From Hammer to The Hunger, Twilight to True Blood, when it comes to screen memes, vampires really do seem to be the gift that keeps on giving. But I'll confess that when I heard that Sky Living were going to screen a lavish new adaptation of Dracula made for NBC, I was initially sceptical. And my cynicism only deepened on discovering that Jonathan Rhys Meyers was playing the title role, despite being a good 30 years too young and attractive for Stoker's Count. But that was before I saw the opening sequence. The breaking open of the ancient underground tomb, and the reawakening of the famished and fossilised vampire really were a tour de force. But could they keep it up? Could they really add anything new to such a tired old tale?
And the answer - rather to my surprise - is yes. There is, in fact, a rather delicious contemporary knowingness about the whole thing, from the Dan Brownesque brotherhood of shady industrialists, to the sly suggestion that Jack the Ripper was really Jack the Sucker, to the nice twist of Rhys Meyers having his own blood drawn, in an effort to cure his fatal reaction to the sun. Though by far my favourite new slant was the introduction of science to the supernatural.
I'll have to declare an interest here: my next book, Darkness Visible, is inspired by Stoker's classic, and one of the main themes I explore in that novel is the sometimes fatal collision between new technology and old superstitions in the 19th century. The Victorians really did think they were invincible - that it was only a matter of time before all nature's secrets would be laid bare by their relentless quest for new knowledge. Yet while many of those discoveries did indeed prove to be the springboard for significant modern breakthroughs, others were not 'discoveries' at all, but merely another kind of superstition, camouflaged by sham science. So imagine my delight when I realised that this new Dracula, 'Alexander Grayson', claims to have harnessed a limitless, wireless geomagnetic force that could wipe out British imperial oil interests at the flick of a switch. (And Rhys Meyers, in case you're wondering, is really rather good).
I did have a few quibbles - some of the fight scenes were irksome (a bit too much Crouching Huntsman, Levitating Vampire), and the historical accuracy was, to say the least, variable (no-one, but no-one, said "sorry, mate" in 1890, and I doubt they had VPs of public affairs then either, even in America). But my main frustration was that they called it Dracula at all. It shouldn't have that name, because it doesn't tell that story. And in any case this series doesn't need a Transylvanian transfusion; it stands perfectly well on its own.
And having thought about that some more, I think I know why. It all goes back to a genre that's refused to die for almost as long as the Count himself. The Gothic novel - from which, of course, the original book derives - is put together from an almost ludicrously stereotypical set of props: a sensuous but virginal heroine, a mysterious and dangerously-charismatic predator, a frisson of the supernatural, and a coyly titillating sex factor, all set in an exotic location that's at once familiar and strange. And this is the repertoire this series so deftly reworks, adding, for good measure, plenty of sex that's anything but coy, some extreme but elegant violence, a number of genuinely unsettling Vlad-boy flashbacks, and a London that was never so French, so Venetian, so Byzantine, so ornate.
However creaky the elements of Gothic may be, they still manage - even now, in the 21st Century - to tap into our deepest fears, and guiltiest pleasures. And that, I think, is why this series works. It may not be a true Dracula, but it is, most definitely, true Gothic.