This ICHF was written by Captain Wordsmith, who you can find at https://captainwordsmith.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Art by Dan Hubsher, who you can find at HATERS GONNA HATE (hubsher.tumblr.com) and whom I heartily recommend. ~ Captain Wordsmith
You can’t talk Vampire Hunters without bringing up VH – ‘Ampire ‘Unters just don’t quite have the same bite without him.
For a man who gets little build-up (mentioned for the first time only a page before his first appearance), Van Helsing – Renaissance Man, Medicine Man and occasional eccentric – makes quite the impression; faced with what threatens to become Miss Lucy Westenra’s deathbed, The Professor introduces himself and proceeds to charm the patient, promptly wins her trust by taking her side against the well-meaning but deeply worried admirer who has served as attending physician to date (Doctor Seward, Van Helsing’s former pupil and destined to be the first of his key assistants), swiftly forms a comprehensive picture of her affliction and (crucially) is allowed to see the curious marks on her throat that will become his first clue to the True nature of N affliction that has begun to claim an innocent life and will briefly imprison an undeserving soul.
He does all this in fluent double-Dutch (English is clearly not the Professor’s second language, though given his polymath tendencies it may well be his fifth or sixth!), then proceeds to recommend that most esoteric and high-risk of medical techniques known to Victorian Medicine as the most appropriate treatment for Miss Lucy’s illness – a transfusion in the days before blood typing freed patient and doctor alike from the serious risk of fatal blood poisoning – a calculated gamble that happily restores some measure of Miss Westenra’s vitality; he then briefly withdraws to Amsterdam, his home base*1 only to return with flowers of garlic, which Van Helsing proceeds to apply to his patient with that same no-nonsense kindliness brought to the less occult elements of her treatment.
Yet despite the best efforts of others who love her and his own – so devoted he even gives of his own blood via transfusion, the third of four men willing to make such a vital contribution – the patient continues to dwindle towards a strange demise, bled so dry even her gums show white, those strange marks on her neck growing more ragged even as her teeth grow sharper and her manner more strange; the end, when it comes, claims her only a month or so before her 20th birthday and mere days (if so long) after her own beloved mother’s fatal heart attack – suffered during a home invasion under the most bizarre circumstances imaginable, when a wolf escaped from a London zoo batters it’s way through the window and the household servants are found drugged senseless.
Faced with this utter tragedy, a defeat partly due to the more eccentric elements of his treatment being sabotaged in all innocence by the late Mrs Westenra, Van Helsing suffers a fit of almost hysteric laughter while in conversation with his student and accomplice Doctor Seward, then recommends that the two of them return after the funeral party has broken up and (amongst other posthumous surgeries) sever the deceased’s head from her torso.
If it weren’t for the fact that all this happens in the pages of DRACULA (and that The Professor apparently has no previous history of mental illness), Doctor Seward would at this point be amply justified in finding a cell for Abraham Van Helsing right next to R.M. Renfield, on the understanding that he has cracked under the stress of his own failure and the pressure of shuttling between London & the Continent with a life on the line.
1* Although not necessarily his homeland – many an annotator of DRACULA has noted that the Good Professor uses a turn of phrase more German than Dutch (presumably because Mr Stoker was thoroughly conversant with neither of these languages).
Instead we, along with Doctor Seward, are finally given the insights that only now explain the throughly occult phenomena besetting Our Heroes (for John Seward the phenomena surrounding the tragic demise of Miss Lucy; for readers the lethal progression of strangeness to which we have been eyewitnesses since Young Harker drew nigh to Castle Dracula); if Modern Audiences find all this somewhat redundant it is only because Van Helsing (and through him Mr Stoker) does his work so thoroughly and so well that whole generations have grown up keenly aware of Vampires and their legend, of their powers and their unnatural thirst, of their habits and their undying depredations (or at least Bram “The Other Abraham” Stoker’s personal variant on the same).
Yet far more importantly than this, and at the root of Van Helsing’s identification as THE Iconic Vampire Hunter, we learn at last – after seeing Count Dracula thoroughly dominate lesser predators (amongst others), after witnessing the murderous cruelties he seems so effortlessly to accomplish, after watching as he quietly drives Mr Harker to the borders of sanity with some assistance from those Literally mesmerising “Weird Sisters” (most call them his Brides), as he reduces a rough-and-ready crew to that poor, solitary corpse roped to the Demeter’s steering wheel*2 and commands the very weather itself on a scale that approaches the elemental – we learn at last that not only can this apparently almighty Vampire be defied through application of the proper wards, a Vampire can be destroyed with nothing more than a sharpened stick and the exercise of human knowledge & courage.
2* Quite needlessly, as we later learn, since he apparently sails all the way from London to the Black Sea coast in a single ship without being compelled to take a life (repeating almost exactly the same journey); it seems credible to suggest that he killed the Demeter’s crew not because he needed to, but simply because he WANTED to.
All this we learn not through legends of a past age, but courtesy of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (who now reveals himself to be as conversant in the trivia of Grimoires as he is in the lore of medical textbooks) and through his actions after he confirms that not only has Miss Lucy been the victim of a Vampire but been made into one. Initially observing the Vampire Westenra as she takes the first steps of her predatory existence, the Professor (Doctor Seward observing) then takes steps to imprison her in the tomb that has become this predator’s lair, (preventing further depredations on the local children from whom she has become accustomed to drink her fill and then cast aside), before preparing for her destruction alongside those other interested parties whose help will prove so valuable for the remainder of the novel – and for whom this operation shall serve as indisputable proof of the Supernatural Threat they must combat – Doctor Seward (who at this point operates less as Scully to his Mulder and more as Watson to his Sherlock), Mr Quincey P. Morris of Texas and Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming (three friends who each loved Miss Lucy dearly, the last of whom was engaged to marry her).
It’s a brutal, heart-breaking business but rewarded with the knowledge that the Vampire Westenra will no longer be a prison for Miss Lucy’s mortal soul … and tempered with the understanding that whatever inflicted this condition upon their young lady will have to be run to earth and destroyed in turn, whomsoever that “known unknown” might actually be.
At this point what the reader knows and what is known to the characters finally becomes one & the same – the newlywed Harkers, returned to Old England from Eastern Europe (where Mr Harker has been recovering from a stay in the Hell of Castle Dracula), accidentally observe the Count in person as he stalks yet another victim*3, are persuaded to meet with Van Helsing and at last combine their hard-won knowledge with his own fresh intelligence. The Nemesis of Count Dracula begins to take shape from that very moment – Van Helsing can at last name his foe, can employ a network of friends drawn from across the breadth of Academia to track this name to its origin and use the long, bloody history of the Count to put flesh on the bones of what is known of that threat through personal experience (particularly the observations of Mr Harker), can begin to understand his methods, his mentality and his design … then lay plans for the utter ruin of Count Dracula and all his works, with the help of his own allies, friends & close companions, each now sworn to accomplish the Great Vampire’s destruction.
It is interesting to see that the more we learn of Count Dracula through the Professor, the more Van Helsing stands revealed as the Vampire’s antithesis; both of them foreign gentlemen of great intellectual distinction (even Renfield, confined to a lunatic asylum for an unspecified period, knows enough of Van Helsing’s pioneering work to make an informed compliment), each of them willing to go beyond the frontiers of Science as their generation understood it, each a strategist and a leader of men (though Van Helsing seems far more willing to work with Madam Mina than Count Dracula is prepared to take an interest in his “Brides”), each with a dominant personality and great power to charm, each with a history of tragedy (Dracula was a man once, before he became a Thing, and has seen his world reduced to a crumbling castle, to half-remembered memories of his past glory and the visceral thrill of fear he elicits in neighbouring peasants – Van Helsing has seen his son die painfully young and lost his wife to a madness that may well have propelled him into the study of our Human Mind, leaving the old gentleman with an apparently overpowering desire to protect women and a truly powerful commitment to the friends whom we learn are young enough to be his own children).
While the epistolary nature of DRACULA makes it difficult to say which of its Heroes is THE Hero (a common dilemma with works told from multiple points of view), it is not hard to see why cinematic adaptations of the novel have almost invariably taken Van Helsing as The Count’s particular Nemesis – quite frankly the two of them, these two strong characters with their unusual knowledge, their air of unwavering competence, their own slightly unworldly demeanours and their equal ruthlessness make perfect foils for each other (one on the hunt for a fresh Conquests, the other on a Mission of Mercy) in a way that none of the other characters can quite match.
3* It seems quite possible that the reason for Dracula’s apparent indifference to the fate of Miss Lucy was an inclination to go seeking his next “Conquest” … because Count Dracula obviously prefers to love women en mass rather than as individuals.
Yet for all Van Helsing’s genuine competencies his strengths are balanced by weaknesses vividly illustrated in his first direct efforts against the Great Vampire; whilst taking great pains to thoroughly arm his friends against that Vampire with modern firearms, talismans of faith, old-fashioned cutlery (we know that at the very least Mr Harker carried a Gurkha knife, the famous Kukri, and Mr Morris his bowie) and even collars of garlic flowers, Van Helsing at first fails to equip Mrs Harker to the same standard – despite prizing the fruits of her efforts to collate unambiguous first-hand intelligence from a confusion of sources and praising her to the skies for it, he prefers that Madam Mina not be directly involved in the team’s invasion of Dracula’s London headquarters – since Mrs Harker is, so far as we can tell, a rather petite schoolteacher it is perhaps not unfair that she operate as a staff officer “behind the lines” rather than a front-line fighter, but it was foolhardy to leave her unarmed & un-warded and completely unnecessary to deny her all knowledge of the campaign.
The most charitable construction of this unforced strategic blunder is that Van Helsing, perhaps fearing that those wards which failed to protect Miss Lucy in the end did so through their own weakness rather than through human misjudgement and sheer bad luck (interestingly Mrs Westenra was the innocent vehicle of both), preferred to throw all his energy into an offensive which was expected to distract all Count Dracula’s attention – a risk comparable to the one he ran when transfusing blood from no fewer than four donors without ever being able to determine their compatibility with the patient – the less charitable version is that he feared for Mrs Harker’s health & sanity, perhaps remembering the case of his own wife as he attempted to keep Madam Mina “safely ignorant” (though we have no idea what drove that poor lady past the bounds of reason).
Instead he left her fatally vulnerable, The Count slipped inside his enemies guard and did his appalling best to sow the seeds of their destruction by defiling Mina Harker with his curse – leaving her a sleeper agent who might potentially become another Renfield … or the latest addition to those Weird Sisters he had made out of previous victims. Van Helsing & co successfully curtailed Count Dracula’s freedom of movement even so (destroying a majority of the boxes of deconsecrated Earth that were at the roots of the Count’s power), yet they failed Madam Mina very badly indeed.
It is the mark of a Great Man to learn from his mistakes and Van Helsing learned from his unforced error – even with Mrs Harker compromised by the Count, possibly fatally compromised*4, The Professor refused to abandon her in England and was the first to accept (and gratefully accept) her idea of using the psychic link left between them by her attacker against the Count; as the Hunt for Dracula builds, Van Helsing continues to govern the efforts of the Hunters (with Madam Mina his constant guide and always with the steadfast presence of Lord Godalming, Doctor Seward, Mr Harker and Mr Morris at the front lines) as they race Count Dracula overland and actually beat the Vampire to his home country, despite Dracula’s supernatural boosts to the speed of his ship’s passage, thanks to excellent staff work from Madam Mina and the smooth running of the Orient Express.
4* Potentially fatal to far more than herself alone – Mr Harker, at least, promised to follow where she went, even along the Road to Hell.
Even faced with the realization The Count had cheated his enemy’s efforts to catch him disembarking, Van Helsing continues to prove equally resourceful – swiftly divining Dracula’s method and his course, the Professor assigns his front-line fighters to closely pursue the Vampire as the latter makes his escape along the river (supported by a troop of mercenary porters), before setting out himself with Mrs Harker to “cut the loop” (using a shorter overland route to arrive at Castle Dracula before the Count can reach his stronghold, intending to deny that Vampire his base of operations and the assistance of his almost-equally fearsome “Brides”); in the end this race between Darkness & Light proves to be a close-run thing, with the power of the “Weird Sisters” only barely kept at bay and Madam Mina only barely drawing herself back from their Corrupting influence – the Professor & his ally lose their horses to the “Brides” and with them all hope of escape, leaving these two mere mortals stranded in Count Dracula’s home country under the very shadow of his stronghold and right in the crosshairs of his most dangerous creations – almost alone at the very fountainhead of his enemies strength, an ageing scholar who cannot quite trust his closest ally, it is at this point in the text that Abraham Van Helsing begins to turn the tables and start staking out his claim to be the Greatest Vampire Hunter in fiction.
Unwilling to further risk the “Weird Sister’s” potentially overpowering Influence on Mina Harker, a very long way from his closest back-up and all too close to his Enemy’s most dangerous creations (each lurking at the very roots of her Power), The Good Professor proceeds to demonstrate why you DO NOT £^€& with A. Van Helsing without any safe word, soloing Castle Dracula like a Nintendo Belmont and racking up the highest “Kill Count” of any character in the novel who doesn’t happen to be The Count himself in the process – leaving three very old, mesmerisingly potent vampires shorter by a head and The Count’s very stronghold utterly useless to him as a refuge.
All this in a single day of “Butcher Work” and all without a single iota of certainty at daybreak that he would survive to see nightfall; while Van Helsing will not kill Count Dracula with his own hands, it will be his work that makes it impossible for The Count to find any refuge from the younger Hunters who will end his immortal existence after hand-to-hand combat with his Daylight Guards.
In DRACULA Bram Stoker makes Heroism business for an ensemble of Heroes, each of whom plays their part large or small – Van Helsing does not strike the first blow against Dracula (credit to the visibly mild-mannered Jonathan Harker, who does his best to brain The Count with a shovel and leaves that monster with a scar he will carry for the remainder of the novel) or the second (credit again to Mister Harker, who has learned his wife was assaulted while he lay in the same bed and therefore charges her assailant slashing like the Grim Reaper at harvest time when later offered the opportunity) nor is he even the one to strike the final blow (credit again to the indefatigable Mister Harker, who clearly deserves far more credit than he ever receives, though he will happily share Joint Credit with Quincey Morris – the latter having pinned down Dracula just in time to deny the Count a sunset boost to his powers); yet throughout the campaign against Dracula and all his works, it has been Van Helsing who has guided Our Heroes, Van Helsing who governed their strategies and Van Helsing who, in every respect, acted as the Officer Commanding their endeavors.
More to the point it is Van Helsing, first and foremost, who through his studies and by his actions offers the first conclusive proof that not only can Vampires be stopped they can be stopped PERMANENTLY – more to the point he makes it explicitly clear that no matter how Powerful a vampire may be, the powers of that creature have sharp limits … and that the physical, mental & technological powers available to Humanity suffer no such curtailment.
It’s a thoroughly empowering message and one worth hearing again & again – Monsters have Great Power to end lives, Human Beings have Great Power to Save Lives.
As the original bearer of such a message, it’s no wonder the Good Professor has become such an Icon of Horror Fiction and while this reputation owes more than a little to the iconic performances of the late, great Peter Cushing (perfectly described elsewhere as “The Sherlock Holmes of vampire slaying”), the literary Van Helsing is far from a lightweight despite being a much more amateur vampire hunter AND quite as blatantly eccentric as any incarnation of DOCTOR WHO … possibly even a little more loopy than that, if possible (even The Doctor very seldom has to start laughing so he won’t start screaming).
Despite a lingering tendency in certain quarters to dismiss Vampire Hunters as lightweights trying to knock down the Heavyweight Champion of the World (visible as early as NOSFERATU in 1922, where the Vampire successfully unleashes his plague upon the living and is only stopped by what amounts to an act of suicide but achieving it’s pinnacle in Polanski’s FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) and the somewhat more recent tendency to depict Vampire Hunters as the REAL Villains – arguably traceable to the late Fred Saberhagen’s THE DRACULA TAPE of 1975 and most definitely attributable to the Hollywood Vampire’s increasing identification as sex-symbols, rather than the sexual predator we see in DRACULA – any fan of Horror Fiction worth their salt knows that no matter how powerful a Vampire may be, Mankind has the armory to kill it and can summon the courage to face it.
You can thank Van Helsing for that (also for Werewolf Hugh Jackman, the gift that keeps on giving!).
Editor’s Note: Van Helsing, like Dracula himself, is one of those characters that honestly needs multiple ICHFs, because they change so much in adaptation and their adaptations have made just as big a mark as their original incarnations.