It is hard to believe that a character in a book written over 115 years ago can still carry such significant influence in today's literature, television, and movies. The character's creator, an Irishman, started his writing career as a theatre critic, eventually becoming a novelist. His contemporaries were men such as Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and today his name is nearly as well-known as theirs. After getting married, he lived with his family in Victorian London. There he was the business manager for the Lyceum Theatre, a position he held for 27 years. But of all his accomplishments and famous acquaintances, we know him best for his book published in 1897.
The book, of course, is Dracula, and the author is Bram Stoker.
This famous novel laid the foundation for all future vampire stories, igniting a worldwide interest in this fictional creature. Early in the story, we learn that Dracula is greatly feared in his homeland of Transylvania, for he is a vampire, one of the un-dead. The chapters are brilliantly laid out for the reader as a collection of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, a must read for followers of this genre.
Stoker details Dracula's departure from Transylvania and his move to England, where he begins a new reign of terror over a coastal town. The problem is that the protagonists have no idea what they are up against, and therefore do not know how to protect themselves or their loved ones. Finally, in desperation, Dr. John Seward reaches out to one of his old professors, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing leaves Holland and gets to England as quickly as he can. From the evidence laid before him, he immediately recognizes the creature they are fighting. Fortunately, from past experience, he knows what vampires are and how to deal with them. It is his guidance that ultimately saves them, enabling our heroes to defeat the seemingly undefeatable Dracula.
Although Van Helsing was truly Dracula's primary nemesis, he was only one man in a collection of characters battling the vampire. So how is it that his individual role has turned out to be so influential? What was so special about this him? It is simple, really: He contributed knowledge that nobody else had. Ever since then his character, in various forms, has shown up again and again in literature, across many genres, including horror, science fiction and mysteries of all kinds. And it is such a crucial role that without it, in many cases, our heroes would not be successful.
To truly understand this phenomenon, we must take a closer look at what Van Helsing contributed. The threat of a vampire type creature was utterly unknown to our protagonists. Despite the broad range of experiences and talents the heroes brought to the table, they could not even hazard a guess as to the nature of what they were fighting. Van Helsing's role was absolutely critical in not only identifying the danger, but in providing the information they needed in order to fight back.
Let's look at some examples. Like so many of us, I too am a Star Trek fan. In my mind it was a series well ahead of its time. However, the idea of a character out of Dracula being a part of Star Trek didn't even cross my mind until I got to college. For it was in college that I first read Dracula. Only then did I begin to notice how often the Van Helsing character appeared in different stories. As Kirk and his crew crossed the universe, they were continually confronted by challenges completely unfamiliar to them. For the most part it was Spock who filled the role of Van Helsing, with Bones occasionally filling in the gaps. By bringing the disciplines of logic and science together, they often defined the challenge facing the crew of the Enterprise. This, of course, then led to a workable solution that would save them all.
So does this make the Van Helsing character the actual hero? Not by any means. Staying with Star Trek as our example, Kirk, our hero, took full advantage of the insights offered by Spock and Bones, and used this knowledge to fight on. It was his daring and never say die attitude that would inevitably lead his crew to safety. In short, the hero remains the hero. Heroes are not simply one dimensional characters, but bring several singular talents in to play. But it is the Van Helsing character that quite often lends a very important hand.
Moving away from science fiction, and into the world of crime dramas, one of the most successful series to date is NCIS, a personal favorite. Once again we find a diverse cast of characters led by a dynamic leader, Leroy Jethro Gibbs. As part of the U.S. Navy, they work to solve crimes and stop criminal acts related to the military, here at home and even abroad. A significant part of their efforts center around crime scene investigation, looking for leads left in the forensic evidence. In this series the Van Helsing character is almost equally shared by Dr. Mallard, better known as Ducky, and Abby, a top notch forensic analyst. Using the best technology available, it is quite often the clues they find that leads Gibbs to the right solution.
Then there are the books that I write. My hero is James MacBridan. He is the lead investigator for the Hawthorne Group, a law firm that supports a rather elite client list. While he most certainly is a down to earth, level headed sort of guy, the cases that he is assigned to continually make him question his sanity, while at the same time severely putting his nerve to the test. Without going into a great deal of detail, let's just say that he often comes face to face with things that go bump in the night. It is his colleague Cori Hopkins, also an investigator, and a priest, Father Collin Sherry, who take on the role of Van Helsing in these novels. Although diverse in the jobs they perform, together they give MacBridan the information he needs to meet the enemy head on.
Let's face it, even James Bond has Q.
So now you know. And from this day forward, no matter what kind of book you read, or movie or television show you watch, be alert for the Van Helsing character. Usually the unsung hero, it's an important role and it adds so much to the story being told.