Tag Archives: vampire

Classics You’ve Never Read: Menace Beyond Measure

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.

-Mark Twain

Here’s the only way I can even attempt to analyze the single most famous work of horror the world has ever known.

  1. I’m not doing the whole thing
  2. You are

Drac Castle1Yes, dear reader, this time I guarantee it will be the classic you actually did read. At least, the first few pages.

And since I don’t expect you to be telepathic, I’m going to tell you the name. No biting humor, thank you: you’re going to be reading Bram Stoker’s immortal– no, really, he doesn’t die– classic Dracula.

There’s way too much in this one to cover: maybe I’ll do more installments later. But for now, I will focus on just one element of this epic story, namely the incredible variety and degree of menace Stoker creates right at the beginning.

And I can’t convey that to you by myself. You’re going to have to help me.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It…

I’m completely serious. I want you to download a FREE copy of Dracula and read the opening. Or use paper- I have an annotated hardcover the size of a phone book. Yes, read it right now. Or at least, before you go much further on this blog.

Free online versions of Dracula:

Gutenberg Project



Oh stop whining– it’s the greatest horror story ever written, the e-book is totally Drac-Harkerfree and it’s a smooth read. On my tablet it’s a few dozen page-flips, the first four chapters. So off with you now, get the book and read through to this point in the journal of Jonathan Harker:

At least God’s mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye all. Mina!

As you read, I want you to pay close attention to the theme of menace. Make a list if you want (I have). And remember, no matter how many movies and other references they made, this is supposed to be a book. Don’t use your pre-knowledge of these names and characters; let Stoker introduce them to you.

No peeking! Just read it, then come back and finish this blog post where we can compare notes. I’ll wait right here.

Ahem, I told you not to peek.

The Use of Threat in Your Story

Have you finished? Honestly, did you go and read some pages? Because I can’t TELL you about this feeling, you have to read it and get the tingle yourself.

Happened! It's in the book.
Happened! It’s in the book.

OK, here’s a compilation of the ways I counted that Bram Stoker builds a sense of threat or menace to his first hero, Jonathan Harker. I categorized them roughly and put the number of instances at the end of each line:

  •  Misses with language- the people around him either don’t speak, or pretend not to understand him (after getting his words perfectly earlier) (4)
  • Blessings and Pressings- people are frantic that Harker go no further, and give him relics or make signs over him when he pushes on- (4)
  • Peer pressure- folks nearby are afraid, wish to hurry etc. (2)
  • Evil place- claims and indications that the region is a nexus for bad mojo- (3)
  • Inner nervousness- Harker’s unease is reflected in his journal, and “if” he doesn’t come back he wishes Mina well- (3)
  • Darkness and Sparseness- his approach to the castle leaves him increasingly isolated and alone; he winds up reversing his diurnal habit, talking all night, sleeping all day-(2)
  • The enemy’s power (passively displayed)- Harker is never assailed or
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don't make a guy choose.
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don’t make a guy choose.

    seized. But the Count is massively strong, can climb down a sheer wall; Harker’s letter of credit and extra clothes are stolen- (3)

  • Good Old External Threat- surrounded by wolves, foul weather or something anyone would see as dangerous; others die in his hearing or suffer the Count’s wrath for disobedience- (7)
  • Mysterious Deeds and Signs- he is taken on a carriage ride in circles, the Count throws Harker’s shaving mirror out the window, he’s buying a gloomy isolated house next to a lunatic asylum-(4)
  • Signing Your Life Away- having to compose letters with forward dates is a clear sign of the Count’s power and Harker’s timeline of doom-(2)
  • Love and Death- encountering the three ladies he is seduced and nearly killed-(1)
  • Lies Revealed- the Count never tells him things, so when Harker reasons  them out (there are no servants, nearly all doors are locked) it raises the danger he’s in to realize it (and to suspect that the Count knows)- (2)
Drac Castle interior
Moby games screenshot

Dozens of discrete instances of increasing threat, every one of them like another turn of a wrench tightening the sense of menace and helplessness. Harker is the fly and ahead of him, the parlor. There’s no outward violence; Harker takes one swing in anger and it does him no good. The Count has complete mastery of his prisoner from the beginning, but dissembles at first until it is well too late.

And one more thing, a theme that runs underneath all the other twists of menace: Duty. At every step, whenever Harker is presented with a chance to turn back, or ask questions, make demands, he finds it pointless since it is his job to be there. His boss told the Count in his introductory letter that Harker could be trusted: that letter is a death warrant, unintentionally dooming the hero from the start,  because of course no Victorian gentleman would let it be said he did not meet his obligations.

First Impressions

Remember, you don’t know Harker from a hole in the wall, he’s new to your reader’s eye. All indications at first are that he is going to meet the main character in the Count, the hero of the tale perhaps. When does the villain come into your view so early in the story?

I was so stoked that this worked!
{I was so stoked that this worked}

And Stoker isn’t clumsy about this: the early narrative is filled with an ebb and flow of menace to charm. Harker describes the countryside, the colorful people, the marvelous food. You have plenty of time to recover your senses, and like Harker you doubt that it’s fully as dangerous as it turns out to be, until too late. Even after he meets the Count, they speak of mundane things like property rights and legal matters. You feel a glimmer. But slowly, like the dish steeped in paprika Harker ate on the first day, the taste of menace pervades the entire meal, and everything you read in the story too. And it leaves one… well, thirsty.

Survival of the Fittest?

Final point about the end-of-the-beginning. If you didn’t read it yet, shame on you really. But you probably already know something you shouldn’t. When Harker is at the very peak of menace he takes a desperate chance. The Count has left him to the mercies of the three female vampires, and as soon as this last day is over they will come for him. Harker decides to risk all and try to climb down the precipice on which the castle is set– hence his last journal entry. That’s the extremity he’s been driven to and it’s a marvelous moment.

But here’s what hit me. If I’m reading this the first time, if I haven’t seen any of the

Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes...
Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes…

umpty-dozen video versions of this story, then there’s something crucial I don’t know. I have no idea whether Harker survives. So we enter the next phase of the tale, from the journals of Lucy and Mina, and the latter increasingly worries that she hasn’t heard from her betrothed. The menace only spreads, like ripples in a pond. My immersion was so complete that I felt sympathy for poor Mina, hoping Jonathan was not hurt, etc. And that, this gift of threat that Stoker so carefully built in the first few chapters, echoes through nearly half the book, until of course Jonathan is located, still alive.

What a magnificent piece of work, to carefully and delicately construct this edifice of menace. And what a fabulous pay-off it gave Stoker throughout the following pages.

Lessons to the End

Read the whole thing, by all means. If you like epistolary tales that build a sense of reality from many points of view, Dracula is your thing. Stoker’s airtight commitment to the bulletin, diary, letter or telegram is a wonderful way to elevate the writing, because of the structure and limitations it imposes. I have used journal entries and letters myself at points in my fantasy tales where

2 of my faves, but gotta' say... too much cape.
2 of my faves, but gotta’ say… too much cape.

things dip toward horror. Reading long-ago words from those now dead automatically imposes a patina of creepy; and of course any distraction from the act of world-building is a good one (sshhh). Folks in the North Mark whisper of a vampire up in the Barony of T’yr: fortunately, undead of the second form are rare in the Lands. Time will tell.

If you want to see

  • a dead ship captain tied to the wheel with a rosary
  • an old salt talking in slang that’s completely impenetrable yet perfectly clear
  • so many nice people dying at once, you’ll think you found a lost volume of Game of Thrones
  • a room that smells so bad the heroes improve the aroma by lighting cigars
  • a story that manages conflict and doubt of success, despite a lack of the usual barriers

Then Dracula should be at the top of your list.

On that last point, I mean the heroes often despair of their chances, but the tension does not arise from the kind of tried-and-true barriers we often are urged to consider. They are not poor, never hungry- one of them is a Lord and can sweep away obstacles with a word to the consulate. They know multiple languages, are well armed and skillful (not just brave and honest). They flash across Europe hiring transport and buying supplies wherever needed. You don’t need to throw those obstacles in their way because their opponent is beyond natural, larger than mortal. Again, there is no fighting until the end: the heroes fall back not from weapons, but from the moment of sunset.

Everyone knows the power of a good beginning: those who follow me have heard Drac-van Helsingmy admiration for efforts like the Immerse or Die challenge. Here we have a foundation built by a master of the craft (or perhaps an author writing his most inspired piece, I have made no study of Stoker overall). The payoff resounds throughout the rest of the epic, bringing rewards time and again in the depth of character and in constant triggers to your interest and sympathy.

Where is that sense of threat in the beginning of your story? How many times do you turn the crank to tighten the menace, and how many different tools are in your toolbox to do it with? I wish your current heroes every success– after they’ve come through the wringer with Jonathan Harker.

It Figures: Second Form Undead

Because in the end, you need to show, not tell

After a too-long hiatus, my ranting rises from beyond the grave (come on, you know I had to go there). I return to the theme of describing the Land of Hope inCreated with Nokia Refocus the most direct way possible, through a unique lens that is, among other things, a lens.


Previously I looked at what sages call the First Form Undead, including Skeletons, Gaunts and Wraps. Their existence is bad enough for the Children of Hope to deal with, but it gets worse. Faltus Fanem, the half-mad Sage during the Age of Emptiness who traced the history of the “plague of fear”, as he dubbed it, categorized another group of undead, which the necromancer Wolga Vrule originally created:

Created with Nokia RefocusVrule also discerned for some of the dead, enough fear, hatred, or other negative emotion ruled their late life that not just the mindless shell, but the being itself could be recalled. The amount and purity of miasma could be used, in rare cases, to pull back the being’s soul, if you will, and bind it to its former body, or in some cases to a place, and cause it to act again in the world (if not truly to live). These dread beings, driven by the need for revenge or some other base emotion, would stalk and speak, possessed of great strength, or the lore of their former lives, and with conscious intent wrought still more evil on the Lands

– Faltus Fanem, The Nameless Tome


So the chief criterion is one of intent– undead of the second form exert partial control over their actions; most would argue this places their souls beyond saving. And the Second Form wield greater Created with Nokia Refocuspowers and protections, probably deriving from how much of their former selves have been drawn into their new cursed form. They are a greater threat to the peace of the Lands, and worth examining in more detail.

Revenants, ghosts, and others haunted certain parts of the world, with the power to drain life from new victims, a monstrous and foul act which not only weakened Hope but spread yet more miasma through the world.

The act of draining is usually accomplished through physical touch, and is intensely painful in addition to weakening the victim (usually unto death, after which the body is very easy to raise in turn). In The Plane of Dreams, the Preacher Cheriatte is forced into physical contact with a Revenant (who is desperately trying not to drain her), and it nearly kills her.

Created with Nokia RefocusInstantly she felt bone-numbing cold from his touch, biting her lip not to cry out… Where their fingers touched there was no scarring, yet, but a kind of gentle hiss and a trail of thin mist behind their hands as they moved… Cheriatte felt thrust into a Novarian storm, her body enveloped in cold and her arm lacking any feeling below the shoulder. She coughed frosty breath and spun away…

The Plane of Dreams

I have witnessed few acts of greater bravery, because Cheriatte could have so little reason to believe it would work. Her faith and sacrifice provided a cursed Created with Nokia Refocussoul with a chance at redemption, which very few folks in the Lands believe possible. I won’t give away the ending. But don’t try that at home.

The scars resulting from life-drain are paper-white and thick, like worms on the face or arm, and slowly fade but seldom disappear entirely. Few people recognize their true nature, and the surviving victim is often reviled as if diseased.

Revenants are the intact corpses of those slain in the grip of some perilous emotion, leaving them with “unfinished business” that forbids their full death. They glide over the ground without need to move their legs, and often wield weapons or spells though they seldom speak. Revenants are immune to weapons that have not been enchanted, and spells that affect movement usually do nothing to impede them.

Created with Nokia RefocusGhosts exist in similar situations to those which produce Revenants– Sages debate if Ghosts are simply Revenants who have existed so long that the corporeal body rots away. {I personally hope we never compile enough examples to find out for certain.} Ghosts are completely incorporeal, passing over and through all manner of physical obstacles, through doors, and over small open spaces like unbridged rivers without difficulty. Even some enchanted weapons do not affect them, and only certain spells. Some Ghosts still drain in the manner described (the victim feels a tingle as the hand passes into their body), whereas others (possibly the very old ones) assail those who intrude on them with a special kind of fear-attack that inflicts decades of aging. This is sufficient to push most mortals (Men, Dwarves and Halflings) beyond the limit of their natural lifetime, thus literally scaring them to death. And Elves fear Ghosts just as much, since an Elf can never tell when their Moment might be due to pass, and being pushed past their Age Moment in this way would be tantamount to a ruined life (and require ritual suicide). Thankfully, Ghosts are not only rare but seem bound to specific places which can be avoided by the sane.

Worst of all the undead has to be their king, the necromancer Wolga Vrule, who learned so much about undeath that he could undergo a special process personally:

Created with Nokia Refocus‘Twas this path that Vrule practiced upon himself, managing to find a way through unnamed sorcery, and driven by his hate and fear of death (I do not hesitate to say it, though he himself would haughtily deny such- Vrule feared death more even than he hated the world); driven thus, he transformed without transition through death, which is natural, to an un-life which defies and desecrates nature itself, as a Liche.

 Vrule is the chief villain of Judgement’s Tale, fortunately imprisoned for centuries but now breaking free. The nature of miasma is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the necromancy he discovered– in short, miasma generates from hatred and fear, and nothing causes more of both than the sight of undeath. So the more creatures rise from the dead, the more the “plague of fear” spreads. And undead of the second form have the power to create undead beings through life-drain.

Vampires, most sages would insist are also undead and if so they are clearly of the second form. Like them, they seem immune to damage from normal Created with Nokia Refocusweapons and have an attack that can drain the life of their victims. But from the fragments of lore I can piece together, there seem to be some troubles with the thesis. Thankfully, they are extremely rare in number- Fanem makes no mention of Wolga Vrule ever creating one, and there is good sense in that. Vampires, if they exist at all, retain such control over their actions and movements that they can pass for living: Vrule is clearly unwilling to share power or credit with anyone. Some scholars have insisted they are in fact alive, but afflicted with some bizarre disease. In all my searching I have found only one, and readers can meet him– I hope briefly– in the final chapters of the Shards of Light series. More than that, I don’t dare to say right now.


I take these pictures using my Nokia Lumia phone (which recently was replaced on warranty, with an identical model). I used the Nokia Refocus lens for most shots and the more normal Nokia lens for the wide-screen group pictures. This time I attempted more edits in the camera functions, mostly cropping but a little bit of focus. Then just a touch of Brightness/Contrast in MS Picture Manager. Still pursuing perfection! Advice readily accepted.Undead_form2_2

I hope you’ve enjoyed a chill thinking about miasma and the life-drain attack. Unless the Man in Grey succeeds in his quest (detailed further in the final chapter of Judgement’s Tale and later this year in The Eye of Kog), the undead will be all we have with us in the Lands. Which won’t be the Lands of Hope anymore.Created with Nokia Refocus