Notes on Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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“The girl advanced and bent over me…[and] went on her knees. She arched her neck … Lower and lower went her head … I could hear the churning sound of her tongue … Now I felt the hot breath … the sensitive skin on my throat began to tingle. Then I could feel the soft, shivering touch of her lips … just touching, pausing. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy – and waited.”

No, not a letter to a men’s magazine, but an edited extract from English literature’s most enduring vampire novel – Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His was not the first, nor will it be the last reference to the sinister world of the ‘Un-dead’. What then is the novel’s perennial appeal 100 years after publication? One word – eroticism – and its subtle blend (sometimes brazen) with the ‘gothic’ has cast Stoker’s protagonist as the quintessential moniker of all that encapsulates vampirism.

Dracula’s subject and theme have been adapted by playwrights, screenwriters, advertisers and various cults since the caped seducer  was ‘conceived’ (along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) at a dinner party hosted by Lord Byron in 1816. (Memo, find out what was on the menu). The appropriation of Dracula has resulted in – among others – a counting Count on Sesame Street, Disney’s Ducula, a breakfast cereal called Count Chocula, Drac Snax to munch on and a filmmaking oeuvre that’s kept turnstiles ticking over since Nosferatu in 1922. Who could forget the actor, Bela Lugosi’s haunting Hungarian accent in the 1931 film version: “I am Dracula … I do not drink wine.” But a glass of AB negative would no doubt lift his spirits!  The book itself has inspired more film and stage adaptations than any novel in history. The British author Clive Leatherdale has characterised Batman as “the count cleansed of his evil and endowed with a social consciousness.”

The enduring nature of the novel (continuously in print since first published in 1897) is surprising when you consider its initial reception (with rare exceptions ) was somewhat reticent. A review in the Athenaeum (June 26,1897) was typical: “Mr Stoker’s way of presenting his matter and still more the matter itself, are of too direct and uncompromising a kind. They lack the essential note of awful remoteness … Dracula is highly sensational, but it is wanting in the constructive art as well as in the higher literary sense.” The same reviewer, obviously a proto Euro-sceptic, also took a swipe at the book’s readers: “The German man of science [he’s actually Dutch, referring to Dracula’s chief nemesis, Dr Van Helsing] is particularly poor, [sic] and indulges, like a German, in much weak sentiment … Isolated scenes and touches are probably quite uncanny enough to please those for whom they are designed.”

It appears this late Victorian reviewer and most of his/her contemporaries just didn’t ‘get it.’ Or maybe, in these post-modernist of times, there’s too much academic funding directed towards literary criticism. Marjorie Howes, an American professor of English at Rutgers University, believes Dracula’s dominant emotion is ambivalence: an intimate combination of desire and fear that “focuses on sexuality, gender roles, imperialism, capitalism, science, narrative technique [anthropology, psychology, politics] among other things. No matter what approach one adopts, Dracula manages to disturb.”

Scholarly critiques of the text along with Freudian and Faustian interpretations began in earnest in the 1960s following the publication of Maurice Richardson’s ‘The Psychoanalysis of Ghost Stories’ (1959). He argued that Dracula embodies the author’s repressed and disguised fantasies about incest and perverse sexuality referring to Freud’s Totem and Taboo  while, according to Howes, subsequent readings emphasised the doubling of Dracula and Van Helsing as alternate father figures. In this context, Dracula acts out the psychological derivation of the Oedipal complex.

Then there’s the capitalist plot reading: Franco Moretti’s Marxist analysis, The Dialectic of Fear (1983), considers Dracula an upholder of the Protestant (Stoker’s own religious leanings) work ethic. “Dracula does not like spilling blood: he needs blood. He sucks just as much as is necessary and never wastes a drop … Their strength [when drained ] becomes his strength … Like capital, Dracula is impelled towards a continuous growth, an unlimited expansion of his domain; accumulation is inherent in his nature.”

Further, feminist renditions as Howes states, stress that the novel was “preoccupied with gender roles – what men should be like, what women should be like and, most important, how they should be different.”  Stoker wrote at a time when “sexual mores were changing, suffragists were campaigning for the vote, [sic] and conventional gender roles were being eroded.”  Feminists assert that the novel represents Stoker’s response to the social and sexual rebellion of the late Victorian New Woman. The text is littered with references to “good women” and “brave men.”.  One of the ‘Drac trackers’ considers jumping off a cliff to avoid death in the clutches of the Count because “at its foot man may sleep – as a man.”

While one can become bogged down in the lexicon of literary critiques, Dracula, first and foremost is instantly recognisable as a good, Gothic go get ‘em: a genre that was acknowledged with the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). Simplistically, such a novel is typically characterised by good guys and bad ones. There is a modicum of violence and suspense set against an eerie landscape where a virtuous maiden is pursued and invariably held captive by a  tall, dark, villianous-type with erotic evil on his mind. She is eventually rescued by a tall, dark handsome-type with neurotic deeds in mind. Like marriage. He usually has money and the ‘unearthly’ powers of the villain are eventually reconciled with the Zeitgeist.

That formula, when applied to Dracula makes for a rousing piece of story-telling. There are the goodies lead by the erudite, statesman-like Dr Van Helsing and his cohorts; Arthur Holmwood;  Jonathan Harker, the young solicitor sent to do business with a “nobleman … in one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe”; Dr John Seward, director of a lunatic asylum; and the fortuitously wealthy Texan, Quincey Morris: avenging vampires is an expensive exercise. Duo damsels – Mina Murray (fiancée of Jonathan Harker) and Lucy Westenra, bosom buddies whose bosoms end up in the clutches of a blood thirsty super-natural, villainous foreigner who resides “in the midst of the Carpathian mountains [where] every known superstition in the world is gathered … as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.”

The cultural anarchist represented by Dracula appeals to the maverick in us all. A creature of the night transgressing society’s moral and physical laws, he is the archetypal loner, the alienated symbol gleaned from traditional vampyr (the original word is Magyar) legends and Gothic novels with their notion of the ‘romantic hero.’  But deep down, does Dracula relish the ‘outcast’ role? His ironical lament to Harker in the castle that he “longs to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death …”  masks the obvious that the people he longs to be among, are in fact his prey.

The bravado of the alienated figure, when confronted, usually reverts to cowardly, scathing contempt: “You think to baffle me, you – with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher’s. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you … My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.” Such sang-froid is challenged and in Dracula’s case, eventually defeated. He never stands his ground but instead, flees alone. He lies: “You think you have left me without a place to rest; but I have more.”

Stoker has done to the ‘gothic’ what Darwin did to Genesis: took a convention and turned it on it’s head! He orchestrated Dracula to be read as a Christian allegory; perhaps a parody as well. Can the count be considered an antichrist? offering eternal life if one drinks his blood. It is the interminable conflict between theologically-superior Christians and the sinister, corrupting subordinate of the devil.

Dracula, the wanton renegade, according to Leonard Wolf (Dracula Pan Books, 1992) “is a creature of the night, cut off from God [light] because he has chosen immortality under the sponsorship of Satan [dark] rather than of Christ.” This duality and its manifestations is a motif as old as time itself: good and evil; desire and fear; life and death; men and women; human and animal. The contest is continuous. One reason the novel has enthralled a century of readers is that Dracula concurrently blurs the boundaries between these opposites.

George Lucas addressed a similar discord in the movie Star Wars (1977). The force of evil, Darth Vader (read Dracula), against the all-knowing, righteous good guy, Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kanobi (read Van Helsing and his Christian-conquering heroes in Stoker’s narrative). Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia (Star Wars) along with Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray (Dracula) are representative of humanity. That is, the potential victims stranded in the allure of competing forces.

Wolf also believes that Stoker’s “adventure story has in it adumbrations of Armageddon.” Renfield, Stoker’s rabid servant incarcerated in an asylum (more of whom later) can be seen as a precursor to the ‘forefather’ a la John the Baptist. Renfield refers to Dracula as his “Lord” and describes how his “Master” tempted him in language Leonard Wolf compares to Matthew IV, 9: “All these lives I will give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!”

Some critics, including David Skal, author of V is for Vampire (Penquin, 1996) have argued that “the vampire in western tradition presents a paradox by simultaneously perverting and reinforcing the images and rituals of Christianity … Blood-communion, death, and resurrection are central to both the Christian faith and the conventions of vampire belief.” Clive Leatherdale proposes “that one of the basic lessons of the novel was to reaffirm the existence of God in an age when the weakening hold of Christianity generated fresh debate about what lay beyond death.” Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published the same year that Stoker began his writing career (1871).

If Dracula were nothing more than this, the novel could be regarded as an extended rendering of the St George v Dragon stoush. What raises Stoker’s primal masterpiece above most other vampire/horror novels and accounts for Dracula’s (D) apparent immortality, is the author’s brazen combination of vampirism (V) and eroticism (E). In a word: sex. Einstein might say, D = VE².  But Marjorie Howes says, “one of the disturbing aspects of the book’s vampire sexuality is that it seems to assume so many forms: homosexual, heterosexual, oral, anal, genital – it is what Freud called polymorphously perverse.”

Dear reader, read the opening quote again. You’re right. Fellatio: from the Latin, fellãre, to suck. Skal describes an interpretation that the “classic act of oral sex can be ‘read’ as vampirism if you correlate that the unconscious mind makes no distinction between vital body fluids – blood, milk, or semen.” Dracula’s preferred sexual practice is going down, not getting it up! The Freudian critic Leslie Friedler refers to such a coupling as “an adulterous union more intimate than mere copulation.”

Leonard Wolf doubts Stoker entirely understood the prevalent psychosexual allegory: “that there is a demonic force at work in the world whose intent is to erotize [sic] women. In Dracula, we see how that force transforms Lucy Westenre, a beautiful eighteen year-old virgin, into a shameless slut.” Says Lucy: Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come … (Translation: “Let’s do some horizontal folk dancing!”)

Not only does the sex hint at hetero. Howes’ evaluation, and many other academics agree, is “that Dracula’s sexual ambivalences revolve around male homoerotic desire, a desire so forbidden at the time that Stoker represented it as a monstrous heterosexual desire … At one point in the novel, Dracula lustfully lunges at Jonathan Harker after he cuts himself shaving: “the blood was trickling over my chin … When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away …”

The ‘ode to fellatio’ quoted at the beginning climaxes when Harker, waiting in a languorous ecstasy with beating heart  for the three female vampires to ‘do their thing’, is interrupted by the Count, who, seething with rage, bellows at the women: “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him … I tell you all! This man belongs to me … When I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will.”  Howes concludes that “Dracula’s oblique and anxious treatment of homoerotic desire connects the novel to other late Victorian texts which grappled with ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891).”

She also believes that “the Victorians thought of homosexual desire as a misplaced heterosexual desire; gay men were ‘womanly’ and their desires were inappropriately, monstrously ‘feminine’. So, the homosexual and heterosexual readings of the novel, far from being opposed to one another, are entirely compatible.”

Stoker had originally set Dracula’s homeland in Styria, a quondam territory of Austria previously utilised as the setting of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (more on her later). During his exhaustive research that began in earnest some seven years before eventual publication, Stoker stumbled upon The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), Emily Gerard’s examination of East European folklore. The title is a Latin translation of the present-day Romanian region of Transylvania. David Skal agrees that “the word ‘Transylvania’ is certainly the better choice: the region’s name connotes the sense of journey, transition, or initiation involving a descent into, or encounter with, wildness.” Stoker had found his hero’s home.

The notion of writing a vampire story continued to haunt the author. In 1890, Stoker met the eminent Hungarian scholar, Arminius Vambery: reputed spy, society man, orientalist and writer whose History of Hungary and travelogues of Eastern Europe and Central Asia enthralled Stoker. Vamberry’s studies on vampirism in the British Museum proved an invaluable source of primary data for Stoker. Dracula’s gestation had begun. In the novel, ‘Drac tracker’ Dr Van Helsing gains knowledge of the vampire from his friend: “Arminius of Buda-Pesth.”

If any one influence can be attributed to Dracula’s conception, J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, must surely qualify. David Skal regards the 1872 novella as “one of the most influential vampire stories ever written, rivaling only Dracula for the inspiration it had provided to generations of supernatural fiction writers, playwrights and filmmakers.” LeFenu used documented folkloric accounts from Central Europe on which to layer a very physical and psychological tale. Stoker had found a source of real inspiration. In Carmilla, the subject matter was leant an air of ‘authenticity’ being based on pre-existing peasant beliefs. Stoker now had a setting and the basis of a plot: All he needed was a vengeful protagonist.

Vlad Tepes (1431-1476).

Dracula is described by Van Helsing as having a “mighty brain, and to be an erudite of new languages, politics, law, finance, science and even of the occult.”, common traits that the Count shares with his historical genesis, Vlad Tepes, a Romanian ruler whose crimes against humanity make the Roman Emperor Caligula, look like a boy scout patrol leader. To say that Vlad ruled with an iron fist is something of an understatement: he ruled with a  wooden skewer.

Note: Readers with a delicate constitution or a phobia for shish kebabs might want to skip the next paragraph.

Mauuela Dunn-Mascetti in her Chronicles of the Vampire (Bloomsbury, 1991) describes Vlad’s reign of terror as “a rough and dangerous period … He created a ‘forest of the impaled’ which lined the roads to welcome invading troops and indeed all visitors at the borders of his country … Pregnant women, children, young and old men, were impaled, the sharp poles thrust between their buttocks, the body being pulled downwards until the sharp point appeared through the throat or top of the head … the wooden pole was then planted in the ‘monstrous’ forest.” Infidels and invaders alike suffered the same staked fate. Francis Ford Coppola recreated similar images in the opening scenes of his 1992 film, Dracula.

Stoker ‘found’ Vlad in a book by William Wilkinson, whose tenure as British consul in Bucharest facilitated his extensive historical research on Vlad’s various military campaigns, the notorious examples of cruelty and the treachery of sibling rivalry. Stoker was able to amass ample notes, parts of which were eventually transcribed verbatim in chapters six and seven of Dracula..  Tepes’ paternal father, a ferocious ruler in his own right, was called Vlad Dracul. In the Romanian language the suffix ‘a’ is added to the father’s name and adopted by his son. The etymological result is Count Dracula: The rest is history. This partly explains the readers’ macabre fascination with Dracula: Stoker’s leading man was in fact a real historical figure.

Bram Stoker discovered Wilkinson’s writings in the early 1890s. At this stage, he already had a composite hero in mind – Count Wampyr – with a working title of The Un-Dead. It was immediately before going to press that Stoker changed the title to Dracula.  As the critic David Skal attests: “Vlad the Impaler did not inspire Stoker to write Dracula (as is often assumed), but provided historical verisimilitude to a story he’d already conceived.”

What of the man who penned this epic? Upon the publication of Dracula, Charlotte Stoker, the author’s mother, felt the book would bring Bram immediate success. She was wrong. He survived Dracula by 15 years yet this was not along enough to see any of the remarkable success that his novel eventually generated. Charlotte’s son died aged 64 in near poverty at his home in London. His death notice states ‘locomotor ataxia’ as the cause of death. The consensus was syphilis. It was 1912: The same year a Royal Commission on Venereal Disease was established in England.

Born Dublin, Ireland, the third son of seven children in the year the Brontë girls published Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – 1847. Sickly and bedridden with an infantile paralysis, Stoker went on to athletic excellence at Trinity College and graduated with honours in science. He was, as David Skal affirms, “active within the Trinity Philosophical Society (where he sponsored the membership of his friend Oscar Wilde), and became a devoted and, public partisan of the American poet, Walt Whitman.” A theatre aficionado, he regularly attended Dublin’s Royal Theatre culminating in many gratuitous performance reviews for the Dublin Mail. ‘Spellbound’ was how he described himself to his young offsider one night, George Bernard Shaw, after witnessing Henry Irving perform in Two Roses. Within seven years Stoker was ensconced as second-in-command at Irving’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in London (1878). Bram’s long-time friend Hall Caine (the Hommy-Beg of Dracula’s dedication) later wrote: “I say without hesitation that never have I seen, never do I expect to see, such absorption of one man’s life in the life of another … with Irving’s life, poor Bram’s had really ended.”

In 1878, Florence Balcombe rejected the marriage proposal of Oscar Wilde but accepted Bram Stoker’s offer instead. The two suitors remained good friends. As well as being  a theatre manager, Stoker delivered lectures, toured with Irving’s acting company, sired a son and still had time to compose an oeuvre of 18 books of which Dracula remains his most popular.

But the novel is not without its faults. Dracula‘s(1992) film director, Francis Ford Coppola thought that “very few people get through the book … if truth be known, it’s very hard going.” He has a point. Victorian emotionalism and the latter stages of the book, the seemingly never ending chase, do appear to be drawn out. However, bookbuyers late last century wanted value for money and that meant pages; and lots of them between the covers. To today’s Nintendo generation of readers, Dracula may appear a little protracted but so engrossing is the bulk of the book that Coppola’s criticism is hardly applicable. Their are gaps in the text as well. From the clutches of the Count in castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker suddenly materialises in a Hungarian hospital: “not strong enough to write, though progressing well …[after] suffering from a violent brain fever.”

“A far greater defect is the [novel’s] weakness of characterisation, a rule whose only exception is the magnificent and convincing figure of Dracula,” asserts English critic, Royce Macgillivray: “This weakness is especially evident in all six of the little band of heroes pursuing Dracula.” The initial 50 to 60 pages focus on only two characters – the Count and Jonathan. They are given ‘room’ to develop accordingly but thereafter, Dracula is removed almost completely from the page, successfully creating in the reader a sense of the portentous. The remaining cast coast along ‘under the winged cape of the Count.’

The lest examined but in my mind one of the most illuminative of Stoker’s characters is the zoophagous inmate, Renfield (played by Tom Waits in Coppola’s film). Renfield’s aspirations are vampiric – he alone understands what the Count’s about. He ingests insects and spiders, and graduates to birds in an attempt to emulate his Master. It is nothing more than an enactment of sexual frustration: instead of blood, he must suffice with whatever’s at hand.  His diet and daily life under the watchful gaze of Dr Seward is graphically documented by Stoker with Renfield’s crazed actions pre-empting the movements and moods of the Count. Macgillivray believes “his [Renfield’s] simplest function is to tie together disparate parts of the narrative through his presence … He joins Dracula and his pursuers in a triangular relationship in which he heightens our awareness of their character and position.”

Had Stoker devoted more to the development of other characters, the ominous atmosphere that permeates the novel may well have been reduced. You be the judge. There is no reason though, why Dracula cannot be regarded as a canon of it’s genre and a minor (some might say ‘major’) classic of English fiction. Why not celebrate Dracula’s 100th birthday by reading or re-reading the book because at its core is a bloody good yarn borrowed by Bram, but transfused with his blend of the erotic and the Gothic. To paraphrase Dracula, quoting from Deuteronomy 12:33 – “If blood is life,” then this novel runneth over. A similar sentiment was expressed in the Bookman’s review of Stoker’s “hauntingly tragic tale of carnal vampirism” (August, 1897): “Keep Dracula out of the way of nervous children, certainly; but a grown reader, unless he [didn’t women read?] be of unserviceably delicate stuff, will both shudder and enjoy.”

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BIBLIOGRAPHY TO COME

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