By JOHN J. MILLER
The Wall Street Journal
October 28, 2008
"There are such things as vampires," says Dr. Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." The famous line comes about two-thirds of the way into the story, but it hardly delivers the punch of a staggering revelation. By the time Van Helsing utters it, the book's other characters essentially have figured out the weird truth for themselves.
Readers know even more. Does anybody pick up a copy of "Dracula" these days without first realizing it's about a supernatural bloodsucker from Transylvania? Or were you expecting a spoiler alert?
This is a challenge for a lot of classic books: The stories are so familiar that their twists and turns fail to shock or awe. Yet the publisher W.W. Norton & Co. seems to have found a commercially viable way out of this fix, with a series of annotated volumes that perform the marketing miracle of making the old seem new again. The latest, "The New Annotated Dracula," is out just in time for Halloween.
A novel such as "Dracula" still possesses plenty of well-told pleasures. An early scene in which its iconic antihero climbs out a window and crawls headfirst down a castle wall remains one of the creepiest in English literature. Yet it's the exceedingly rare reader who will scratch his head in bewilderment when Van Helsing breaks out the crucifixes and garlic.
Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of "The New Annotated Dracula," nevertheless manages to enliven the experience of reading about the world's most famous undead white male. Like a movie studio that adds "bonus features" to a DVD, Norton includes extensive commentaries in "The New Annotated Dracula" and even offers what appears to be a genuine literary discovery: The volume describes a previously unknown "alternate ending" to the 1897 text.
"The New Annotated Dracula" probably wouldn't exist but for the success of several predecessors. Annotations aren't exactly an innovation, of course, and many publishers have glossed the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of "Paradise Lost" for college students. Norton's breakthrough idea was to produce lavish volumes full of illustrations, essays, appendices, and discursive footnotes for general readers.
A decade ago, Robert Weil, an editor at Norton, conceived of "The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition." It brought together Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass," combining and updating previous annotations by Martin Gardner, a renowned Carroll expert. "Our goal was to publish a beautiful book that would allow adults to relive a classic that they knew as children and to understand it in a new way," says Mr. Weil.
"The Annotated Alice" became a hit whose steady sales make it a back-list superstar for the publisher. Norton has gone on to try the same tack with annotated editions of more than a dozen other titles, such as "The Wizard of Oz," "Huckleberry Finn" and "A Christmas Carol." Forthcoming editions include "The Wind in the Willows," "Peter Pan" and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
Norton says its first printing of "The New Annotated Dracula" will number about 50,000 copies -- a healthy run for an oversized, 613-page book. Even so, it's a lightweight compared to "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes," three volumes totaling more than 2,700 pages, also edited by Mr. Klinger.
By day, Mr. Klinger is a Los Angeles tax attorney with clients in the entertainment industry. By night, he turns his attention to genre literature. When he finished working on the Holmes books, he cast around for a similar project. His wife suggested "Dracula," which made sense because it, too, was a product of late-Victorian Britain whose central character had achieved a legendary status in popular culture -- an inspiration for everything from the movies to the Muppets.
In his book, Mr. Klinger does what annotators do. He defines obscure words and terms. He conveys little-known trivia, such as Stoker's consideration of "The Un-Dead" or "The Dead Un-Dead" as potential titles. And he proposes offbeat interpretations. Is it possible, for instance, that Quincey Morris, one of Van Helsing's vampire hunters, is secretly in league with Dracula? Stoker almost certainly didn't intend it, but a careful probing of the text leaves open this intriguing prospect.
In the vast body of amateur scholarship on Sherlock Holmes, there's a tradition of pretending that Holmes was a real person and that Arthur Conan Doyle was not a writer of fictional stories but an actual biographer. Mr. Klinger takes the same approach with "Dracula," with results that will amuse some and annoy others. "You don't have to buy into my crackpot suggestion," he says. "But the idea is to help the reader have fun."
In researching "Dracula," Mr. Klinger had to perform detective work that would do Holmes proud. Stoker left behind not only his published manuscript, but also extensive drafts and notes that provide glimpses of how his ideas about the novel evolved over several years -- rich source material for any annotator. One of the key texts is a 541-page manuscript that turned up in a Pennsylvania barn some years ago. Few people have laid eyes on it, and Mr. Klinger tried to contact its anonymous owner through Christie's, the auction house.
That effort initially failed, though the private collector ultimately approached Mr. Klinger through an intermediary and invited him to spend two days with the manuscript. Mr. Klinger had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but this summer he received permission to identify the mysterious owner: Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.
Mr. Klinger draws extensively from this document, and the greatest payoff comes in the last chapter, when he reveals an ending different from the one Stoker put into print. The lost scene shows up in Mr. Allen's manuscript, but not in the novel as it was finally published. It takes place in Transylvania and involves a massive explosion. Saying more would spoil the surprise.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review.