The mystery of the sexy Icelandic cousin to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”

Sleep when you’re dead.
Sleep when you’re dead.
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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Add one more dramatic layer to Bram Stoker’s legacy.

Stoker’s Dracula, about the magnetic, undead Transylvanian count, has spawned countless movies, spin-off stories, and general cultural mania since its publication in 1897. Beloved for its high creepiness and gothic absurdity, the book is the ur-nosferatu story. This year, Stoker’s English-speaking fans unlocked one more door in Count Dracula’s castle of mysteries.

In February, Overlook Press published Powers of Darkness, an English translation of Makt Myrkranna, which is itself the Icelandic translation of the English-language original Dracula—sort of.

In 1900, Icelander Valdimar Ásmundsson translated and published Makt Myrkranna in his newspaper. It purported to be a translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the horror story of a young lawyer who finds himself imprisoned by Count Dracula, and the exploits of his friends who help defeat the vampire. But in 1986, Dracula scholar Hans Corneel de Roos realized the Icelandic text was wholly different from the one originally published in English. For 86 years, any Icelandic readers of Dracula were unknowingly reading a different book than everyone else in the world.

The biggest difference between the Icelandic text and the original is that the former takes place almost entirely in Dracula’s castle, whereas the latter moves between England and Transylvania. It takes about three-quarters of Powers of Darkness for the protagonist—”Thomas Harker” instead of the “Jonathan Harker” of the original—to finally uncover the count’s secrets. (In the original, this section comprises just a quarter of the book.)

There are also significant differences between the later sections of the two books. In the original, after we leave Harker in the castle, the narrative continues in an epistolary style, with the plot unfolding across letters and newspaper clippings. In Powers of Darkness, the point of view suddenly flips from Harker’s diary to an omniscient narrator:

While Thomas Harker hovered between hope and horror in the castle of Count Dracula, his beloved fiancée, Wilma, spent her time at the bathing resort at Whitby, on the east coast of England.

In essence, Powers of Darkness is an expanded, more grotesque version of Harker’s adventure in the castle, followed by 50 pages of summary describing what happened after he left. It’s like a detailed Cliffs Notes. There is also an over-the-top ritual sacrifice of three nubile women.

Powers of Darkness also has new characters, including a young, blond vampire whose breasts get a lot of ink, and who has the protagonist transfixed for much of his narrative. Harker, who has left his fiancée (“Mina” in the English, “Wilma” in the Icelandic) back in England, meets secretly with his alluring castle-mate several times through the story for some shadowy neck-biting. (In the original, Harker has one brief, lusty encounter with three female vampires, and he, indeed, prefers the blond.) The book implies that the count is the blond vampire’s first cousin, second husband, and captor.

The Icelandic edition has a preface signed by Stoker that doesn’t appear in the English-language original, and the translation was published serially in his lifetime. So there are those who think that it wasn’t Ásmundsson, the translator, who took great liberties with the Icelandic edition, but rather that it was a translation of a different version, perhaps an earlier draft, written by Stoker himself.

Update: The plot thickens further: In October, Rickard Berghorn published yet another text, Mörkrets makter (pdf), Swedish for “Powers of Darkness.” It was originally serialized in 1899, the year before Ásmundsson’s in Iceland, and was longer than both the original English and Icelandic versions.

Whatever the origins of Makt Myrkranna, it is, unfortunately, only half a vision. After Harker leaves the castle and the narrative is cut dramatically short, the book is quickly derailed. Maybe if the rest of the story had been fleshed out, Ásmundsson’s one reviewer might have been less harsh. Benedikt Björnson, another Icelandic translator, called the story “garbage” in a 1906 review. He went on: “That story would have been better left unwritten, and I cannot see that such nonsense has enriched our literature.”

This post has been updated to reflect the discovery of the Swedish Powers of Darkness, Mörkrets makter.