Excerpt from Cruise Quarters - A Novel About Casinos and Cruise Ships

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When people sat down at Sarah Seldon’s blackjack game, they always wanted to talk about The Book. “Should I double down? Should I hit? Dealer, I know you’re a gambler; you could let me win if you wanted to. What does the book say?” She had never read this book, this mythical Bible for gamblers. The truth is there are 2256 books, each teaching its own foolproof winning system. But Sarah had been in the casino business long enough to think with a gambler’s mind. Gamblers knew they could follow all the rules of basic strategy, utilize money management and still lose if they weren’t dealt the right cards. The allure and curse of gambling was that there were no sure things. In the end it all came down to luck; gamblers prayed that Lady Luck would show up and that she would stick around for awhile.

#1 Cruise Ship Novel at Amazon

#1 Cruise Ship Novel at Amazon

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Everywhere you look these days there are vampires, whether it is television, books or movies, a few examples, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the phenomenon that was Twilight. Today I will talk with Steve Unger about the history of vampires and why they have become so popular. He has traveled extensively in North and South America, Western Europe, Israel, and Romania. His book, In the Footsteps of Dracula:  A Personal Journey and Travel Guide, 2nd Ed. not only tells the story of Dracula but contains many photos from his journeys. He has been published in numerous travel and bicycling magazines.  but he can tell the story better than I can. 

       How did you become so interested in Dracula?  Why do you think the vampire craze has spread so rapidly and what do you think about the new kinder, gentler vampires?

My obsession to travel to every site related to either the fictional Count Dracula or his real historical counterpart, Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler, grew out of a visit to Whitby, England, where three chapters of the novel Dracula take place.  I stood on the cemetery hill where, in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray spent hour after hour sitting on their "favourite seat" (a bench placed over a suicide's grave near the edge of the cliff), gazing out toward the "headland called Kettleness" and the open North Sea beyond—while Count Dracula slept just beneath them.
In my mind's eye, I could see the un-dead count rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide's gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.
The graveyard where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the ever-present North Sea winds.  That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.
At that moment I decided to visit and photograph every site in England and Romania that is closely related to either Bram Stoker's fictional Count Dracula or Vlad the Impaler—to literally walk in their footsteps and to write a book about my experiences.

'All Full of Tombstones':  The Old Church Cemetery in Whitby, England

     I think that ever since Dracula was published in 1897 (it's the 2nd most widely read book in the world after the Bible and has never been out of print), there have been vampires to fire the imagination of every generation.  Bram Stoker's original vision of Count Dracula was most closely represented in F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film Nosferatu with Max Schreck.
     By 1931 Count Dracula had already become urbane and seductive, as played by Bela Lugosi, but still unsympathetic.  Christopher Lee made him more Westernized and imposing.  But with True Blood and Twilight, vampires have finally merged with the audience's dream of what they want to see in their own mirrors (now that vampires cast reflections):  someone attractive, powerful, desiring and desired, and with a back-story that makes them not so much Evil incarnate as, well, misunderstood.

     The brutality of Prince Vlad Dracula the Impaler (Vlad Ţepeş, pronounced Tzeh-pech) in your book is so intense; why was that society so violent?

Vlad Ţepeş was a product of his times.  His father was required to give him up as a hostage to the Turkish sultan when Vlad was in his teens, and it was there that he repeatedly witnessed the practice of execution by impaling.  And although in his quest for power and dominance he impaled more Romanians than Turks, he is still seen as a hero for his part in later battles against the Turkish Empire.
A visit to the island tomb of Vlad Ţepeş confirms the reverence still felt for the historical Prince Dracula as someone who defended the cross, as opposed to the literary Count Dracula, who abhorred it.  The tomb is covered by a stone slab surrounded by golden icons and giant candelabras.  An antique lantern rests on the left side of the slab, a silver engraving of Vlad Ţepeş is at the center, and a vase of fresh-cut flowers graces the right.
On one of the church walls, below Vlad's portrait, is the following inscription (recreated verbatim):
"King Vlad the Impaler Dracula
He was a great European personality in fighting against Turkish Empire for Christianism.  His courrage was admired also by Turkish Army & leaders."
As I took in the medieval splendor of the tomb of Vlad Ţepeş, Father Bănăţeanu, the latest in a line of monks who for over 500 years have lived alone on Snagov Island to tend Vlad's grave, handed me a leaflet that read in part:
" . . . Prince Vlad the Impaler was known in all Europe as Prince Dracula; he was a great fighter against the Turkish Empire.  It is a strange story isn't it?"
I had to agree with that.  It is a strange story, even more strange than I knew at the time.

       What was the most memorable thing you experienced in your travels?

That would be Poienari, the real Castle of Dracula.  I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poienari.  But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad Ţepeş' mountaintop fortress at Poienari.  The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can't recall hearing the song of even a single bird.
The ascent was exhausting.  At last, I encountered a grizzled, elfin gentleman sitting on almost the very top step, who indicated with his fingers the amount of the small entry fee.  From there the lone approach to the fortress is by a wooden footbridge.
Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad Ţepeş, only at Poienari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch.  Perched on a remote peak near a glacial moraine in the Făgarăş Mountains of southern Romania, Poienari remains pristine and almost inaccessible.  Because the terrain is too steep and isolated to ever be cultivated or developed, there will never be a theme park at Poienari with scary rides and Count Dracula/Vlad Ţepeş collectibles.  Nor should there be, given the malevolent history of the fortress.
Thousands of boyars (nobles) and their families had been force-marched there from Tărgovişte to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble.  And it was here that Prince Dracula's wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.

                                                The Fortress of Vlad the Impaler at Poienari

*      What is the biggest misconception people have about the Dracula story?

In my research and travels I discovered two fascinating coincidences that link the historical and the literary Draculas.  First and foremost is that Bram Stoker chose to name his villain "Dracula," based on the translation of the Romanian word "dracul" into "devil," never knowing that the historical Voivode (Prince) Dracula he had read about was also Vlad Ţepeş (Vlad the Impaler), with a horrific and compelling biography of his own.
The second coincidence is the uncanny resemblance of the real Castle of Dracula—Vlad Ţepeş' fortress at Poienari, which Stoker had no knowledge of—to Count Dracula's fictional castle at the top of the Borgo Pass in Transylvania.  Situated atop a high mountain and inaccessible except for a narrow footbridge on one side, Poienari, in its time, mirrored Count Dracula's fictional castle at the top of the Borgo Pass almost stone for stone.

                       Steve, Where is your favorite place to travel?
I can never spend enough time in Paris.  Below is the "Vanity," taken at the Pére-LaChaise Cemetery.   

Mr. Unger was one of a handful of white students at a black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and a member of the Bear Tribe, a California commune that tried sharecropping, goat herding, and living in teepees—and failed spectacularly at everything.  These adventures and many more are described in his novel Dancing in the Streets.
He also wrote the accompanying text and Preface for Before the Paparazzi:  Fifty Years of Extraordinary Photographs, which includes over 250 pictures taken by Arty Pomerantz, staff photographer and assignment editor for the New York Post from the 1960s through the early 1990s.  Dancing in the Streets and Before the Paparazzi are available from www.amazon.com.