Friday, February 27, 2015

The Package Tour of the Damned

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 46
Steven P. Unger, In the Footsteps of Dracula

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has never fallen out of print. Nearly 120 years later, it continues to inspire spinoff literature, movies that mostly misunderstand its heart, and Gothic teen culture celebrating a walking afterlife. It also, like Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, inspires a massive tourist industry dedicated to recapturing the milieu that created the juggernaut. But Dracula tourism mainly lacks a centralized guidebook… until now.

Steven Unger walks backward through Bram Stoker's epoch-making classic to find a journey that not only could have really taken place, but which you and I could follow. Mixing history, travel, and literary criticism, Unger turns Dracula into an experience we can share with other fans. Unger's "Dracula Trail" is a journey with two legs, and if I had the money, I'd follow them both tomorrow.

On the first leg, Unger leads us along Dracula's trip through England. Though he admits that parts of this trip have been heavily commercialized by a lucrative Dracula industry, it's notable how much of Stoker's England, from the Yorkshire coast to the heart of London, is still there. Seeing Dracula's major stops is not only possible, Unger makes it seem downright easy.

It seems difficult to believe, but many locations highlighted in Dracula really exist. A remarkable number of them survived the Blitz, and remain visible to outside viewers. The house where Mina Murray roomed with giddy Lucy Westenra at Number 4, The Crescent, is a private residence, not open to tourists, but its stolid Victorian edifice remains, Unger writes, “unchanged since the 1890s.”

Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula. This was the only
portrait painted of him during his lifetime.
Besides literal locations, like the Whitby fish market, and historical events, like the wreck of the Dmitry, which made their way into Dracula, Unger also visits the generous tourist industry which has arisen surrounding the novel. Both Yorkshire and London host several museums, libraries, and pubs dedicated to Dracula tourism. A generous visitor himself, Unger finds Dracula sites welcoming to outsiders, and the Goth youth who frequent them quite friendly and personable.

Unger’s second leg takes travelers through Romania, which seems like much more of a safari. Dirt-poor and ravaged by Communism's ghost, Romania is still substantially terra incognita to the rest of the world. This is still a world of horse-carts, pristine ruins, and windswept villages. But in Unger's capable hands, it also seems like the most exquisite destination an adventure tourist could hope for.

Romanian Transylvania retains its mystique for modern travelers mainly because it remains, centuries later, terra incognita to outsiders. Under warns travelers to not expect mobile phone service or WiFi while visiting Transylvania. Romania has, however, accomodated itself to other Dracula-related travel matters. It’s possible to find the exact (ahem, “exact”) hostel where Jonathan Harker ate Robber Steak. And notorious dictator backfilled a “Castle Dracula” into the previously almost vacant Borgo Pass.

This book is lavishly illustrated with original photographs throughout. Unger's street scenes, sweeping landscapes, and charming people are half of this book's appeal. Sadly, the photos have the look of having been taken in color and digitally rendered greyscale. Though six photos are printed in color on the back cover, I wish I could see more the way Unger saw them. Perhaps an accompanying website would be in order?

Unger's history of Vlad Tepes is also an eye-opener. Most of us have probably only encountered Prince Vlad because of Dracula. I had no idea, until this book, that he's considered a national hero in Romania. He seems an intensely fascinating character, and I'd like to do more reading. I caught Unger dropping some minor historical inaccuracies, but not enough to diminish my reading enjoyment.

Apart from these two minor flaws, the greyscale photos and the innaccuracies (presumably corrected in the third edition), this is a fun, exciting, readable book. I'm not a big traveler, but this book makes me want to set out and re-discover what Stoker knew over a century ago. Having undergone two significant revisions since I first read it five years ago, it’s now even more thoroughly detailed, with even more photos and maps.

Like Shakespeare tourism or Dickens tourism, Dracula tourism is a real thing, a lively industry. This book, slim enough to fit in an outside coat pocket, provides a valuable overview of many unpublicized locations available to Dracula tourists. So much of Dracula's world is not only real, it's still there, and you and I can visit it. Unger already did, he shows you what he found there, and he explains how you can find it too.

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