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A Dysfunctional Drac : Latest reincarnation of the count is not out of this world, just out of his head : THE SECRET LIFE OF LASZLO, COUNT DRACULA, By Roderick Anscombe (Hyperion: $22.95; 409 pp.)

October 30, 1994|Patrick McGrath | Patrick McGrath's new novel "Asylum" will be published next year

The vampire is a fascinating creature. For hundreds of years it has haunted the human imagination, bringing plague and a hideous sort of living death to its victims. It is both terrifying and seductive, speaking to fantasies of sexual surrender, to unconscious desires to offer one's body to a strong predatory figure that can melt all resistance with the sheer passion of its need.

For a creature capable of inspiring such universal dread, the vampire's origins are surprisingly humble. For in its first appearance, in Central European folklore, the vampire is not a suave gent in a flowing cloak but a plump Slavic peasant in a dirty linen shroud, with long fingernails, stubbly beard, ruddy, swollen face and its left eye wide open. Its appearance is thought to be rooted in medieval burial practices and certain peculiarities of human decomposition. Corpses that bloat, and bleed from the mouth, and poke their fingers up through the earth, tend to give the impression of being alive. From such phenomena powerful myths arise, especially when they're associated with outbreaks of disease in the community and depredations of livestock.

The latest version of the life and times of a Transylvanian vampire comes in Roderick Anscombe's novel, "The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula." What's unusual about this book is that no supernatural effects are used. This Dracula is all too human, and it's to his psychology we must look to explain why he attacks lovely young women and opens their throats and drinks their blood while raping them. This Dracula is a sex offender, an extremely disturbed individual who requires not a stake through the heart but psychiatric treatment in a secure custodial setting. This Dracula is not so much wicked as sick.

It's appropriate then that we should first meet him in the Salpetriere, the Parisian asylum where the great Charcot, teacher of Freud, did his pioneering worked on hysteria. Laszlo is an impoverished medical student at this stage of the story, and has yet to inherit the title from his older brother. From the very start of his medical training the young Hungarian is fascinated by the sight of blood. He begins furtively to taste it. He is greatly excited when a female patient called Stacia savagely slashes her wrists with a scalpel and requires 54 stitches. His excitement is intensified by the fact that he is already conducting a torrid affair with Stacia, who by night works in a fashionable brothel.

The plot thickens when we learn that Stacia has syphilis, and that Laszlo must therefore also be infected. He decides not to care. He abandons himself to passion. The affair doesn't run into trouble until he learns she's seeing other men. He stabs her in the throat and kills her, and then drinks her blood. The next day comes news of the death of his older brother, and Laszlo returns to Hungary to be invested as the new count.

The murder of Stacia is the first major symptom of a psychiatric condition that in time develops into a ravening, full-blown blood-lust. In the meantime 20 years will pass, years in which Laszlo lives quietly in his Transylvanian castle in a state of celibacy despite being married to his brother's widow. Curiously it is by reading the diary he kept during his Paris days, and the account it contains of Stacia's murder, that he reawakens appetites successfully suppressed for two decades. Again it is a powerful sexual attraction aggravated by jealousy that will be the stimulus to murder.

The victim this time is Estelle, daughter of the local baker, a beautiful young woman Laszlo installs as his mistress in a flat in Budapest. Their affair is steamy, and in the course of it he once more tastes blood. But when he finds out Estelle is deceiving him, he follows her to a lonely spot in woods near the castle and stabs her in the throat with a dagger. He is disappointed afterward that the killing is over so quickly. Later he realizes that there's a part of himself he cannot control, a stranger within him, a beast.

Where did it come from, this beast within? This question is never properly answered, which creates a serious problem right at the heart of the novel. It's connected to the author's decision not to write the standard vampire, to deviate so sharply from the prototype, the bloodthirsty count created by Bram Stoker in his Dracula of 1897. That Dracula was a wonderfully ghastly ghoul who turned nice English girls into creatures of voracious passion who then required the best efforts of Victorian manhood and Dutch science to be put back to sleep. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a fascinating figure because he is as rapacious as a savage animal and at the same time possessed of extraordinary supernatural powers. He isn't one of us, he is Other, magnificently and diabolically Other.

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