It is probably the most famous horror story in the world with a new exhibition to explore how Bram Stoker’s trips to the far north east of Scotland helped to inspire his Dracula masterpiece.
Here, Mike Shepherd, who helped research the show, looks at how this corner of Scotland proved to be the perfect fodder for Stoker’s Gothic creation.
At the end of July, London society either took off to the grouse moors of Scotland or to spa retreats on the continent. Bram Stoker, the business manager of the Lyceum theatre and better known today as the author of Dracula, did neither. Instead, he took a 13 ½ hour train journey to Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire where he spent most of August writing books.
A new exhibition to be held in the village on Saturday explains how the Irish author came across Cruden Bay on a walking tour in 1893 and in his own words, fell in love with the place. He returned year after year until 1910, two years before his death.
Much of Dracula was written in Cruden Bay. The plot and main characters had been in planning for three years before 1893 and the author’s first visit. Yet, Bram Stoker would not start writing the novel until 1895 when the first three chapters were written in the village.
What took him so long? It’s a good question as most of his other books were written in a fury of inspiration. The project had stalled for some reason and it looks as if something about Cruden Bay got him going again.
I suspect one explanation is that he discovered something rather curious when he talked to the locals in the village. Although they were devoutly Christian, many of their superstitions and traditions had survived from pagan times, albeit detached from any original spiritual beliefs.
A local minister, Reverend John Pratt wrote just over thirty years before the publication of Dracula in 1897 that pagan fire festivals were still being lit in Aberdeenshire and that they, ‘present a singular and animated spectacle - from sixty to eighty being frequently seen from one point.’
The unlikely coexistence of Christian and pagan beliefs was compared at the time to flowers and weeds springing up together in an unkempt garden
Bram Stoker believed that God and the universe were equivalent, a pantheism he shared with his spiritual guide, the American poet Walt Whitman. He would have been impressed by the survival of both Christian and pagan beliefs side by side in the Aberdeenshire community, because he accepted all religions from all times and throughout the world as valid and part of the greater whole. This led him to a curious thought. What if an ancient god, devil or spirit turned up in the modern age and employed the old magic to wield mayhem in the modern era? This was possible in the spiritual universe that framed Bram Stoker’s gothic novels; and would bring forth a 15th Century vampire from Transylvania in Dracula and the spirit of an ancient Egyptian mummy in The Jewel of Seven Stars. The latter novel has been the inspiration for all the Hollywood mummy films.
Aspects of Cruden Bay crept into Dracula. For instance, Bram Stoker was greatly impressed by the dramatic cliff top setting of nearby Slains Castle. He would use it as a setting for at least five novels, three of them in disguised form but still recognisable from the description. The floor plan of Slains Castle is used for Dracula’s castle in the novel.
Jonathan Harker visits the Transylvanian castle and is led by the count into ‘a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort.’ A small octagonal room is a prominent feature in the centre of Slains Castle and the main corridors of the castle lead from it. It still survives after the castle fell into ruin in 1925.
While writing Dracula, Bram Stoker would walk up and down the coastline thinking out the story in detail. Perhaps this was when he noticed something unusual. Cruden Bay resembled a mouth he would write. The beach was the soft palate while the rocky headlands at both ends resemble teeth, some even looking like fangs.
Two of his novels, The Watter’s Mou’ and The Mystery of the Sea, were set in the village with much of the dialogue in the local Buchan (Doric) dialect. This is surprising as it’s largely impenetrable to anyone from outside the area. What’s even more surprising is that Bram Stoker also accidentally included a Doric phrase while writing the dialogue for a Whitby fisherman in Dracula, “I wouldn’t fash masel’’ the fisherman says, - I wouldn’t trouble myself. This is possibly the only instance of an internationally famous novel containing dialogue in Doric!
I’ve spent the last six months researching Bram Stoker’s life and times in Aberdeenshire for both the exhibition and a forthcoming book on the topic. Although Bram Stoker last visited Cruden Bay in 1910, amazingly some residual memories of the author still survive in the village. One woman told me that her parents looked after Bram Stoker’s dog on one holiday because the local hotel would not allow pets in the rooms. When the author returned to London, he sent them an enormous box of chocolates with blue lace lilies on the front.
Another woman I talked to is the great-grand niece of Bram Stoker’s landlady when he stayed in the village of Whinnyfold near Cruden Bay in the later years. She remembers her ‘Aunty Isy’ from the 1940s.
Although Cruden Bay in Bram Stoker’s time, then called Port Erroll, was a small village with a population of 500, life never got dull all the time he was here.
The author of Dracula found much in Cruden Bay to excite his interest.
‘Bram Stoker’s Cruden Bay’ Port Erroll Village Hall, Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire. Saturday 17th June, 10-4, free entry.