An early 19th century discussion group composed of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, May Shelley, Claire Claremont, and John Polidori read ghost stories together, and under the challenge put forward by Byron they began to write their own scary stories. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein and Polidori wrote a novella about a vampire which was the seed from which Stoker’s Dracula eventually grew. Grow it did indeed. Dracula has turned out to be the quintessential vampire horror story, which I found to be an engaging read that was also uniquely designed as an epistolary novel (composed purely of journal entries, letters, and notes) that is often held up as ‘the standard’ of comparison for that subgenre.
Some Things I did Not Expect
A great deal of vampire and Dracula lore has developed both before and since Bram Stoker’s take on the Transylvanian count. We see this in the form of hundreds of books and films with variations on Stoker’s theme. No singular work seems to strictly adhere to Stoker’s 1897 novel, all are adaptions or re-imaginations. Which means that unless you have read the book, and even better if you have read it recently, there are many traits about the Dracula or vampires that in your mind are true but in fact have been superimposed or grafted onto the count. Stoker’s Dracula has very few chracteristics that make him what he is, which do not include an aversion to silver (let alone any special power silver has on diminishing his supernatural powers), or a means of vampire destruction via sunlight (sunlight merely limits his supernatural powers according to Stoker, it does not damage him). Another characteristic that I did not find support for in my reading was Dracula’s supposed seductive power (which was a major dramatic element and plot device in Coppola’s 1992 take on the count). By my reading Dracula is a terrifying monster with no appeal at all but rather with the ability to put his victims into a trance state (which they experience as a nightmare not an ecstasy filled sex dream starring Gary Oldman as the Don Juan). In that trance state he then deprives them of their life giving blood in order to sustain his un-dead endless life.
Another interesting bit I found while reading essays about the writing of the novel is the origin of the name Dracula. An early draft bore “The Un-Dead” as the title and Count Wampyr as the uninteresting name of the novel’s antagonist. While he was reading up on eastern Europe he found that the father of Vald the Impaler was given the title Prince Vlad Dracul (meaning Vlad of the order of the dragon). His son then became known as Vlad Draculya, or “son of Dracul.” As interesting as the connection of Dracula to a historical person is it is superficial only. Dracula was not based on the life of Vlad the Impaler, as much of it was already written by the time that the name was changed. It was a great sounding name that was associated with a truly horrible person, making it fertile for later lore development, but really, though quite conveniently, simlpy made for the best title and name one could ever come up with for the timeless horror.
Great Use of Old Ideas
Two fascinating metaphysical ideas are important in the story and in post-Stoker vampire Dracula mythology.
(1) One is the violent reaction of evil beings coming in contact with holy physical objects (plus garlic which is an old monster deterrent). The crucifix and cross are successfully used to deter vampires, including Dracula. The more interesting instance is the reaction from physical contact between Mina Harker who was infected by Dracula, and the host or sacramental bread which in the catholic tradition is believed to be the body of Christ, the very substance of God. See the excerpt from Jonathan Harker’s journal entry from October 3rd below, following Van Helsing’s attempt to protect Mina:
“. . . Now let me guard yourself. On your forehead I touch this piece of Sacred Wafer in the name of the Father, the Son, and . . .” There was a fearful scream which almost froze our hearts to hear. As he had placed the Wafer on Mina’s forehead, it had seared it… had burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal. My poor darling’s brain had told her the significance of the fact as quickly as her nerves received the pain of it, and the two so overwhelmed her that her overwrought nature had its voice in that dreadful scream. But the words to her thought came quickly. The echo of the scream had not ceased to ring on the air when there came the reaction, and she sank on her knees on the floor in an agony of abasement. Pulling her beautiful hair over her face, as the leper of old his mantle, she wailed out. “Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgement Day.”
In Dracula it was Mina’s burned forehead resulting from being touched by the host. We see this general idea enduring today in popular fantasy. In Harry Potter it is Voldemort’s host (professor Quirrell) whose facial skin burns up when touched by Harry (who embodied pure love).
Philosopher’s Stone – pages 213-214
Quirrell raised his hand to perform a deadly curse, but Harry, by instinct, reached up and grabbed Quirrell’s face –
Quirrell rolled off him, his face blistering too, and then Harry knew: Quirrell couldn’t touch his bare skin, not without suffering terrible pain – his only chance was to keep hold of Quirrell, keep him in enough pain to stop him doing a curse.
Though we know that this idea of keeping sacred things separate from unholy or profane and unclean things, is not new. We see that kind of advice in throughout Bible (both the Christian and Jewish scriptures contain such counsel).
2 Corinthians 6:17 (ESV)
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
Isaiah 52:11 (ESV)
Depart, depart, go out from there;
touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves,
you who bear the vessels of the LORD.
Making objects or one’s person sacred is what the above bible passages seem to convey. This is similar to what is described by Stoker, but creating pain in the infected or inflicting pain and damage on evil incarnate is on a different level than abiding counsel to maintain ritual purity. The idea that moral opposites are physically, or perhaps physiologically, incompatible is interesting, and is better paralleled in Mark 5:1-20. I’d like to see old examples of this idea that like Stoker take it up a notch by making holy things weapons against evil. Stokers use of the binary good vs. evil makes for compelling story telling and helps make the strange and supernatural more believable to the reader.
(2) The other interesting idea that grabbed my attention was long distance mind control/connection and the penetrating/sharing or of consciousness. In Dracula the mind melding was between the Count and Mina (his latest victim not yet fully turned to a vampire). This connection was exploited to some extent by Van Helsing helping the Vampire hunters know approximately where the Count was in his travels back to his castle.
J.K. Rowling again resurrects the sharing of physically separated individual consciousness in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Penetrating another’s mind is called legilimency in the Harry Potter world, which also has an opposite practice or defense called occlumency. It is a major plot element in the Harry Potter story where, like in Dracula, there is a hope that the protagonist group can use the connection to gain advantage over their enemy only to be temporarily manipulated and duped by the Dark Lord (or Count Dracula). In the Lord of the Rings those ignorant of the dark magic or so filled with a false sense of power and control end up (like the protagonists in Dracula and Harry Potter) being played as pawns (to varying degrees) by the evil, and apparently trickier and cagier, forces of darkness who shares rings through which he can see the wearer or through the palantír.
This is probably also a very old idea I imagine. Maybe originating with construction of demonic forces and Satan just before and at the turn of the common era but maybe it is actually older. Perhaps originating with capricious Greek gods speaking to the minds of humans. It is interesting but unfortunately I can’t think of any concrete examples at the moment, please let me know if you can.
Great Film Potential
As I read the story I was looking forward to viewing film adaptations. The bleakness of the Carpathian mountains and forests that hold castle Dracula and the dreadful musty and dark castles and mansions would be great fodder for cinematic creativity, with challenges of course. In addition the visuals created by Stoker’s story, the epistolary style of the book presents an investigative sense in the reader which would make for great detective discussions and chase scenes to break up the drama and contemplative moments that make up a good portion of the story. I’ll share my thoughts and criticisms of a few of the Dracula movies in another post.
All in all the book was highly engaging, but not in a page turner way (this is not Dan Brown). Some parts were ghastly and fit the ‘horror’ genre perfectly. There were several points that show how insightful Stoker was in getting at the things that terrify us the most. I’m currently listening to an audio production of the book now to review the details and storyline again. I rarely reread books or let alone ‘read’ them again in a different format. Dracula is sticking with me, I think, in causing me to contemplate a variety of ideas. It is indeed a masterpiece. Frankenstein will be next.