In Search of Dracula by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu

Despite contemporary books, like Elizabeth Miller’s The Dracula Handbook, rightfully pointing out clear failures in connecting Bram Stoker’s supposed knowledge with the historic Vlad Dracula and – to a lesser extent – pointing out certain historic inaccuracies regarding supposed Dracula Castles, I found this to be an enjoyable read overall. The only other criticism I’d have is the lack of appreciation the two authors seem to have for the scientific method and their misunderstanding of the valuation of scientific evidence as somehow as nonsensical as folk myths. They wrote this criticism around the brief portion pertaining to Elizabeth Bathory. That (admittedly very miniscule) paragraph was a bit jarring to read when it was clear the whole point of this book was to learn about Vlad Dracula and his connections to the fictional character of Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel. Sadly enough for the authors, the part about Elizabeth Bathory bathing in her servants blood is a falsehood about her crimes spread about several hundred years after her death according to Kimberly Craft’s book on her. Some claims seem to be overeager too; there is a vague and perplexing sentence near the end comparing European myths to Hindu folktales, Hindu folklore certainly has stories of man-eaters, they’re not at all like Eastern European Vampire myths and the brief comparison didn’t really make any sense to me. However, most of the material still seems good.

The authors have apparently made thorough corrections after criticisms of this old book were made aware. There’ve been some claims of “historic fraud” by critics, but I don’t believe that to be the case after reading this book. The two authors seemed to have just been huge fanboys of Bram Stoker and overshot the mark on Stoker’s knowledge, confusing their more thorough research on the subject to be the same level as what their favorite author was thought to be aware of. The material on Vlad Dracula specifically seems to be historically accurate – albeit a bit outdated since there’s been new discoveries on certain aspects that I’ll get into further on – and the only historical inaccuracies seem to be regarding what they believed to be Bram Stoker’s knowledge of historic Castles that the real life Vlad Dracula used and their assumptions on Stoker’s own knowledge regarding Vlad Dracula. This particular book doesn’t seem to be available in digital format and the authors seem more interested in making the corrections with new book series on Vlad Dracula specifically.

Most of the contents give a fascinating portrayal of the life and struggles of Vlad Dracula and one can see how and why he became a monster; from being a glorified hostage under Turkish rule where the Sultan could threaten him and his brother Radu with death should his father, Vlad Dracul, re-attempt war with them to suffering the loss of his elder brother and father at the hands of a man (John Hunyadi) that he’d later have to submit to the mercies of to keep himself alive for fear of being slaughtered by enemy factions and encroaching Turkish army into his lands; Vlad Dracula’s life was not a happy or peaceful one. The authors make it clear that much of the motives behind his cruelty was that he was instilled from a young age that life was cheap. The only surviving of his brothers, also a fellow Prisoner and who later became known as Radu the Handsome, became a pliant puppet of the Turks and the two became rivals at a young age. After Vlad Dracula ascended the throne a second time thanks to the help of John Hunyadi in opposition to another family (the Danesti family) which became more open to appeasing the Turks, Vlad Dracula was quickly able to ascend to the throne of his family’s lands and that was where most of the cruelty of Vlad Dracula began to spawn. Oddly enough, most of the peasants during his time loved him because he would torture and kill the noble class as well, and the peasants hated the nobles because they squabbled amongst themselves and barely did anything against the Turkish invaders razing their lands. At the time, most saw Vlad Dracula as the lesser of two evils since he fiercely fought against Turkish invasion and kept a strict law and order code. The result for not abiding by it was usually impalement.

After a six year war in defense of Christendom against Turkish expansion, one of the towns he massacred along the way, Sibhu, wrote fake letters that got him arrested and imprisoned for 12-years by King Mathias Corvinus of Hungary (Mathias was the son of the same John Hunyadi who had successfully conspired to murder Vlad Dracula’s father and brother). By this time, Vlad Dracula had the dual fame of being Vlad the Impaler and a Christian Crusader Hero by the European populace. On pages 39 – 42, we learn that Vlad Dracula caught the eye of what the author’s state is King Mathias Corvinus’s sister in the book. However, a correction from further research has discerned Dracula’s first wife who reportedly threw herself over the Castle walls out of fear of being captured by Turks when Dracula and her were fleeing, was the illegitimate sister of Mathias Corvinus who had married Dracula probably under the directive of John Hunyadi to secure family ties. The person Dracula actually caught the eye of during his 12-year imprisonment was King Mathias Corvinus’s cousin, Justina Szilágyi according to new information. The reasons for this confusion is that Medieval European reports hardly ever describe women by their names and only ever refer to them in relation to their husbands. So, it’ll say “spouse of” or “widow of” but not who the person is in most of these Medieval records. Further confusion came about because Justina had already been married off as a child bride in her first marriage, but soon became a widow and then was taken under the charge of another family who became her guardian. Nevertheless, most of the evidence suggests that Vlad Dracula’s imprisonment became a lot more laxed after the first year due to the demands of Mathias’s family member. It is speculated that Justinia may have met Vlad Dracula at Mathias’s court, despite being a prisoner, he was still required to attend court functions when not shackled and many women were interested in meeting the famous Christian Hero. Justinia herself is regarded as a princess due to her relation to Mathias, who was her cousin. Although this is just my own speculation, it is possible that Justinia went off to meet him personally. Regardless, pages 39 – 42, and especially pages 41 and 42, specify that Mathias’s supposed sister (referring to Justinia) demanded his treatment be improved and there seems to be good reason to speculate that Vlad Dracula was able to use the secret passages of the prison at night to meet Justinia in her private quarters. Thus, it is possible that for the supposed 12-years of imprisonment, since he was moved closer to the Crown quarters and thus closer to Justinia’s private quarters, that he spent the daytime in prison or in the gym courtyard to exercise, and spent the night fucking the princess in her private quarters. Their later marriage in 1475, whether it bore any children, is debated although this book incorrectly suggests Mihnea the Bad (Vlad’s first son) was a result of his second marriage in the latter portion of the book. This is more a result of the book’s outdated nature and not due to historical inaccuracy on the authors’ part since most of these corrections to the historical narrative probably came years later.

Page 57 – 58 explains that Vlad Dracula participated in a specific cultural custom of torture called Bastinado, whereby the person’s feet were whipped. Impalement was nevertheless his favorite method of torture and to my own surprise, he held his throne room on the ground floor of his castle. For some reason, I suppose I envisioned it on the highest floor, but it makes sense given the nature of how often he must’ve been faced with assassins. Page 59 gives a deeper probing of his personality and how nobles and peasants alike could avoid death; Dracula loved flattery and witty banter; he spared those who flattered or were funny to him. If you proved your wit in intellectual jousts, you avoided impalement and were given gifts. Pages 59 – 60 make it clear that he was a very devout Christian and his primary concern was not of those who lived in the here and now, but of their eternal souls. Impalement thus granted eternal life with Jesus Christ or was useful for the war effort against Muslim domination. Page 60 in particular specifies Vlad Dracula had many Christian monasteries built as there was a widespread belief at the time that spreading churches absolved people of their sins and this custom was indeed shared by both past and future members of his family. Page 67 describes the cruelty in which he nailed Turkish envoys turbans to their heads. The Turks became so scared of him that they called him “Kaziklu Bey” or “The Impaler” in their native language. Pages 68 – 69 give the lengthy history in which he fought a losing war in defense of Christianity and vigorously in its defense against the larger army of Turks. One of his failed attempts to rally support from all of Christendom (still wallowing in its Orthodox vs Roman Catholic squabbles) was the burning down of his grandfather’s fortress in order to send envoys with news of desperation to many European nobles, including Mathias Corvinus (this was before his imprisonment), and to show his dedication against fighting the occupying Muslims, he sent Corvinus a few heads of Turks whose he had decapitated upon their capture with the specific accounting of 23,000 Turkish soldiers felled by his army and war tactics (an account which is most likely true as the recordkeeping was meticulous according to the book). Perhaps to his own annoyance, Vlad Dracula’s Christian Heroism got him referred to as John Hunyadi’s “successor” by the greater European populace during his lifetime due to his war against Turkish Muslims. Pages 74 – 75 specify how Dracula’s first wife is reported (or rumored) to have flung herself from the castle out of fear of becoming a Turkish slave and seeing the situation as hopeless. Vlad Dracula’s first marriage doesn’t seem to have been a amicable one as he had an illegitimate son (whom he cared for) but who was thrown off his own horse during their flee from the Castle. Vlad Dracula had thought his illegitimate son dead for 12 years and only later learned that his son was found by a local shepherd and remained alive upon his third ascension back to Wallachia. Vlad Dracula’s escape may have been successful because they had kept the horse shoes in reverse, thus making it look like an incoming army was approaching and not that Vlad Dracula himself was fleeing from a narrow pass in a dark cave in hopes of reaching King Mathias. Page 107 describes the use of stakes for impalement in further detail, page 109 goes into further detail about how Vlad Dracula burned people alive and impaled babies upon the very stakes that their mothers were impaled in, and 113 – 119 goes into Dracula’s motives and how his sick activities were no different from many of his European contemporaries for his time. Pages 139 – 145 specify Romanian superstitious beliefs in vampires, their origins, their specific terms, and how they eventually were connected to the historical Vlad Dracula. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is the Appendix of sources from Romanian, German, and Russian that specify Vlad Dracula’s horror stories which all seem to be authentic and primary sources on his horrific activities.

Overall, this book gets a 3 / 5. I did enjoy the historic aspects and contexts of his crime. Learning of his arrogance and the fact we have a real life example of a man who impaled people based on if he enjoyed their witty banter or not was certainly enlightening. The gruesome deeds caused me to step away from the book many times when I first began reading the appendix. I suppose that it was a solid read despite the outdated nature of some of the historical information.

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