SPECIAL NOTE: Dracul, by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker, is one of two books included in this month's Creepy Crate! Order by October 5 to get one of these two books, along with a selection of surprise horror-themed collectibles.
In the late 1890s, Bram Stoker began working on his sixth novel. According to legend, he dove into the history of Vlad the Impaler, studied horror tales like Carmilla, and drew from his own nightmares to produce what became the horror classic Dracula. But while vampires had appeared in fiction before, Stoker’s Transylvanian count was the preeminent model for the sensual, blood-sucking monsters we know today.
Since then, countless writers have played in the sandbox Stoker created, fueling an ongoing copyright battle. To regain control of the Dracula mythos, the author's great-grandnephew penned the 2009 sequel to the classic, Dracula the Un-Dead, with the help of screenwriter Ian Holt. Having explored the years following the Count's defeat, Dacre Stoker has now taken on a new project: Dracul, which reconstructs the events that inspired Bram Stoker to write the book in the first place.
Alongside bestselling author J.D. Barker, Dacre combed through his ancestor's personal writings to establish the origin story of literature’s most famous vampire tale. Their book unfolds through two different timelines, both of which are grounded in Bram Stoker's perspective: In one, we see a terrified 21-year-old Bram try to ward off a violent evil. Believing he’ll soon be killed, he relays how he came to be in such a dangerous position. His recollections take readers back to 1854, where Bram is just a sickly, isolated child. At seven years old, his life has been marked by chronic illness and the devastation of the Irish potato famine.
But Ellen Crone, who arrived at the Stokers' door just weeks before Bram's birth, has helped ease the family's struggle. The now 22-year-old nanny is enigmatic and "flawless as a fresh coat of snow"—though there is also something deeply unsettling about her. And when a series of deaths strike the neighborhood, Bram and his sister, Matilda, can't help but wonder if their beloved caretaker is somehow responsible. Their suspicions follow them beyond their childhoods, leading both siblings on a terrifying journey that lays the groundwork for Dracula.
Dacre and J.D. Barker have managed to capture the tone and spirit of the original classic, weaving an eerie Gothic tale that'll slake any horror fan's thirst. Read on for an excerpt of Dracul, in which a disturbing discovery and an unsettling encounter increase the Stoker kids' conviction that Nanna Ellen is not who she seems...
SPECIAL NOTE: Dracul, by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker, is one of two books included in this month's Creepy Crate! Order by October 5 to get one of these two books, along with a selection of surprise horror-themed collectibles.
Read on for an excerpt of Dracul, and then download the book.
Matilda narrowed her eyes, then patted her sketchbook. “What I am about to show you must remain between you and me. You must promise you won’t discuss this with anyone else.”
Before I could answer, a coughing fit came upon me, burning within my chest with each husky gasp. Matilda quickly poured a glass of water and held it up to my lips. I drank eagerly, the cold liquid quenching my raw throat. When the fit finally ended, I simply said I was sorry. Matilda ignored this, as was her way when it came to me being sick; I don’t recall a single time she actually acknowledged my illness. She again tapped her pad, this time with impatience. “Promise me?”
I nodded my head. “I will not tell a soul.”
This appeared to be enough, for she flipped open the cover of the pad and thumbed through a number of pages before settling on one in particular. She held the picture up to me. “Who is this?”
“William Cyr.” He was a farmer over the hill in Puckstown, and the sketch showed him tending his fields.
She flipped to the next page. “And this?”
“Surely that is Robert Pugsley,” I replied. He was riding atop his mobile butcher wagon.
“How about this one?”
“Thornley tending the chickens.”
I studied the image for a moment—a woman of seventeen or eighteen, but not one I recognized. “I don’t believe I know her.”
Matilda stared at me for a second, then flipped to the next page. “How about her?”
Another girl, a little older than the last. She seemed vaguely familiar, but I could not place her face. I shook my head.
Matilda showed me pictures of three other women, the oldest no more than twenty. This last had been painted with watercolors; the image was vibrant, a living being captured with such detail it seemed I could reach out and touch the paper and feel the warmth of her skin. I did not recognize these women, though, which seemed odd; I knew most of the residents living near our home, and Matilda wasn’t permitted to venture far from our door unless in the company of an adult.
“You don’t know any of these women?”
I turned back through the pictures, taking the time to study each more closely. I could not place a name with the faces. “I don’t. Perhaps you met them at the market or in town with Ma, someplace without me?”
Matilda shook her head slowly. She leaned in close and whispered at my ear. “They’re all sketches of Nanna Ellen.”
I frowned and returned to the sketchbook. “But they look . . . they look nothing like her.”
“They all look nothing like her and yet they all look exactly like her. I could show you a dozen others, but none would be familiar to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t, either.”
She lowered her voice again. “It seems whenever I draw Nanna Ellen, the resulting picture looks nothing like her. I cannot capture her no matter how hard I try; her image eludes me.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I changed the subject. “What more have you learned of Thornley?”
Because I rarely left my room, I depended on Matilda for household gossip, and it was rare that she disappointed. Although Nanna Ellen was the focus of her sleuthing, my brother was a close second, and she could often be found lurking in his shadow.
“Oh, Thornley.” Matilda turned the page of her sketchbook to one filled with text. “Last night, I saw him leaving Nanna Ellen’s at nearly two in the morning.”
“Why would he be in her room?”
Matilda tapped at her pad. “That’s not all. He was fully dressed, and after he left her room, he didn’t go back to his own; he went outside.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“In the middle of the night.”
“What did he do out there?”
Matilda frowned. “I don’t know. I lost sight of him near the barn. But he was out there for nearly twenty minutes, and when he came back in, he was filthy.”
“Did he see you?”
“Of course he didn’t see me.”
“So this is what? The third time?”
She shook her head. “This is the fourth time in as many weeks that he has snuck out like this. If he does it again, I plan to follow him.”
“You should tell Ma.”
She wouldn’t. I knew she wouldn’t. The way she closed her sketchbook and left my room in a huff told me so.
My fever worsened. By the ninth hour of that night, my body screamed with pain and my bedsheets were drenched in sweat. Ma sat at my side with a bowl of water in her lap and a damp cloth to wipe the sheen from my forehead. At one point, I fought her. I was so chilled, the cloth felt like ice against my skin. My arms flailed to bat her away. It was then that Thornley and Pa came into the room, holding me down, pinning my arms and legs at my sides. My moans echoed through the house, guttural sounds more like those of a wounded animal than a child.
Down the hall, I heard Baby Richard crying out from Nanna Ellen’s room, and Ma asked Matilda to see to him. I remember her protesting though her words escape me. She didn’t want to leave my side, but Ma insisted. She wasn’t permitted to bring the baby into my room for fear of his catching whatever ailed me. I think we all knew this to be illogical—my illness had persisted for years and no one else in the family had contracted it—yet we all seemed to be agreed it was best not to risk a contagion with the infant.
Matilda rushed from my room, and I heard Pa cursing Nanna Ellen for taking leave only hours earlier. They depended on her, and she was needed now more than any other time, and yet she was gone, leaving for reasons known only to her. In my fevered mind, the sketches Matilda had shown me glowed: dozens of women all blurring into one, resembling Nanna Ellen for a fraction of a second before breaking apart into the pictures of strangers, women of various ages and appearances, all different, all the same. Their eyes went from the black-
white of a pencil sketch to the most vibrant blue found only in oils, peering at me through a veil of swirling darkness. I could hear Nanna’s voice, but she sounded so far away, as if she shrieked from across the harbor and the fog devoured her cries. Then her face was but inches from mine, her full red lips moving to speak but uttering no sound. A moment later, Ma was back, wiping it all away with that icy cloth, and I wanted to swat her away but my arms no longer obeyed. All went black, and I felt as if I were falling down a well, the world vanishing above me as I was swallowed by the earth, my back on fire as I raced towards Hell. I heard Ma calling my name, but I was so far from home I knew I would be scolded if she learned I had left the house at all, so I said nothing; I only closed my eyes and waited for impact as I fell into the abyss. I imagined this is what it was like to be pushed alive into a suicide grave. I awaited the smothering dirt, poised to die beneath its blanket of filth, left to the eager worms and maggots of the earth.
Ma called out to me from the the top of the hole, but I remained silent. It wasn’t until the third time I finally tried to answer, but my voice failed me. The heft of so much soil on my chest expelled what little air I could muster, only a muted grunt escaping my dry, chapped lips. Around me, dirt fell, raining down in giant clumps, battering my frail body. A crowd gathered at the top of the hole; although I couldn’t see anybody, I heard them—shouting and screams, crying, even cackles— first two voices, then four, then a dozen more. I could not keep track, for they were everywhere and yet nowhere, ungodly loud but invisible to me all the same.
Then there was one.
I looked up into Ma’s eyes, red and clouded. She held the damp cloth inches from my face and froze as my eyes fluttered open and found her. I was back in my little attic room, back in my bed, wondering if I had left at all.
“He’s awake,” she said in a hushed tone to someone across the room. I tried to turn my head, but my neck ached so; I feared the movement alone might sever my head from my body. It felt as if a dozen blades made of ice pressed into my skin. “Cold . . .”
“Shhhh, don’t speak,” Ma said. “Your Uncle Edward is here; he is going to help you.”
Edward’s face appeared above me, his wispy gray hair disheveled and falling over round glasses. He pulled a stethoscope from around his neck, inserted the earpieces in his ears, and pressed the metal bell-
shaped resonator to my chest—this, too, was icy against my bare skin and I tried to shake it off, but Pa and Thornley held me fast.
“Still yourself,” Uncle Edward ordered, his face creased in a scowl. He listened for a moment before turning back to Ma. “His heart rate is highly erratic, and the fever has escalated to the point of hallucination. Without treatment, the fever could result in permanent damage . . . hearing impairment, lost sight, perhaps even death.”
I listened to this as if an observer, unable to interact. I watched Ma exchange a worried glance with Pa as Thornley simply peered down at me.
“What do you suggest?” Ma asked of Uncle Edward. Her voice, usually confident and steady, now wavered.
Uncle Edward’s eyes fluttered over to mine, then returned to Ma. “We must lessen the tainted blood; only then will his body find the strength to fight the infection and begin to heal.”
Ma was shaking her head. “The last time only worsened his condition.”
“Bloodletting is the only treatment called for by such a case.”
I tried to break free of their hold, and nearly did, for they were distracted by their discussion and had lessened their grip, all but Thornley, who squeezed my arm with such force at my attempt I thought his fingers would break the skin. He frowned at me while mouthing, No.
Blackness slipped back over me like a cloak, and I fought to retain consciousness. They continued to speak, but the words became foreign to me, a language I did not speak. Then my body began to shake with a chill so great I felt as if I had plunged into a frozen lake. From the corner of my eye, I watched Pa nod his head.
Uncle Edward removed his glasses, wiped them on his shirt, then replaced them on the bridge of his nose. He opened his bag, a satchel of the finest brown English leather, and removed a small white jar with tiny holes in its lid. He pried it open, its rubber stopper emitting a pop as he did so, then retrieved a pair of large forceps from his bag.
I tried to squirm again, but all strength had left me. I watched as he dipped the forceps into the jar and extracted a large leech—nearly three inches long. It wiggled grotesquely in the forceps’s grip, its body twisting this way and that, as Uncle Edward carefully lowered the creature towards my foot.
Just before the leech disappeared from my line of sight, I spied the jaws of the eager sucker opening and closing with appetite as it neared my flesh. Ma looked away, her eyes pinched tightly shut, and Pa, although having grown pale, watched nonetheless as Uncle Edward placed the leech on my foot. I was cold, but the leech was colder still, nearly as icy as Uncle Edward’s stethoscope. I imagined the invader’s tiny mouth fastening itself to my flesh, its rows of sharp little teeth gnawing, burrowing deep, as it began to feast on my blood. I saw it growing rotund as it engorged on my essence. I was trying to block the putrid spectacle from my mind when I saw Uncle Edward’s forceps return with another leech, this one meant for my shoulder, then another after that, and another after that.
I closed my eyes in hopes of finding the embracing grave of sleep.
In my fevered mind, the sketches Matilda had shown me glowed: dozens of women all blurring into one, resembling Nanna Ellen for a fraction of a second before breaking apart into the pictures of strangers...
Voices shouted all around me. I could hear Ma and Pa, Matilda and Thornley, and even Uncle Edward. I tried to make out the words, forcing my ears to hone in on one particular voice or another, but they made no sense. When I tried to open my eyes, I observed only the thick tar of nothingness, as deep and forbidding as the bogs behind our home. I found myself drowning in it.
For the briefest of seconds, I saw Matilda standing at my side, her face puffy and shining. In that instant she saw me, too, for her eyes grew large, and her mouth opened long enough to speak my name, crying out loud enough to garner the attention of the others in the room; they looked first at her, then down at me. I spotted Ma running towards the bed from the far corner, and Pa leaning over me on one side and Uncle Edward leaning over the other. Uncle Edward waved a long metal thermometer around and barked something at Thornley, but everything said after Matilda cried my name became lost language. I tried to force my eyes to lock onto Matilda’s, to hold her gaze as if squeezing her fingers in mine, but her sweet face faded away. Nothing remained but a shadow, then nothing at all.
I heard the words, but they came to me from a great distance, barely audible over the cacophony. There was so much tumult around me that I believed I was hearing all the sounds in creation at one and the same time; every hiss, utterance, squeal, and cry in the known universe in unison, each subsequent outburst louder than the last. So loud it wielded wondrous pain, agonizing blades stabbing into my ears—and if I tried to comprehend what I heard, I knew it would render me insane.
“I want this room cleared now!”
It was Nanna Ellen. I knew it was her, somehow, even though the voice was not hers but was instead a wail, a banshee shrieking into a storm-
At that point I must have succumbed to the blackness, for an instant later I found myself alone. Ma and Pa had vanished, as had Matilda, Thornley, and Uncle Edward. If Nanna Ellen remained, I did not see her; indeed, I did not see much of anything. All I saw were tiny pricks of light piercing the now fading black. For the first time, I noticed a smell, a musty odor much like a root cellar at the tail end of winter when only the rotting husks of summer’s bounty remain, blanketed in mold and feasted upon by the insidious inhabitants of the dank dirt.
“Nanna Ellen?” I whispered her name. So sore was my throat that I took my next breaths in tiny gasps, my eyes tearing from the effort.
Nanna Ellen did not answer, yet I somehow knew she was in the room with me. I felt her presence in the murky darkness. I called out her name again, this time louder than the first, bracing myself for the inevitable burn in my throat that came with the words.
Again, she did not answer.
I was cold, and I began to shiver again despite thick quilts piled high around me. Pa had installed a small stove in the corner of my room to provide heat and it had burned merrily when the others had been here. But now, the stove was dark, the logs gray with cold dust and ash, as if weeks had passed since the last fire had graced the iron.
Something stirred behind me to the left, and I twisted awkwardly in order to gain sight of it. My neck ached with the effort, and I tried to ignore the hurt, squinting against the pain. If this was, in fact, Nanna Ellen, she moved far too fast for me to spy even a glimpse of her, for by the time my eyes found the spot where I thought she had been, there was nothing there but the corner of my dresser and the specter of my coat hanging on a peg on the wall. The garment moved slightly, a fact not lost on me. My windows were all closed tight, so there was no wind to speak of; something else caused the coat to shudder.
“Why are you hiding, Nanna Ellen? You’re frightening me.” The moment I said this, I wanted to take it back. Pa would have scolded me for displaying any sign of fear, let alone announcing it, but the words were out before I realized I should have stifled them.
When there was no response, I fell still, forcing the shivers from my body long enough to draw in a breath and listen to the room around me. As I drew in that breath, I heard someone else do the same; this time the sound emanated from my right, nearest the door. I swiveled my weighty head that way, but still I saw nothing; the faintest of lights was crawling in from the hallway under the door, but it seemed to die at the threshold as if held at bay by the much stronger darkness dwelling within. I expelled the air from my lungs and again a similar sound crossed the room, the sound of someone breathing in sync with me. The moment I held my breath, my unbidden companion did likewise, as if engaged in an unsettling game of mimicry.
I turned back to my bedroom door, to the sliver of light piercing the dark at the bottom. I thought I saw shadows moving through that light. I pictured Matilda with her ear pressed against the door and listening intently, her feet shuffling side to side as she heard nothing, then closing her eyes and hoping the loss of one sense would strengthen the other.
I caught movement to my left and forced my head to turn back towards the small stove. This time I saw Nanna Ellen; she was bent over the hearth, stoking the logs with the iron poker. They crackled and popped under her touch, and for a moment I caught sight of a single orange ember. Rather than adding kindling to coax the flames, she stirred the small hot spot and dispersed the glowing fragments of wood until they glowed no more.
“I’m cold, Nanna Ellen. Why are you putting out the fire?” The breath from my words lingered in the air above me, a mist of haunting white.
Nanna Ellen glanced up at me for the briefest of seconds, then she was gone. I wasn’t sure if this was a trick the mischievous shadows were playing on me or if I had blacked out again, but in that very instant she seemed to have vanished from sight. I caught a glimpse of her eyes before she disappeared, though, and they were glowing the brightest of blues. I found it odd that I could make out her eyes with so little light in the room, but I had had no trouble seeing them, and there was a part of me that thought she wanted me to see them. Along with her eyes, I spied a smile edging across her red lips. And there was even a laugh, brief as it was, the only sound.
When fingers brushed my cheek, I nearly jumped from my bed, and my head spun around to meet them. Nanna Ellen sat in the chair Ma had occupied earlier, her hand advancing to my forehead. I felt no heat from her touch, no warmth at all. She might as well have touched me with a stick of kindling or the point of a knitting needle. When she pulled away, I expected to see a gloved hand, but such was not the case; her fingers were bare. I marveled at how they looked, the flesh creamy, fresh as a babe’s, the nails long and perfectly kept. They were not so much the hands of a worker as those of a royal. Even my own hands at the tender age of seven bore the hallmarks of labor, and I was much more sheltered than any other child my age. I did have a small scar on my left hand just below the forefinger that had never quite healed properly. I had caught it on the sharp edge of a window frame downstairs when I was a young boy. The ragged metal had cut right through my skin, sending forth a fountain of blood. I did not cry when it happened; Ma marveled at this, praising my bravery in the face of such injury. She bandaged the cut as best she could, but the wound had been deep and probably would have benefited from stitches. I share this anecdote only because Nanna Ellen’s hands bore no such scars, the cuts and scrapes of everyday life.
Nanna Ellen caught me staring at her hands and withdrew them from sight, brushing the hair from my eyes. “You have worsened substantially; you’re delusional, caught up in the fever. Does it hurt?”
I tried to nod my head, but the ability to move had abandoned me again. To keep my eyes open was painful, but I did so anyway, unable to turn away from her.
“It must hurt.”
I thought she meant the fever, but then I realized she was looking down at my arm. With all my strength, I raised it. I spotted three leeches below my elbow and at least two others above. All were plump from their ghastly feasts. The largest, which was near my wrist, looked about to burst. Its oily body churned, pumping my skin with ferocity. There were no less than six on my other arm, and I knew Uncle Edward had placed them on my legs and feet, too.
Tears began to well in my eyes, and Nanna Ellen brushed them away with a cold fingertip. I then watched as she brought that finger to her lips and tasted the salty drop. Soundlessly, she then lowered the same finger to the writhing back of the fat leech at my wrist and pressed down on it. The little creature shuddered, then caved in upon itself, going from plump and moist to dry dust right before my eyes. Then it was gone, leaving nothing behind but a smudge on my skin and the small red hole from which it had fed. Nanna Ellen’s finger came away red with blood: my blood.
“Do you trust me?” she said.
I forced a nod, unable to speak.
“You shouldn’t,” she replied.
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Featured image: Cover of "Dracula," Vintage Classics edition