REVIEW: Powers of Darkness (The Lost Version of DRACULA) by Bram Stoker, revised and edited by Valdimar Ásmundsson

Powers of Darkness is an incredible literary discovery: In 1900, Icelandic publisher and writer Valdimar Ásmundsson set out to translate Bram Stoker’s world-famous 1897 novel Dracula. Called Makt Myrkranna (literally, “Powers of Darkness”), this Icelandic edition included an original preface written by Stoker himself. Makt Myrkranna was published in Iceland in 1901 but remained undiscovered outside of the country until 1986, when Dracula scholarship was astonished by the discovery of Stoker’s preface to the book. However, no one looked beyond the preface and deeper into Ásmundsson’s story.

In 2014, literary researcher Hans de Roos dove into the full text of Makt Myrkranna, only to discover that Ásmundsson hadn’t merely translated Dracula but had penned an entirely new version of the story, with all new characters and a totally re-worked plot. The resulting narrative is one that is shorter, punchier, more erotic, and perhaps even more suspenseful than Stoker’s Dracula. Incredibly, Makt Myrkranna has never been translated or even read outside of Iceland until now.

Warnings: horror atmosphere, some violence, racism

Category: M/F, F/M

Powers of Darkness (Makt Myrkranna) is the Icelandic translation of Dracula, re-translated back into English. As the description states, it is not simply a translation but an entirely re-imagined alternate version of the novel. As such reviewing it will be a challenge; it requires context knowledge of Dracula as a text itself, and many observations of Powers of Darkness will be as true for Dracula. In effect I will be discussing both versions here, as well as how some of the changes alter the themes and the atmosphere of the book. It is unclear how many of these changes to the text were born of Ásmundsson’s decisions, and how many were based on Stoker’s early notes and drafts. As such it is hard to decipher who to attribute various aspects of the book to, but I will do my best to dissect both texts in this review.

Of course, this is a familiar and classic story. It follows the tale of Count Dracula’s attempted move to England from Transylvania, and begins with the journals of Thomas Harker (Jonathan Harker in Dracula) as he is lured to and trapped in the Count’s castle. It then moves on to his move to England and the people who resist him there in part two. Powers of Darkness changes a few small plot points of the first half, most notably replacing Dracula’s three wives with Dracula’s younger cousin. Otherwise however this portion of the narrative follows around the same story. The bigger changes to the plot take place in the second half of the story, majorly condensing the narrative and removing a large portion of the action. This makes the book much lighter reading, though I also felt like it removed a lot of richness and excitement from the narrative. Although I liked the changes in the first half, and thought that the mystery of Harker’s experiences were more intriguing, the changes in the second half felt a bit rushed and anti-climactic.

I should also make note that there is an amount of racist attitudes prevalent in both Stoker’s original Dracula and Ásmundsson’s revision. The narrative is steeped in the English superstitions of the time, portraying the evil and monsterous as originating in foreign lands, aided by foreign people, and shrouded in mysticism and stereotyping.

Ásmundsson’s Dracula is at once more charming and personable than Stoker’s. Rather than being quite so aloof, this Dracula is politically savvy and outspoken about his many totalitarian opinions. I found him rather fascinating, and possibly because of this humanization of him, all the more scary as a figure. Indeed, the portion of the book dedicated to Harker’s imprisonment, in both versions, is the more emotionally compelling segment of the book as Harker spends his time investigating Dracula’s castle and slowly uncovering more and more of it’s horrors. It draws out the suspense in a way that is truly fascinating. I also felt far more connected to Dracula’s cousin than I ever did to his three wives; focusing on one character and her interactions with the enspelled Harker was perhaps more emotionally compelling than three more monsterous women. She felt like much more of a person, and much more of a threat to his safety.

In the second half of the story, Harker’s fiance also takes a much more proactive role in Powers of Darkness than she does in Dracula, journeying to Castle Dracula in search of her missing fiance. This portion of the story was very sweet and romantic, and I really enjoyed it quite a bit. In general, I like how Powers of Darkness treats it’s female characters. However, the plot with Lucia (Lucy in Dracula) being stalked and gradually drained of life and vitality by Dracula is very brief in Powers of Darkness, and I think it looses some of that suspense and fear from shortening that. In Dracula, this is probably the most terror inducing portion of the book, and it was unfortunate to see this aspect lost in Powers of Darkness as it was always one of my favourite segments.

One of the things that Powers of Darkness does is to add in a lot of new characters to the narrative, which had the effect of opening it’s world up so that it feels a little more connected to something wider than itself. The police get involved in the investigation after the murders, and there are more servants and followers appearing in Dracula’s castle. It has a broader scope, thanks to a larger cast, and doesn’t feel quite so insulated. In general Dracula’s worldbuilding is quite good, from atmosphere to mythos, encorporating vampire lore and legend. That said, it is overly dependant on fear of the other, the foreigner, which is not only culturally insensitive, but also from a modern perspective not very scary. In that sense, the limited and narrow scope of Dracula’s world may have been more scary to audiences of the day, but the opened up and more populated world of Powers of Darkness works a bit better for a modern audience.

What is most fascinating about Dracula, and from there about Powers of Darkness, is it’s relationship to sexuality. While neither version of the book are sexually explicit, they are both dripping in a kind of sexual undertone, one that Dracula represses while Powers of Darkness indulges. Bram Stoker was a notable proponent of censorship (ironic, then, to be featured on my blog of all places), and is quoted as stating that there was “nothing base” in his book, and that literature should be censored of sexual content because “the only emotions which in the long run harm are the ones arising from sex impulses”. This is fascinating in conjunction with many theorizing that Stoker was in fact gay and closeted; indeed, while he publicly voiced support for the incarceration of homosexuals, he was friends with Oscar Wilde and began work on the Dracula manuscript directly after Wilde was imprisoned.

This casts a fascinating light on Dracula, particularly in that it is rather thematically a condemnation of sexual impulse and lust. Dracula as well as his wives seem to embody the concept of lust, and their slow and gradual seduction of their victims can be understood to be a portrayal of how lust might destroy those who are weak willed enough to give in to it. The fear of sex is pretty well saturated into the fabric of the story, making the story, ironically enough, exude a sexual energy, as many have clearly picked up on judging by the often explicit nature of it’s adaptations. But while Dracula seems to be fearful of it’s own sexual atmosphere, Powers of Darkness embraces it. Harker’s interactions with Dracula’s cousin are much more enthusiastic than his interactions with Dracula’s wives in Dracula, changing the tone of these encounters to one that is much more overtly sexually charged. Ásmundsson also changes Lucia from wearing a nightgown in the later portion of the book to wearing underwear. This is in keeping with Ásmundsson’s more liberal take on sexuality. He himself had been outspoken about the absurdity of Puritanism, so it seems that on this subject Ásmundsson and Stoker were of differing perspectives. Either way, both books handle their subtle eroticism quite differently, which was truly fascinating to see.

Dracula is already an interesting and compelling text, but it can be a difficult and slow paced read. Powers of Darkness in contrast is a much shorter and more condensed version that approaches many aspects of it’s story quite a bit differently. Ultimately I don’t know that I could say which version I prefer, as there are certainly areas in which I found Powers of Darkness to be refreshingly breezier and more emotionally compelling, but Dracula is much more action packed. Both are fascinating reads, though it is important to be mindful of the attitudes of the time in which they were written.

Have you read Powers of Darkness or Dracula? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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