As with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula to be one of those novels that defines the genre of gothic horror. The difference is that this was actually written and published during the gothic-revival era, and it actually was a horror novel.
Bram Stoker is often credited as having created the modern vampire subgenre, though he most certainly stood on the shoulders of others to do so, with much of his inspiration taken from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla. When this novel was being conceived, Stoker was the business manager of the world famous Lyceum Theatre, supplementing his income with sensational novels in the style of his friends and contemporaries. The British Empire was at its height, and invasion literature was all the rage. But for whatever reason, Stoker could never achieve the success of those he sought to emulate, such as H. Rider Haggard or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Dracula would not achieve the notoriety and fame it’s known for until after his death with the advent of film. Indeed, it was in the silent era with F. W. Murnau’s 1922 unauthorized adaptation Nosferatu that the novel achieved any kind of fame at all, in large part due to the controversy of the lawsuit filed by Stoker’s widow. Nothing sells quite like scandal. After that, all bets are off, for Dracula himself is the most filmed character in history, with Sherlock Holmes trailing slightly behind and gaining ground all the time. The book has not been out of print since Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count in 1931. Dracula is also the single most inspirational work in the whole of literature in terms of flattery-by-imitation, having inspired the most multimedia spinoffs from film and television to the theatrical stage, to say nothing of music, art, and the plethora of vampire novels that are cranked out in rapid succession year after year after year. As with the fantasy genre and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, the vampire subgenre, regardless of medium, writes in the shadow of Stoker, either in emulation of it, or in conscious avoidance. That’s power beyond imagination, making Dracula one of the true cornerstones of modern popular culture.
This book is told through the diary entries, letters, and phonograph recordings of the characters, which always gives it for me an air of verisimilitude. This epistolary format isn’t something that I’m typically a big fan of, but it works for here.
To my mind, there are four sections, though perceptions may vary reader to reader as these aren’t clearly delineated as they are in Frankenstein. The first comprises the first four chapters, wherein Jonathan Harker embarks to Castle Dracula and is subsequently held prisoner by the vampire. It is in my belief some of the most incredible gothic writing imaginable. The atmosphere is practically a character. I often hold these chapters up as the measuring stick by which I compare all other horror writings. If only Stoker had been as consistent as Mary Shelley. Even so, the other three sections are still well written, if melodramatic in the extreme. If I’m being honest, that might be one of the things I like about it. The second section deal with the Count’s arrival in London and meeting the primary characters as Lucy grows sick. Section three kicks in with the entry of Dr. Van Helsing, wherein the characters are made to come to terms with the idea of a vampire in their midst. Then the final section recounts the pursuit of the monster and the attempt to save Mina from Lucy’s fate.
For those who want to dig beneath the surface of the simple adventures story, the literary implications of Dracula range from the amusing to the depressing, all of which are a direct reflection of the writer and his times. As I mentioned, invasion literature was popular at this point, and Dracula reflects the fear of European cultural influence and racial mixing that an empire the size of Britain would engender. The vampire’s “kiss of death” is a blatant parallel for sexual penetration, which is no doubt a good reason for the subgenre’s popularity and the glut of horrible romance novels within the subgenre. Certainly Dracula himself has been prone to these revisions, as many adaptions of this story include a subplot of a love affair between the Count and Mina. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Again, it’s a matter of perspective, but it’s one that Stoker didn’t include. Some see Count Dracula as the embodiment of robber-baron capitalism, which was rampant in that era.
A big theme in Dracula is the power and righteousness of Roman Catholicism, which plays right into the invasion of European Protestantism or even paganism, depending on how far you want to read into it. Many have accused Stoker of being an anti-Semite, with Dracula being synonymous with the Jewish peoples. It’s not explicit, but the accusation is strong enough that if you take a look at the 1931 film version, Bela Lugosi wears a Star of David around his neck.
I often wonder if that’s a reflection of Stoker, a reflection of director Tod Browning, or just one of those curious happenstances that lined up without anyone being conscious of it until after the fact. It’s one of those sad cases where what is seen cannot be unseen, and it floats in the back of my head every time I encounter this tale, no matter how hard I try to overlook it.
Regardless, the message is more pro-Catholic than anti- anything else, with Van Helsing and his band being modern day “knights of the Cross” and Mina substituting for the Virgin Mary. This comparison to the Crusaders is part and parcel with the ideals of the gothic-revival movement of that time, wherein the romance of the High Middle Ages was put on display at all turns as part of Britian’s imperial propaganda. I actually think this parallel is what made Stoker write for Mina so well, for in my mind, she’s perhaps the strongest character in the book, both in terms of quality of writing and in spiritual strength despite her “uncleanliness” throughout the novel’s big buildup and climax.
What’s most curious to me is the line of connection Stoker draws to the historical Vlad III, or Vlad Tepes, aka “The Impaler.” Dracula is derived from the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order of the 15th century of which the Impaler’s father was a part. Vlad III is heralded in his native Wallachia as a folk hero and Christian martyr, but in keeping with the gothic-revival message of the time, it should be noted that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is not Catholicism, a fundamental split that was both prominent and destructive throughout the Crusades and the whole of the Middle Ages. It makes me wonder if maybe that Star of David around Lugosi’s neck should have been an eight-pointed star as depicted in the portrait of the Impaler, and maybe they figured nobody would notice?
Sadly, I doubt it. But it’s fun to think about. It wouldn’t be until Francis Ford Coppola directed his Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that the direct link to Vlad Tepes would be explored. If you get the chance, look up ol’ Vlad sometime. His life story is certainly crazy enough on its own, a perfect example of fact being stranger than fiction. When you factor in the circumstances of his death and rumors of his “rise from the grave,” it really is a short trip for the mind to connect the dots to Stoker’s vampire.
Maybe it’s that connection that makes me enjoy the book more than I should. I’ve always loved this story on its own. Indeed, I am such a proponent of Dracula that I view all other vampire stories through that lens and find most of them wanting. But then you add in that extra dash of historical jiggery-pokery that Stoker only hinted at, it really kicks my imagination up a few notches. Maybe that’s the point. Is it possible to read Dracula on its own anymore, separate from all else bearing that name? Or is it simply now part of the fabric of the far larger whole that we associate with the vampire? I don’t have that question with Frankenstein. How odd.