James Leavey's Corner
Not Just Another Bloody Holiday

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

Most people love to fear vampires - from the safety of a cinema seat or armchair at home. Me, I've always wanted to meet one.

All Hallows Eve seemed the perfect time to set off on my quest for the undead. Armed with a couple of cloves of garlic, a crucifix, and a small flask of water blessed by my sainted Aunt Edna, my first stop was London's Piccadilly.

According to legend, the house on the immediate left of The Hard Rock Cafe was one of Dracula's resting places while he prowled London in search of victims. Today he would probably join the long queue next door for a bite, or a rare hamburger, and get his ears punctured by the loud music. The only blood suckers in sight were a party of anti-smoking lawyers, munching french fries.

A few minutes away is the Inn on the Park where the mysterious Mr Denham took over the penthouse suite for the duration of the Hammer film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in 1972. Nobody witnessed Christopher Lee's comings and goings except his blood drained victims and millions of horror fans. As for me, I was 26 years too late.

Bram Stoker's house at 27 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, also seemed surprisingly free of fanged fiends, as was the map room of the British Museum where he did most of his research for Dracula, the most popular vampire novel of all time. First published in 1897, Stoker's masterpiece of horror fiction has since been translated in 22 languages and is now on sale in 91 separate editions throughout 47 countries.

No doubt influenced by its fictional predecessor, the Highgate Vampire first struck terror in 1967 into local schoolgirls and anyone else suffering from a nervous disposition, or a dyspeptic imagination.

Vampire hunter Bishop Sean Manchester claimed to have tracked the cemetery haunting night stalker to a derelict Edwardian house in London's Crouch End, where he dispatched it with the aid of a friend, a wooden stake and much praying.

I decided to drive down Swain's Lane that night, hoping for a midnight encounter with a sharp toothed monster. The entrance to Highgate's older, catacombed cemetery seemed deserted and there was no sign of the white faced ghoul that was reputed to peer, red-eyed, through the iron gate. It was still a creepy place to be in the early hours of the morning, even with the consolation of a Havana corona that helped to keep me warm, so I didn't hang around.

The next day, Black Park, near Pinewood, proved equally devoid of unnatural life, and almost less cheerful. Familiar to horror fans round the world as Hammer's low budget version of a Transylvanian forest, who witnessed the same shots of the lake, trees and boulders as Dracula's carriage was driven back and forth.

Nevertheless, the vampire is probably the most widespread of the world's myths and superstitions, and has fuelled nightmares for centuries. The endless books, films, comics and TV programmes on the subject have certainly given me a few sleepless nights.

Three chapters of Stoker's novel are set in Whitby, in Northern England, providing an excuse for the resort's Dracula Experience museum. Dracula weekends are usually held somewhere in the seaside town around Halloween and include 'bloody' cocktail receptions, fancy dress balls ("Come in the clothes you were buried in!") and late night refreshment provided by Boris the butler. While some unlucky guests may even encounter their host, Dr D.V. Acullaa, around midnight, while watching late night horror films in a hotel, I regret to say that I didn't.

The Dracula Trail started at the Bram Stoker Memorial Seat and wound its way round the town's literary landmarks, including Whitby Abbey, St Mary's Church and cemetery, Tate Hill Pier and Robin Hood Bay. Nice stroll, still no vampire.

Sleep-walkers and the faint hearted are advised to avoid the churchyard on East Cliff at night, where Dracula's first British victim, Lucy Westenra, met a fate worse than death.

I decided against a detour to Scotland's Cruden Bay, which is also staking its claim for inspiring Stoker's novel, with fresh blood recently given to the idea that the Count's Transylvanian home was modelled on Slains Castle. Stoker is reputed to have written the first four chapters of Dracula at the Kilmarnock Inn.

The Grand Theatre in Derby also seemed an unlikely haunt although it saw the first authentic stage presentation of Dracula, in 1924. Taken on a UK tour for four years, the famous Count was played by then 23-year old actor, Raymond Huntley, backed by the well publicised attendance at each performance by a Red Cross nurse.

Not all of Britain's vampires are imported from Eastern Europe via Stoker's fertile brain. In 1874 a new family, the Cranswells, moved into Croglin Grange (now believed to be Croglin Low Hall) in Cumberland, including two boys and sister, Amelia, who was woken one night by a scratching at her window through which peered two yellow lights, like the eyes of an animal. Awakened by her screams, the boys reached her room in time to see a tall figure bounding away across the lawn while their sister lay on the carpet with blood streaming from her throat.

A few months later came a second attack. This time the monster was shot and tracked to a local churchyard where it disappeared into a large vault. Inside, the pursuers found a long thin corpse with sharp teeth and a bullet in its leg. It was exorcised and burnt.

On returning to London, my trail ended at the ninth floor of a tower block in Woolwich. Could this be the vampire's lair I was seeking" The door creaked open and out loomed seven foot tall, Robert James Leake, cigar chain-smoking honorary secretary of The Dracula Society, and dedicated guardian of hundreds of books, original soundtrack albums, film posters and ephemera on the undead.

Leake's flat is a haven for vampire and cigar aficionados alike. You half-expect a fanged creature of the night to materialise suddenly from his billowing cloud of Toscani cigar smoke.

My neck still resolutely unpunctured, Leake encouraged me to try on Christopher Lee's long black cape lined in red satin, from Hammer's Dracula films. It's heavy enough to give a satisfying swirl as you round on a victim but a large, sharpened wooden stake from Rumania leans in one corner, unused, discouraging any thoughts of a liquid lunch.

"I've met a couple of people who claim to be vampires because they like drinking each other's blood," intoned Leake, who keeps in contact with over 150 members around the world. "I explained that this was not enough. To be a real vampire, you have to be dead."

After a few more similar pleasantries, Leake and I agreed that we've still yet to meet a member of the nosferatu. The shadows deepened while I glanced nervously at my watch, under Leake's unnerving, stony glaze. 4pm. It seemed a good time to be on my way, before the sun went down.

Maybe next time I should try Transylvania.

Copyright James Leavey, 1999. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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