I have read little vampire fiction aside from Ms Kostova’s The Historian, the first Twilight book, and one of George R. R. Martin’s earlier published work, Fevre Dream, but vampires aren’t alien to me since they often pop up in other fantasy works as villains or side characters. Full disclosure: the Dracula I am most familiar with is voiced by Adam Sandler in the Hotel Transylvania films. I am intimately familiar with these movies because I happen to be the father of a young child (and also because Genndy Tartakovsky is a legendary animator and his works should be watched by everyone). Also, I have never seen any of the serious film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror story, though I have seen stills of Lee and Lugosi in costume.
… that poor pretty creature that we all love has had put into her veins within that time the blood of four strong men. Man alive, her whole body wouldn’t hold it.’ Then, coming close to me, he spoke in a fierce half-whisper: ‘What took it out?’
At the risk of spoiling a 124 years old story, Dracula is basically about a group of men (and a woman) reading each others’ diaries and fighting an ancient bloodsucking demon using the power of friendship. I am not even joking. Their efforts are heavily aided by their willingness in sharing their journals and comparing notes, a plot device borne out of Mr Stoker’s choice to tell the entire story through first person epistolary writing. It is quite possible that everything that can be said about this book had already been said in the intervening century between its publication and the present day, so I will mostly be sharing my own personal impressions of this vaunted classic as a modern 21st century man.
First off, I think Dracula can be shorter, particularly in the latter half when the Scooby Gang turned the tables on the Count and have him running scared instead. Rooting out evil turns out to be more a matter of tedious logistics and if you aren’t aware, it’s all to do with trying to guess at the bloodsucking voivode’s travel itinerary and locating the boxes and boxes of dirt that he brought over to the UK from Wallachia—boxes which serve as his weakness narratively as he needs to sleep in the stuff. And while I do have some experience with how effusively people express affection in some of these older works of literature, it is still a little jarring how much it differs from the modern stereotype of the emotionally closed up Brit. Everyone is just so trusting and accepting of one another that they immediately declare that they are BFFs moments after they have just met. I mean, there are 237 instances of the word “friend” in Dracula.
There are also 12 instances of the word “voluptuous”, but I digress.
There is an inherent risk that one runs by reading a story so old and so foundational to such a large aspect of pop culture. I recognised that there is a good chance I would be bored by it because I am not part of Mr Stoker’s Victorian audience who were party to the myth-making of Dracula long before those myths became codified in the collective consciousness of pop culture. And in fact, many of the descriptions of vampirism in the book comes across as clichéd to me (even if the reason they do is because Dracula was the progenitor of these clichés). I wonder how Stoker’s original readers reacted to these vampire tropes when they were still fresh and new. It is comical to me that a solicitor would make a trip to someplace literally called “Castle Dracula” and not bat an eyelid at that. Now, I am familiar with how Dracula have fangs, sucks blood, is immortal and undead, is able to turn into a bat, casts no shadow, makes no reflection in mirrors, can only enter a place if he is invited, is able to infect others with vampirism by having them drink his blood, is deterred by garlic and Christian symbols such as the crucifix, and can only be killed with a stake through his heart and beheaded—all thanks to pop culture osmosis—but there are plenty more I am unaware of. I found out, through reading this book, that Dracula is also,
- Able to control and command the dead i.e. necromancy.
- Able to control the weather.
- Able to control the “meaner” living things like rats, owls, bats, moths, foxes, and wolves.
- A more versatile shapeshifter than I thought. Not only can he turn into a bat but he is also able to grow larger or smaller (even small enough to “slip through a hairbreadth space at the tomb door”), and take the form of a wolf or even “elemental dust”.
- Able to exit and enter any space, even ones that are soldered shut.
- Not vulnerable to sunlight, though he has limited access his powers in the day—and he can only change himself at noon, sunrise or sunset unless he is at his grave. This is a stark contrast to vampires in pop culture who would often burn in the sun (or sparkle, depending on what sort of vampire fiction you read).
- Learned his dark arts from the Scholomance, an exclusive magic school run by the Devil himself in folklore.
- Only able to cross running water at the “slack or the flood of the tide”.
- Able to be killed with a “sacred bullet fired into the coffin”. What is a sacred bullet anyway? Do you take a bullet to a clergyman and ask for it to be consecrated? If so, this book is missing a scene where Van Helsing approaches a priest with a box of ammunition and a ludicrous sounding request.
- Weak to wild roses and if you place a branch on his coffin, he cannot leave it.
- Weak to the Eucharist. In fact, in the book, the communion wafer plays a larger role than any crucifixes since Van Helsing and co. uses it to sanctify (i.e. destroy) Dracula’s boxes of dirt, and at one point, communion wafer crumbs was even crumbled in a circle to form a protective holy force field. I can’t help feeling they should be carrying sacramental wine in squirt guns instead—which I imagine would be more versatile. And yes, those actually existed back in Dracula times. I looked it up.
The other risk one runs by reading an old-timey novel is the ridiculous levels of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that 17th century people wade comfortably in, and Dracula features some absolute doozies. I actually laughed out loud at a few points like when Lucy wrote to Mina asking, “Why are men so noble when we women are so little worthy of them?” Bram Stoker, a dude, actually put those words into a woman’s mouth unironically. And when Mina demonstrated her intelligence and resourcefulness to Van Helsing, he comments that “she has man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted” but still chooses to exclude her from their missions because she has a “woman’s heart”; a heart which “may fail her in so much and so many horrors”. It doesn’t bother me that Victorian men think and talk this way about women. What does bother me is how Lucy and Mina agree (both openly and in their private thoughts) that they are indeed “poor weak women”. Is this a reflection of the internalised misogyny at the time, or is this just a man speaking for women? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
I mean, where else can you read about a woman romanticising the act of men killing women to avoid having them captured by their enemy?
Think dear, that there have been times when brave men have killed their wives and their womenkind, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Their hands did not falter any the more because those that they loved implored them to slay them. It is men’s duty towards those whom they love, in such times of sore trial! And oh, my dear, if it is to be that I must meet death at any hand, let it be at the hand of him that loves me best.
Sure, sometimes husband-assisted suicide may be necessary to avoid a fate worse than death. When I visited Chittorgarh in Rajasthan, India in 2008, I was given an enthusiastic historical lecture by our guide about the bravery of Rajput women there committing jauhar (ritual mass suicide of women and children) to avoid being enslaved and debased by the Mughal invaders. I cannot help wondering how voluntary such suicide pacts were when even in the related practice of sati (women sacrificing themselves after their husband’s death), there were accounts of widows being tied to the pyre of their husband to prevent them from escaping. I find it difficult to believe that amongst all the women and children who have died a la Jauhar in history, none of them were reluctant or forced, unless those went unrecorded because there exists a strong incentive to portray such acts as selfless and voluntary in the in our very male-centric historical records. And once more, in much the same way, I wonder what a real woman in Mina’s situation would actually think and say, as opposed to her just being a ventriloquist’s dummy for Stoker’s own romantic notions of the idea.
And fittingly, Dracula’s coming to England can also be analogised to anxieties experienced by Britons over foreigners, whether through invasion or immigration. Drac even said he came for their women, to defile and enslave them,
‘…My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side. Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine—my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!’
Through no mean effort from our BFFs diary club, they successfully Brexit-ed the Count and drove him fleeing back to Transylvania from whence he came. Even so, the heroic portrayal of the Dutch Van Helsing and the American Quincey would appear to contradict the reading of a general theme of xenophobia, but perhaps it’s all about the right type of immigrant? Perhaps the wealthy Texan and the learned professional from the Netherlands is simply more desirable than the Eastern European with strange eating habits. Nah, that’s reaching. Again, I am just writing down my thoughts as I think them when I read this book.
But some unexpected descriptions of different nationalities in this book did give me a few good chuckles. For instance, the characterisation of the English as being violent,
He came in the train from Klausenburg, and the guard was told by the station-master there that he rushed into the station shouting for a ticket for home. Seeing from his violent demeanour that he was English, they gave him a ticket for the furthest station on the way thither that the train reached.
Or this weirdly reverent bit about Americans,
What a fine fellow is Quincey! I believe in my heart of hearts that he suffered as much about Lucy’s death as any of us; but he bore himself through it like a moral Viking. If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed.
And I like how even back in Victorian times, the stereotype of Americans as reckless gun nuts was already well established. In Dracula, Quincey accidentally shoots a ricocheting bullet into the room our heroes are gathered in because he sees a bat at the window. Later, he supplies the vampire hunting party with Winchester lever-action repeating rifles which “are pretty handy in a crowd” because of course the American would own a bunch of guns with a high firing rate that can mow down as many people as efficiently as possible. I was disappointed he didn’t bust out a gatling gun at any point in the book at all.
And since I have some expertise in the matter, I find the depiction of medical intervention in Dracula to be… anxiety inducing. I mean, they aren’t inappropriate for the time and physicians back then were filling up patients with basically anything—unmatched human blood, saline, animal blood, and even milk—with variable levels of success. The fact that they successfully pumped the blood of four different unrelated men’s blood into Lucy Westenra with none of them triggering a transfusion reaction is something of a miracle. It amuses me that just a mere 3 years after Dracula was published, Karl Landsteiner discovered that there exist different blood groups (winning him a Nobel Prize) and a further 7 years later, the practice of typing and crossmatching blood used in transfusion is established.
And the depiction of the “lunatic asylum” where Renfield was housed and where Dr Seward worked is sadly accurate as well, and to some degree, the depiction of mental facilities with padded rooms, manacles, and strait-waistcoats is still prevalent in modern portrayals of psychiatric service. But inpatient psych care have really gotten a lot more humane these days, honest.
Before anyone yells at me for leveling unfair criticisms on a 124-year-old book, I just want to head that off by saying that I am aware I am applying my modern sensibilities to the story, and I do this because I am a modern person talking about this book to modern people. I believe there is value in comparing and recognising the limits of what was considered acceptable back then versus what is acceptable today, and for that matter, I don’t believe that the bounds of literature are more restrictive today. If anything, things were more restrictive in Stoker’s day. To name another Irish author, when The Picture of Dorian Gray was published back several years before Dracula, it scandalised Victorian England and it was even admitted as evidence to charge Oscar Wilde for sodomy and gross indecency. Regardless, Dracula‘s power and importance to literature and pop culture remains undeniable and undimmed, and I am glad to have finally checked it off my list. I am glad to learn of the OG depiction of one of literature’s greatest villains and see how he had evolved over time. I am pleasantly surprised by the prominent role Mina Harker played in the narrative and how she was written as more than a damsel, taking an actual active role in thwarting her tormentor. I like how Mr Stoker wrote a book about a very dark subject which managed to remain persistently idealistic and un-cynical throughout. It is the granddaddy of vampire stories after all, and like many grandfathers, we recognise their merits and all they have done for us even if they are hopelessly racist, misogynist, and have outdated ideas about sexuality by today’s standards.
P.S. I am amused to find that the cover of my B&N Signature Editions copy of Dracula features the Caspar David Friedrich painting The Abbey in the Oakwood, which is also featured on the Wikipedia page for Gothic fiction. I also relied on the Audible full cast audiobook featuring, among many talents, Tim Curry as Van Helsing and Alan Cumming as Dr Seward. Because of the epistolary style, they have decided to have the voice actors narrate only their chapters (e.g. if Van Helsing talks during Mina Harker’s chapters, Susan Duerden would put on a deeper voice to speak his lines) but I think the book would have been better served if each of them voiced their own characters throughout.