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Originally published Monday, October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Interview with the vampire expert

Author Leslie Klinger digs into the strange — and true? — story of the world's most famous vampire in "The Annotated Dracula."

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Leslie Klinger

The editor of "The Annotated Dracula" will appear at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at Experience Music Project's Science Fiction Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle. Free tickets can be reserved by calling 206-770-2702 or 877-EMP-SFM1.

Author Leslie Klinger was adrift in a terrible vacuum, a time traveler who had fallen in love with the past and longed to return. The Los Angeles attorney had just published the three-volume "The Annotated Sherlock Holmes," the collected works featuring the great detective, embellished with Klinger's extensive explanations and annotations on Holmes' world — dark streets, dastardly deeds and Victorian repression.

He wanted a portal back into the Victorian era. One night (hopefully a dark and stormy night), his wife said: Why not Dracula? "It was obvious," Klinger said — "he's the other great Victorian icon."

"The Annotated Dracula" by Bram Stoker, edited and with a foreword and notes by Klinger (Norton, 613 pp., $39.95), is the result.

Reading "Dracula" along with Klinger's notes and commentary, it becomes clear that Stoker's novel is no set piece of Victorian bric-a-brac; it's a high-water mark in the history of a weird and powerful human obsession with vampires.

The vampire story arose out of 18th-century reports of corpses rising from their graves. It gained traction in the 19th century with early "vampire" novels. (The same night Mary Shelley told the ghost story that would turn into "Frankenstein," another writer at the party, Dr. John Polidori, was inspired to write "The Vampyre.")

Then came Bram Stoker, an Irish civil servant turned stage manager. It's fair to say Stoker could never have guessed what he unleashed with his novel: One-hundred-and-fifty movies with "Dracula" in the title, from the Bela Lugosi classic to Mel Brooks' "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." Countless book sequels and spinoffs. Late 20th- and early 21st-century versions include "Sesame Street's" Count von Count, Anne Rice's vampire novels, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Klinger's favorite), Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels (film version forthcoming) and "True Blood," a sexy soap opera featuring Southern vampires and currently airing on HBO.

It all lends new meaning to the term "The Undead."

"The family tree appears to have no limit to its growth, so long as immortality and the mysteries of death continue to fascinate," Klinger writes in "The Annotated Dracula."

Readers of "The Annotated Dracula" must prepare themselves for Klinger's operating "conceit," as he calls it — that the Dracula story was true; that Stoker was about to publish a chronicle of those events when Dracula showed up and coerced him into hiding facts essential to tracking Dracula down (there's a precedent for this conspiratorial line of thinking — rabid Sherlock Holmes fans also contend that the great detective lived).

Why the cover-up? "Dracula is alive and well, and not just on HBO. Stoker did say it was based on historical fact," says Klinger — "He said it in the Icelandic edition."

You can challenge Klinger on this and other points when he's in Seattle on Nov. 7 to discuss "The Annotated Dracula" at the Science Fiction Museum. He recently answered some questions about vampires and revealed how he tracked down the original manuscript of "Dracula" in the library of a certain wealthy Seattle science-fiction geek: Paul Allen.

Q: Where did your "Dracula" studies take you?

A: London and Transylvania, looking for the places mentioned in the story and confirming that the descriptions in the story are wrong. This led me to the startling conclusion that Stoker's novel was a cover story. The descriptions were inaccurate; some were plagiarized. After Van Helsing (the scientist/folklorist/vampire slayer who leads the hunt for Dracula) spends pages and pages telling you how to kill a vampire (stake through the heart!) — what do they do? They stab him with steel knives and he vanishes. Is he dead? No, he's back, coercing Stoker to cover up the real facts.

Q: In your notes, you write about a host of vampire sightings in middle Europe in the 18th century. What actual events were these based on?

A: I came to this understanding after talking with a friend, a scientist. It was folklore growing up around decomposing corpses.

There would be some problems in the village — the crops were dead, or mysterious deaths from some kind of disease. Then people would say, "Hey — Uncle George died just three weeks ago. I bet it's Uncle George getting up to mischief!"

So they dig him up. His hair continues to grow, he's got red fluid on his lips, his face is flushed, he's groaning. All these are symptoms of the decomposing body. This didn't happen in every corpse, but it happened frequently. So they put it down as the undead, a revenant. So you take an iron stake and pin it to the ground so it can't get up.

Q: How did you gain access to the original Dracula manuscript, and under what circumstances did you study it?

A: I knew the manuscript existed. It had been put up for auction in the late 1990s, but it didn't sell — the owners wanted a minimum of a million dollars. The auction closed without it being sold, then it was sold to a private collector.

I wrote to the auction house. I said I was a serious researcher, referenced my work on Sherlock Holmes and asked, "Could you please contact the collector?" I was on a (book tour) stop in Seattle. After a talk, a woman in the audience comes up and says, "I'd like to talk to you about 'Dracula.' "

It turns out, it's Paul Allen — he owns it. I made arrangements to come and look at it. There was someone sitting there to make sure I didn't take any pages. (The Experience Music Project Science Fiction Museum) is doing this big exhibition of horror in the spring, entitled "Be Very Afraid." He's loaning the manuscript to it; I just wrote the introduction to the catalog. Mr. Pointy, Buffy's very own stake, will be in it — I think on loan.

Q: How does Dracula reflect things the Victorians were afraid of?

A: The sexual aspects are inescapable. There are those who said it was thinly disguised porn. My editor came up with the term "dentophilic" — there's homoerotic stuff, heterosexual stuff. The book is so interesting in reflecting all the turmoil in the Victorian age about gender roles, whether sex was polite, prostitution or forced sex.

I'm fascinated by the role of the women in the book. Lucy (an unfortunate young lady who gets turned into a vampire) is the debutante, almost an airhead, trying to decide which of three men she's going to marry. Mina (Harker, wife of Jonathan Harker, the hapless lawyer who visits Dracula's castle in the beginning of the book), who we would describe today as a working girl, knows shorthand and is a schoolteacher. She's the brains of the story. Van Helsing is supposedly the brains, but she's the one who puts the hunt together.

Q: To what degree did the book's popularity mirror England's fear of foreign influence?

A: Of course, there's the fear of the "Other." Dracula is set up to invade England — he's learned all about the language, the culture, the military. Today there's the same sort of "Other" stuff. Vampires are alienated outsiders. We all feel that we're outsiders — there's that core of insecurity that we're outsiders, even if we're insiders. So there's a certain empathy with Dracula. Plus there's the immortality — that's not too shabby, to be immortal.

Q: What's your favorite contemporary version of the Dracula story?

A: The best movie is the BBC production with Louis Jourdan, because it sticks very close to the book. But Jourdan is too good-looking. I liked the Jack Palance movie; Palance is a very powerful Dracula — rough good looks, but very evil. "Nosferatu" (an exceedingly scary silent-screen version of Dracula) was the last gasp of Dracula as a monster. Almost immediately after that we had the stage play — Dracula played by Lugosi as a lounge lizard, with slicked-back hair and long cape. Nosferatu was a monster true to the book — an old man with hairy palms and bad breath.

Q: I read the novel "Dracula" for the first time for this interview — it's a scary book. Did you ever get seriously creeped out while working on it?

A: Frankly, it's after I finished that I got creeped out. I started to get introduced to the subculture of vampires. The people who are calling, the e-mails I'm getting.

One of the creepiest parts of my research was when I got hold of a magazine in England called "Bite Me" about the vampire lifestyle; there were ads for consensual blood sharing. These are not evil people, but they are really, really strange.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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