Vamping it up: the Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin
Imagine the scene. The walls of the crypt glow an eerie red, the guttering candle flames throw strange shadows against the ancient stone, and in among the archways figures move, hooded and cloaked, their features hideously distorted into skulls, or zombies, or aristocratic necromancers. Not a montage from a Dracula movie, but the real-life scene at a banquet in his creator’s honour, which was one of the highlights of this year’s Bram Stoker Festival.
Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, and given how vast the vampire vibe has now become, you can’t blame his home town for claiming him. And boy did they get their teeth into it, exploring every possible angle of the book’s creation and legacy, from rave to grave. There were showings of the Hammer films, a vampire treasure hunt, a kids’ workshop on the secret life of bats, a giant animatronic skeleton stalking the streets, Bram Jam music sessions, and the chance to get your very own zombie makeover (I confess I gave that one a miss – at my age there’s a danger people just think you’re having an off day).
I was there as the guest of Fāilte Ireland, because my next book, Darkness Visible, is inspired by Dracula, and takes the vampire phenomenon back to its original literary roots. Hence I was particularly interested in the literary programmes at the festival, and one of the best was a fascinating panel on the modern legacy of Stoker’s work, and how the sexual charge that simmers so close to the surface in the original novel influences contemporary books like Fifty Shades of Grey. As the erotic novelist, Caroline McCall commented, Dracula was written by a man, for men, but today’s versions are by and large written by women, for women. But as the academic and Gothic literature specialist Jarlath Killeen observed, it’s a potentially troubling reflection of our cultural anxieties that in a post-feminist world, the books that sell in their millions are those in which men and women act out extreme versions of stereotypical predatory and passive roles.
Serious discussions by day, then, but after dark – appropriately enough – was when the dedicated Draculati emerged. And what better excuse, in the week before Halloween. I remember doing Trick or Treat as a child, but that was nothing compared to the fright fest it’s now become. Everywhere you went in Dublin there were restaurants offering special menus and cocktails, and elaborate costumes for hire to wear at a whole array of ‘ween themed nights. And Halloween isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the last few years. I used to work for Guinness back in the 90s and came to Dublin quite often, but the place is very different now. Though it’s still a city in transition, and I suspect that accounts for much of its energy – in a district like Temple Bar, in particular, the ‘old’ Dublin sits side by side with über-cool new restaurants and bars, all of which were absolutely packed.
So what will I remember most? Without doubt the Fire Garden in the courtyard at Dublin Castle. The whole space was turned into a huge son et lumière stage set – the buildings lit blood red and uncanny music echoing off the walls as spectacular fire sculptures threw sparks into the night air and ghosties and ghoulies prowled the crowds. In fact there was only one word for it – ‘wicked!’, as I heard one wide-eyed kid exclaim. And for once it was true in both senses of the word.
So if you’re up for the Drac’ craic, Dublin definitely bites back.