The author comes from a family of hard-core rationalists, but his overly active imagination prevented him from sleeping well after reading horror novels, forcing him to make a cross out of the pages of his algebra notebook once to keep the Lord of the Night away
The first book from the horror genre that I read was that classic of the genre Dracula, Bram Stoker’s tale of the undead Count from Transylvania. I had read other classics with horror elements like R.L. Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. This was, however, the first out and out book of supernatural horror that I read. I was a 14-year-old and the book was lent to me by a friend who cautioned me that it was not for the faint-hearted. He warned that I would never look at the world the same way again since the book would reveal to me the horrors that were concealed under the cloak of the night.
A family of rationalists
The dire warning immediately whetted my appetite. I plunged straight into the book with a mix of anticipation and scepticism. I was brought up in a household which was not religious and swore by rationalism. It had been drilled into me from childhood that there were no beings that went bump in the night. Stories of ghosts, demons, vampires and witches were arrant nonsense, fodder for superstitious fools. My grandfather, a noted rationalist, used to enjoy debunking such superstitions by packing a straw mattress and spending the night at purportedly haunted houses. Local lore had it that eldritch creatures of the night roamed these places, hungry for human blood. Whatever the case, his blood was apparently unpalatable for them as he used to snore his way through the night undisturbed, before returning home refreshed. He had one advantage over his unfortunate grandson in the matter. He was bereft of any kind of imagination, believing only what he could see or hear, a true rationalist. I, on the other hand, was cursed with an overactive imagination. I used to spend my days happily reading about and dreaming of stalwart knights rescuing suitably thankful damsels from dragons, sorcerers and sundry nasty characters. When not engaged in such noble pursuits I would be prowling through the dark alleys of Chicago with my trusty .45 in my hand, bullet-riddled corpses of my enemies at my feet. My favourite haunts were the valleys, canyons and deserts of the old West, mounted on my trusty steed, laying waste to sundry outlaws, bank robbers and similar blackguards.
Vampires never die!
Dracula however was a different kettle of fish. First published in 1897, the book is an epistolary novel told in a series of diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings by various characters. This unusual narrative style put me off at first but gradually, almost remorselessly, the narrative gripped me by the throat and dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a world of horror and dread with the malevolent Count at its centre. Everything drilled into me about such stories being poppycock went out the window as my overactive imagination took over. I wanted to throw the book away and return to a world of sunshine and normalcy but it was much too late. The curse of the ardent reader had me well in thrall and I feverishly, if reluctantly, kept turning the pages. I took heart from the fact that the principal antagonist of the bloodthirsty Count was my namesake, Dr Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing was however an old coot, even if a courageous one, and I would have much preferred a younger protagonist. An intrepid 14-year-old maybe with the same name? The novel was intriguing, heart-stopping and terrifying by turn before ending with a slam-bang climax where the evil vampire was vanquished. Or was he? The problem with the undead is that umm… they never die.
Balderdash… or not?
I remember that I finally finished the book late at night. Everyone was fast asleep except for me. I resolutely turned on my side and tried to go to sleep. There are no such things as vampires, I kept saying to myself. Superstitious rubbish. I wonder why people read such trash. Sleep, however, refused to come. I seemed to hear mysterious scratching and creaking noises. Something hooted mournfully outside the house. Only a nightbird, I said bravely to myself. A dog howled at the moon somewhere. I shuddered, remembering the scene in the book where Dracula escapes from the wrecked ship that transports him to England by taking on the shape of a large dog. Something fluttered at the window and I cringed. A bat. I was sure it was a bat. Undoubtedly the undead Count had taken on the shape of his favourite creature and was at the window seeking ingress. My blood ran cold at the very thought. This was terrible. Maybe the Count liked his blood cold, perhaps with a dash of ice. Blood on the rocks. I sat up in bed with a jerk and switched on the light, determined to die a coward’s death, screaming to the bitter end. All sounds ceased. The fluttering, creaking, chittering and howling seemed to stop all of a sudden and an eerie silence reigned. I wasn’t fooled. I knew the creatures were lying low, waiting for the light to be switched off. After all, their Master was the Lord of the Night.
I thought hard. The only weapon that was of any use against a vampire as per lore was the Holy Cross or a vial of holy water. Unfortunately, my family not being of religious persuasion, there were no such weapons in the house. I thought briefly about maybe pinching some rum, whisky or gin from my father’s collection. He was an army officer and got a monthly supply of these spirits from the army canteen. I doubted though that I could use one of these to fool the Count. He might even take a liking to it and the last thing I wanted was to have a sloshed vampire singing bawdy lyrics at the top of his voice before administering the coup de grace to my jugular. I shuddered at the thought.
At my wit’s end, a sudden brainwave struck me. I pulled out a notebook. No, that was my English notebook and I loved English. Ah, there was the hated algebra notebook. With trembling fingers, I tore out two of the pages, folded them into strips and placed them crosswise over each other. Voila! A cross, one that was even more potent than a crucifix of silver or gold. This one was made of algebraic equations. What vampire could stand against such a weapon? With renewed courage, I switched off the light, placed the makeshift crucifix over my heart, and prepared for the worst. The psychological boost that it gave me must have worked because the next thing I remember is the morning sunlight playing gently on my face through the window curtains. I jumped up and felt my throat and face. All present and in order. No puncture wounds on the neck. I drew a deep breath. Granddad was right. All this talk about vampires and other supernatural creatures was poppycock. Only the half-witted or those cursed with the dreaded malaise of imagination would believe such balderdash.
Of crucifixes and non-Christian vampires
A few years later I saw a Malayalam horror film that gave me pause for thought. The wicked vampire climbs through the bedroom window of the scantily clad damsel with his trademark sneer in place. As he reaches out to grab her, his gaze fixed on the pulsing jugular vein, the lady whips out a crucifix and holds it out before her. ‘Stay away, she shrieks, ‘I have a crucifix’. The vampire takes a step back and then doubles over in laughter. Finally controlling his mirth he smacks his lips, prepares to leap and says ‘ Sorry, lady. That won’t work against me. I am not a Christian vampire’.
Man, am I glad I hadn’t seen that movie before I read the book.