Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dracula's Legacy

Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is a propmaker's dream come true.

As the source text for much of the modern conception of vampires it holds a unique place in both popular culture and the history of horror. The myriad re-interpretations of the story by artists of every stripe demonstrates its powerful influence. The novel continues to shape the public consciousness well over a century after its 1897 publication, if only to serve as a counterpoint to the increasingly sympathetic portrayal of the undead that, not coincidentally, started in the 1960s and 70s.

What makes "Dracula" of particular interest to hobbyist propmakers, beyond it's historical importance, is that it's filled with mentions of specific items and documents that are relatively easy to reproduce. Stoker's epistolary approach includes dozens of excerpted letters and diary entries, not to mention cutting edge technologies like telegrams, recordable wax cylinders, and typewriters. Add in secondary documents inferred from the text, like maps, train tickets, legal contracts, and official paper, and you have an almost inexhaustible vein of material to mine.

Outside of the paper props the story's most iconic item is probably Dr. Abraham Van Helsing's vampire hunting kit. Despite claims that such kits were available before the publication of "Dracula" I remain unconvinced that such was the case. There doesn't seem to be any reference to their existence in period, a shocking oversight given the Victorian love of novelty and letter writing. To my knowledge not a single Blomberg-style kit purported to date before Stoker's story has ever been authenticated. Worse, those that have been examined have all been determined to be post-WW II forgeries. Individual items and the cases themselves may be dated to the mid-19th century or earlier, but the actual kits are, at best, an entertaining collection of disparate items assembled by talented artists.

Given that all the extant examples are to one degree or another based on Van Helsing's I was surprised to learn that no one seems to have reproduced the original. What makes that even more intriguing is that Stoker provided a relatively detailed description of what it contained, and even how it evolved as the character became aware of the nature of the problem confronting him.

Van Helsing first appears at the request of his old friend and student Dr. John Seward. Lucy Westenra has taken ill with a mysterious disease that baffles Seward, and Van Helsing is called in to diagnose what's slowly killing her. We don't discover any details of his kit here, but some of the contents of his doctor's bag mentioned in Chapter 10 will have an influence on the first version:

"When I described Lucy's symptoms, the same as before, but infinitely more marked, he looked very grave, but said nothing. He took with him a bag in which were many instruments and drugs, "the ghastly paraphernalia of our beneficial trade," as he once called, in one of his lectures, the equipment of a professor of the healing craft."

"Van Helsing took some things from his bag and laid them on a little table out of sight. Then he mixed a narcotic, and coming over to the bed, said cheerily, "Now, little miss, here is your medicine. Drink it off, like a good child."

"As he spoke, he was dipping into his bag, and producing the instruments of transfusion."


Sadly, Van Helsing's efforts are for naught and his patient eventually succumbs to Dracula's depredations. Despite Lucy's death he's still determined to "cure" her, since he now knows she was, and is, suffering from vampirism. Here's where we discover just what's inside the first iteration of his vampire hunting kit.

From Dracula, Chapter 15 :

"Then he fumbled in his bag, and taking out a matchbox and a piece of candle, proceeded to make a light."


"Another search in his bag, and he took out a turnscrew."


"He only said, "You shall see,"and again fumbling in his bag took out a tiny fret saw. Striking the turnscrew through the lead with a swift downward stab, which made me wince, he made a small hole, which was, however, big enough to admit the point of the saw."


Chapter 16:

"He then lit a dark lantern and pointed to a coffin."

"Van Helsing raised his lantern and drew the slide."

"As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell, moving his hands from his face, he opened wide his arms. She was leaping for them, when Van Helsing sprang forward and held between them his little golden crucifix."

"Van Helsing, instead of his little black bag, had with him a long leather one,something like a cricketing bag. It was manifestly of fair weight."

"First he took out a soldering iron and some plumbing solder, and then small oil lamp, which gave out, when lit in a corner of the tomb, gas which burned at a fierce heat with a blue flame, then his operating knives, which he placed to hand, and last a round wooden stake, some two and a half or three inches thick and about three feet long. One end of it was hardened by charring in the fire, and was sharpened to a fine point. With this stake came a heavy hammer, such as in households is used in the coal cellar for breaking the lumps."

"Van Helsing opened his missal and began to read, and Quincey and I followed as well as we could."

"The Professor and I sawed the top off the stake, leaving the point of it in the body. Then we cut off the head and filled the mouth with garlic. We soldered up the leaden coffin, screwed on the coffin lid, and gathering up our belongings, came away."

"He took his screwdriver and again took off the lid of the coffin."

"First he took from his bag a mass of what looked like thin, wafer-like biscuit, which was carefully rolled up in a white napkin. Next he took out a double handful of some whitish stuff, like dough or putty. He crumbled the wafer up fine and worked it into the mass between his hands. This he then took, and rolling it into thin strips, began to lay them into the crevices between the door and its setting in the tomb. I was somewhat puzzled at this, and being close, asked him what it was that he was doing. Arthur and Quincey drew near also, as they too were curious.

He answered, "I am closing the tomb so that the Un-Dead may not enter."

"And is that stuff you have there going to do it?"

"It Is."

"What is that which you are using?" This time the question was by Arthur. Van Helsing reverently lifted his hat as he answered.

"The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence."


With all the references to Van Helsing's original kit brought together we can now start the process of reproducing it. As much as I'd like to put this together in a matter of days the realities of both time and budget mean finishing the project is going to be a lengthy process. In the next installment we'll work on finding period examples of the items in question and tackle the issue of using originals or reproductions.

15 comments:

Jason McKittrick said...

I actually thought about doing this but for whatever reason the description in the book always seemed more like a "bag of tricks" and whatever item the story called for was conveniently pulled out of it. I think the vampire hunter kits we see today are born from seeing the underdeveloped Stoker idea and turning it into a ready made arsenal with items arranged in more of a definable way. With Stoker's version it's just a doctors bag. With a vampire hunting kit you get to see the familiar contents (cross, stake, pistol, etc.) and you know exactly what it is.

Raindog951 said...

Great project! The contents of the original bag differ a lot from most Vampire Kits and that makes it even more interesting.

CoastConFan said...

Vampire stories in popular fiction was at its height in the mid-Victorian Era with such blockbusters as Varney the Vampire, 1845 (see Wikipedia) and later Carmilla, 1872 (see Wikipedia). Bram Stoker’s work was a revival, but in a new novel style. Both of these stories are available for download online.

Chapter 16 reference to a dark lantern – one can be found photographed in detail which explains “drawing the slide” see http://southcoastantiques.blogspot.com/2011/04/1850s-1860s-brass-blackout-lantern-at.html Although this one slightly predates the kerosene-burning item on Dracula, it varies only in the burner and type of fluid employed. Other dark lanterns employ a skirt that raised and lowered, but could not form a spotlight.

PhilO said...

I imagine that one reason van Helsing's kit has not been tackled before is simply because of the scope. He seems to be prepared for every contingency, from opening lead-lined coffins and resealing them to sticking 3-foot stakes into vampires. A smallish, compartmented case is much more doable.

The bag itself seems like it may present a problem, being "something like a cricketing bag." The modern incarnation is a kind of sports/duffel bag, but after a quick search, I was still no closer to finding out what a Victorian one looked like.

I wish you good luck with this project and am looking forward to seeing updates on it.

CoastConFan said...

Here’s a vintage cricketing bag. http://hollisterhovey.blogspot.com/2008/04/sportsman-chic-vintage-cricket-bags.html it’s basically a very long grip. You can probably substitute a common grip for the scarcer cricketing bag, which would be very rare outside of the UK.

Sometimes grips are represented as doctor’s bags by dealers. Generally a doctor’s bag must have compartments for medicines. Some country doctors used a regular grip to just toss in a few instruments and bottles for a house call, so the confusion between a legitimate doctor’s bag and grips began. I do note that putting together a 1890s vampire kit will be a heck of a lot cheaper than a 1840s kit.

Mik said...

Looking forward to this, sounds like a great project, a period doctor's Gladstone bag would be good.

Mik said...

The cricket bag might be a bit long and cumbersome.

Phil said...

(Note to Prop: My screen did something wierd when I submitted m comment, so if this is a repeat, please disregard)

The thing is, while less authentic, the more modern briefcases are just more visually appealing. You can actually see the contents nicely displayed.

Personally though, Vampire hunting kits are way overdone. I'd like to see more 'Preternatural Investigator' kits to be honest, mainly so I can snipe ideas> Having a bit of trouble deciding what to put in the one I'm working on.

Propnomicon said...

@ Jason McKittrick

You raise some good points. I'm leaning toward something halfway between the original Van Helsing kit and the Blomberg-style cases. There should be a happy medium between the usefulness of Stoker's version, with all it's little tools and ruggedness, and the more display friendly approach of the Blombergs.

@Raindog951

There have been a few designs that stray from the Blomberg template into a more useful configuration.

@CoastConFan

As always, thanks for the excellent link. The dark lantern is one of those items that seems a natural for a vampire killing kit once you appreciate its usefulness.

@PhilO

I'm sure the thoroughness of Van Helsing's preparations has a touch of authorial fiat, but he's also an extremely capable man with a genius level intellect. One of the reasons I find Stoker's story so enjoyable is that he's a perfect foil for the equally capable Count. If Dracula hadn't become distracted by Lucy there's a good chance he'd still be ruling the British Empire.

@Phil

I have a project in the works that you'll likely enjoy. It won't be done for a few weeks, but it's definitely along the lines you mentioned.

CoastConFan said...

Get a decent turn of the century leather grip and furnish it well is my two cents. Get a good repro bulls eye lantern and some coffin broaching tools. Leave the pretty cases for the museums.

“If Dracula hadn't become distracted by Lucy there's a good chance he'd still be ruling the British Empire”. Ha … you discount Sherlock Holms and failing that, Mycroft. Also consider also Professor Challenger, he hunted dinosaurs for sport. Secrecy is the ultimate power of vampires, once that is gone, they are highly vulnerable to the nimble mind.

knyfewyng said...

Great project, will be looking forward to seeing the attention to detail and quality that is in your craftsmanship. Have you ever given thought to bringing to life any of Frank H. Pabodie's engineering and/or scientific apparatus?

Brent said...

Helsing also uses Eucharist wafers on Mina's forehead and en masse to "sterilize" Dracula's boxes of earth later in the novel, so he must have a fair number of them on hand.

As for the putty or dough, it may be white earth/clay from hallowed ground as a kind of "anti-earth" to the Count's.

B.R. said...

Coincidentally, I happen to be about halfway through the book at this point. Odd.

Darrell King said...

I've been building a vampire-hunter's kit in an old canvas and leather grip that my grandfather gave me an age-and-a-half ago. It had belonged to his father, and has the requisite amount of age to it. I've always thought that a 'bag' kit made more practical sense for a vampire hunter than the segmented boxes (although certain items might be kept in smaller boxes within the kit).

I'm currently canvassing every antique shop and junk store in three states looking for things to put inside. So far, I've located a rustic hammer and stake (oddly enough, an old hawthorn stake was fairly easy to find), a corked bottle for holy water, a hand-made dagger with a deer-bone handle, a nice little rosary, an old hand-mirror, and some antique poker chips that fill in nicely as the host wafers (I'm building this as a stage prop, so real wafers aren't practical). I'm still trying to locate an old bible, a 'wall' crucifix, antique screwdrivers, crowbars, and other tools.

@ Brent - I've always thought that the 'doughy' material was more of a medium for making sure the bits of eucharist wafer 'stayed put' than a hallowed substance in its own right.

South Coast Antiques & Gallery said...

Also in the Dracula's Legacy theme is the incredible Memorial Altar of Dracula's wife on flicker by Curiomira
http://www.flickr.com/photos/curiomira/3890108892/in/photostream/lightbox/