically, it hinges on a fact about the earlier work that is both glaringly obvious and yet easily missed; of the many first-hand testimonials provided to record the battle between the vampire Count Dracula, his nemesis Van Helsing, and Van Helsing's allies, one important perspective has been notably omitted — that of Count Dracula himself. The Dracula Tape thus revolves around Dracula, several decades later, deciding to finally address this imbalance by hijacking a car belonging to descendants of the Harkers, his old enemies, and by recording his memoirs of the event in question into their tape recorder.

Dracula's account begins with him having tired of life in a crumbling castle hidden in the wilds of Transylvania surrounded both by irritatingly backwards and superstitious peasants and a trio of insufferable vampire brides. He decides to break his centuries of self-imposed exile and reintroduce himself into human society, hoping to find more enlightened, pleasant and welcoming company in London, then the capital of the greatest and most prosperous empire ever known. To this end, he employs Jonathan Harker, a young British solicitor, to purchase him a British residence, and tries to both make Harker welcome in his castle and gently guide him into knowledge of the existence of vampires.

Unfortunately, a series of misunderstandings work to negatively colour Harker's impressions of Dracula, leading to a chain of circumstances that results in Dracula's subsequent arrival in Britain going... a bit pear-shaped. As Dracula tries to cope with the increasing number of enemies he somehow seems to be making, among them obsessive vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing and Harker's quick-witted and attractive wife Mina, it soon becomes apparent that there was more — a lot more — going on that Stoker's novel recorded, that there were several misunderstandings colouring events, and that Dracula might not be the monster he's been depicted as all this time after all...

The novel was the first in a lengthy series of novels featuring Saberhagen's interpretation of Dracula and other likewise more-or-less-positively depicted vampires. The second in the series was The Holmes-Dracula File, in which Dracula finds himself encountering... well, you can probably guess.

  • The Dracula series consists of:
    • The Dracula Tape (1975)
    • The Holmes-Dracula File (1978)
    • An Old Friend of the Family (1979)
    • Thorn (1980)
    • Dominion (1982)
    • From the Tree of Time (short story)
    • A Matter of Taste (1990)
    • A Question of Time (1992)
    • Seance for a Vampire (1994) (sequel to The Holmes-Dracula File)
    • A Sharpness on the Neck (1996)
    • Box Number Fifty (short story)
    • A Coldness In the Blood (2002)

The Dracula Tape provides examples of:

  • AB Negative: Turns out, it wasn't the vampire killing Lucy Westenra.
  • Affectionate Parody: The whole novel is basically Dracula sarcastically riffing on some of the more messy or questionable aspects of the original story, and complaining about how it misrepresents him...but only a true Dracula fan could have written a story that mocks the original in such brilliantly exacting detail.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Much as Dracula complained about the brides and comment they brought their fates upon themselves for disobeying him (though likewise glad it happened as to avoid potential jealously with Mina), he does admit he was disturbed by the way they were killed.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Played with; women tend to display a healthy interest in Dracula, the vampire... except, of course, the whole point of this book is that Dracula isn't a 'bad boy' (or, at least, isn't the bad guy you thought he was). In fact, it's heavily suggested that the real reason they're interested in him is because, unlike pretty much all the other men in the novel, he treats them respectfully and like they're actual people.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Justified by the only psychiatrist being a young Freud.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: Invoked on Dracula and the other characters in the novel.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: At the end of the story, Mina, after having lived a full life, dies of old age. However since Dracula mixed his blood with her, she arises as a vampire with her youth restored and Dracula is there to greet her as she pulls herself out of her grave.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Played with; the introduction of the novel reveals that the events of the novel are transcribed from a tape found within an abandoned car, the occupants nowhere to be found... but then reveals that the occupants are recovering from their experiences in a hospital. It's an early clue that Dracula, while not exactly a nice guy, isn't the monster he's been presented as.
  • Artistic License – Traditional Christianity: The Count (a Catholic himself) gleefully tears apart van Helsing's religious arguments as superstitious gibberish. When he claims he has an indulgence for his attempt to use communion Hosts as a weapon, the Count flat-out calls him a liar since that's not how those work.
  • Badass Decay: Invoked, for comedic purposes: Dracula insists that he's not a bad guy and that everyone else was merely deluded or misled as to his intentions. Specifically, why does everyone act like he's a huge threat given the main thing everyone knows about him is that he was defeated by a bunch of idiots with no plan?
  • Blatant Lies: Dracula at one point notes that Lucy's incredibly melodramatic recounting of Dracula's "attack" on her and the death of her mother was the very first work of narrative fiction by a centuries old vampire who had only recently learned English and a half-mesmerised young woman slowly dying of blood poisoning and transforming into a vampire, written within barely an hour for the express purpose of trying to throw any suspicion of collusion away from Lucy. And incredibly, it still works.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The original novel's tendency towards these is parodied, with Dracula noting with increasing exasperation how a chain of coincidences seems to be building up around him — not least the fact that everyone he meets in Britain is somehow connected to Jonathan Harker.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The casual racism and sexism from the original book are maintained, and much is made on how the hunters sabotaged themselves this way there. Dracula is also very much a man of honor, but his honor code is that of a 15th century warlord and vastly different than Victorian or modern ethos.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dracula tends to respond sarcastically to the more florid, histrionic and blinkered views of his enemies. As one example, during a battle with them, a knife cuts open Dracula's pocket and spills most of his money on the floor. Dracula dryly notes that his opponent's description of his inhuman, savage rage isn't taking into account the very real fact that Dracula was likely annoyed at losing all his money.
  • Emergency Transformation: Dracula is forced to do this with Lucy Westenra after Van Helsing's 'treatment'.
  • Eternal Sexual Freedom: Dracula admits he fell into this; his time as a breathing man was spent in a setting with an attitude to casual sex similar to the late twentieth century, so Victorian London's attitude caught him unprepared. He rather snarkily theorizes that if he had settled down with one girl and only bit her in private he wouldn't have had so much trouble.
  • Everyone Has Standards: At one point, Dracula claims that he could have easily overwhelmed and killed the vampire hunters in confrontation — but doing so would also result in the communion hosts they were armed with (in a misguided belief that it would have any effect on him) becoming contaminated with blood, which would be sacrilegious and offend Dracula's (lapsed) Catholicism.
  • External Retcon: The novel suggests that numerous elements of the original novel were misunderstandings or even outright fabrications.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Dr Seward in The Holmes-Dracula File is planning to release a plague on London. Absolutely no explanation for this is given. It is at one point hinted that he's bitter about being rejected by Mina himself, even though he and Mina had no romantic relationship in the original, but that's about all we get. Strangely, he's still under the delusion that Dracula is a villain himself, and posits forming an alliance with him.
  • Faking the Dead: The confrontation at the end of the original book was staged to convince Van Helsing that Dracula was gone for good in a way that would keep him from turning his attentions toward Mina.
  • Fantastic Racism: In the parts of the Sherlock Holmes crossovers from Watson's perspective he makes no pretense as to being disgusted by vampires. Dracula notices, but is too polite to say anything. Teased with the Holmes brothers, but this turns out to be due to an experience with another vampire and is dropped when they learn there is no connection to Dracula himself.
  • Fisher King: The brides really don't treat the gypsies well once Dracula has left, shutting them out from the castle and feeding on the locals whom Dracula has good ties with.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The fact that Dracula is clearly established to be narrating his tale several decades after the events of the original novel immediately suggests that, unlike the original, survives the final battle at the end.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Even taking into account his Alternate Character Interpretation, Dracula isn't exactly warm and cuddly, and the whole 'Vlad the Impaler' backstory isn't exactly waved away. But he is presented as being honest and more-or-less benevolent.
  • Identical Grandson: Identical distant cousin. When Dracula and Holmes meet in the first sequel they are mistaken for each other a few times, although by the second meeting Holmes has aged and it is no longer the case. In fact the descriptions of each in the original sources are almost identical, which Dracula-as-narrator points out. It turns out they are related, but not closely.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Dracula has been planning on converting Mina and making her his new vampire bride, but steps back when Mina reveals that she is pregnant by her husband.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Dracula isn't exactly nice, but he does raise some more-or-less good points about why he's not the monster everyone thinks he is — and how, if he was, he could have had a much easier time against the 'good' guys than he ended up having.
    • In a "mainly a jerk from Dracula's point of view" case, Dracula is (grudgingly) willing to concede that maybe, after some very stressful weeks in a terrifying castle with a very strange and obviously supernatural host who doesn't actually explain what his deal is, Jonathan Harker was maybe not just being entirely unreasonable or unfair when he snapped and ended up trying to kill Dracula a couple of times under the conviction that he was some kind of horrific monster.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Dracula frequently points out that his plans only worked because his enemies are very, very stupid but think they're smarter than him. Highlights are the confrontation where (as in the original) he straight-up tells them where he's going when he flees the country in as hammy a manner as possible, and how at the end they're sure he's dead because his body dissolved into mist and drifted away even though they know for a fact that's one of his powers.
  • The Mole: Mina Harker was plotting with Dracula and feeding Van Helsing's group misinformation through the latter parts of the book.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The sisters (aka brides) who weren't named in the novel. Here they're called Melisse, Wanda and Anna (the two dark haired brides and the blonde respectfully).
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Stated that vampires aren't inherently evil as the original novel proclaims. Yes they need blood but never to the point of needing to kill anyone. They still have the choice of being good or evil regardless of transformation.
  • Perspective Flip: On the original Dracula. The novel is occasionally quoted word for word by Dracula as a way to keep the timelines calibrated.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Played for laughs; in the first chapter, Dracula rues the fact that Jonathan Harker, being a proper upstanding Englishman who rigidly minds his own business to a fault, upon being confronted with the weirdness of Castle Dracula doesn't just ask what the hell is going on. Turns out Dracula would have been more than happy to explain things and their resulting failure to communicate ended up with them becoming bitter enemies through increasing misunderstandings.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Dracula and Mina Harker.
  • Religious Horror: Turned on its head. Dracula is a somewhat lapsed Orthodox Catholic, and considers transformation into a vampire to have no spiritual implications whatsoever. With this in mind, Van Helsing's constant invocation of this trope comes off like the gibbering of a fanatic. Dracula is unsurprised that he thinks crosses will work, but is shocked at the sacrilege of crumbling Communion Hosts into his boxes of earth, a solution that not only does nothing but that Van Helsing apparently made up himself.
  • Religious Vampire: Dracula is Catholic, but a lapsed one. He still finds sacrilegious when Van Helsing uses communion hosts against him.
  • Reverse Psychology:
    Mina: There is one almost infallible way in which a poor simple girl like me may turn away strong men from almost any course of action. ... Suggest it to them as my own idea, and keep on reminding them that it is mine.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: Amusingly done as part of the Perspective Flip and Poor Communication Kills. While Jonathan Harker believes he is being imprisoned by Dracula for some terrible, nightmarish purpose, Dracula comes to view Harker almost as an annoying and ungrateful houseguest who never seems to appreciate anything that Dracula does to try and make him comfortable yet doesn't ever leave.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The premise of the novel is essentially arguing that large chunks of Dracula suffer from this. Most dramatically, everything from Mina's perspective or said by her in the original book from her first encounter with the Count on are claimed to be outright fabrications the two cooked up together. On the other hand, the Count's not exactly a saint, and it's suggested that he can be as prone to presenting himself in the best possible light as he accuses his enemies of being. Of these the most glaring is the massacre on the Demeter, where Dracula's version rings much less true than in the rest of the tale (he claims that one of the crew snapped and murdered the others more or less by coincidence). Likewise Dracula's justification for Lucy's death, poisoning from improper blood transfusions, can feel like an excuse he cooked up much later since blood types were only discovered after the novel's events and nobody would have known anything about them at the time.
  • Unwanted Harem: Dracula has clearly long gotten sick of his trio of vampire brides long before the events of the novel due to their tendency to act against his orders and general disrespect (near the end of the book they even outright try an assassination attempt on him via a partially turned farmhand). Anna, the blonde bride, is especially is the most rebellious and outspoken of the three being the senior bride with Meliesse and Wanda basically just following her lead. During interactions with them, Dracula keeps struggling to remember exactly what about them he liked in the first place. The book seems to imply that, unlike him, the women let the power go to their heads once they were turned and actively like hunting for blood. Especially made clearer when Dracula is forced to return home and a loyal gypsy reports of the brides' mistreatment of the local village.
  • Vampire Bites Suck: Usually averted, the exchange of blood is sexual in nature for both parties and he doesn't take much. Played straight in The Holmes-Dracula File, where he catches an enemy that had been torturing him while starving to death and just rips her throat out.
  • Vampires Are Sex Gods: In addition to the canonical seduction of Lucy, Dracula also gets it on with Mina Harker, though it's played with; vampires in this universe are not physically capable of sex and the act of biting is treated as this between a vampire and a living person. Also, it's heavily implied that Dracula's success with the ladies isn't down to some kind of sexual mesmerism, but actually because — unlike the dominant attitude towards women in patriarchal Victorian Britain — he just treats women respectfully and like they're thinking, intelligent beings with their own autonomy rather than dolls.
  • Vampires Sleep in Coffins: Zigzagged. In these stories, vampires can only rest on the soil of their homeland, and coffins are simply a common means of holding and transporting that soil. Dracula himself at various times uses coffins, large travel trunks, and sealed plastic mattress pads, all containing the necessary soil from his homeland.
  • Van Helsing Hate Crimes: Dracula lays this charge squarely on the Trope Namer; while the Harkers are just misguided and misled, Van Helsing is actively malicious. Of course given the Unreliable Narrator, how true this characterization is open to question.
  • Virus-Victim Symptoms: The original novel's use of this trope is subverted, with many of the original examples of this explained away as being a result of misinformation, hysteria or complete fabrications. Most of Lucy's are due to the attempts at treatment.
  • Worthy Opponent: Not Van Helsing, in fact, whom Dracula considers to be nothing more than a charlatan and a quack. Instead, Dracula admits that despite his contempt for many of his foes, he nevertheless does have some small measure of respect for Jonathan Harker, who — while not the smartest or most able of men — is nevertheless a brave and respectable opponent. And a kind and decent husband to Mina, the woman he falls in love with.