For many years, I avoided reading Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Dracula. This is because many years ago I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s because I spent my childhood watching the old Universal horror films, perhaps because I was at an impressionable age when Count Chocula and Frankenberry were released, perhaps because I know that the origins of both books can be traced back to one seriously wasted night in Switzerland during the Year Without A Summer, but Dracula and Frankenstein have always been linked in my mind.
Frankenstein is not a fun book to read. It’s the product of an extremely clever 19-year-old mind. The prose is as dry as kindling, and there are scenes that are just laugh-out-loud bad. (The monster teaches himself to read when he finds a copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther? There’s that too clever 19-year-old again.) Not a lot happens in the book. Far from Boris Karloff’s hulking brute with the plugs in his neck, Shelley’s “monster” is a good-looking guy who wants to have lengthy philosophical debates with his creator. Dr. Frankenstein spends much of the book saying things like, “I am a wretched man for having created such a wretched creature and I am all the more wretched for wretchedly abandoning the wretched thing! Wretched!” Whenever I was asked if the book was any good, my reply was usually a simple, “Wretched!” Only H.P. Lovecraft’s incessant use of the non-descriptive cheating word “indescribable” matches Shelley’s use of this wonderful, but antiquated, word.
But Frankenstein is also a fascinating book. Whether she knew she was doing it or not (and I doubt she did), Mary Shelley created a myth that still resonates today. She was certainly aware that she was borrowing from mythology. Her subtitle, after all, is “The Modern Prometheus.” But instead of fire, Victor Frankenstein uses electricity to create life. At the time the book was written, the concept of electricity was fairly new and imbued with all sorts of possibilities, both positive and negative.
Shelley was writing a cautionary tale for the Enlightenment (this I strongly doubt she knew). Mary and her husband, the brilliant poet Percy, were champions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, among the first generation to be raised in the aftermath. But even while they praised the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science, Mary Shelley was writing a tale warning against the idea of men taking on the powers of God. Frankenstein is among the first novels of the Enlightenment, and it is a tale of horror.
If you fast forward to the end of the 19th century, you will find that the Enlightenment fascination with electricity and science and reason no longer carries the same weight. In the years between Frankenstein and Dracula, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, which turned him into a literary and scientific rock star. Electricity had been replaced with genetics and blood. Clearly, a new horror was required for a new time.
Vampire myths are probably as old as mankind, and Dracula was not the first vampire novel. Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyr (concocted that same wasted night in Switzerland, and inspired by Lord Byron), the novel Varney the Vampyr, and even a lesbian vampire novella called Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, all preceded Dracula. But it was left to Abraham Stoker to write the classic vampire novel, Dracula. The name itself is now synonymous with vampirism.
Unlike Frankenstein, the writing in Dracula is almost breathless. The story hurtles along briskly and, even though the actual character of the Count disappears from the book about four or five chapters in and, for the duration of the novel, makes only slightly more appearances than Boo Radley for the rest of the book, the spirit of the vampire hovers over everything. It’s no small accomplishment to make a minor character the entire focus of a lengthy tale and make no mistake; Count Dracula is a minor character in his own book. The major characters are those hunting the elusive Count: the stalwart Jonathan Harker who unintentionally sets the events of the novel into motion; Harker’s wife, the pure of heart Mina; the grieving Lord Holmwood; the rogue Texan Quincey Morris; the psychologist Dr. Seward; and most of all Dr. Van Helsing, who is both a brilliant psychologist and a little cracked himself. Also figuring here is Lucy Westenra, the fiancé of Lord Holmwood who becomes the first victim of the Count on his arrival in England.
The story is well known. Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to work out a real estate deal with Count Dracula. While there, he becomes a prisoner and all too aware that something really bad is going on at the good Count’s castle. He is eventually freed and, by this time, quite mad. While Mina diligently searches for her missing betrothed, Dracula is on his way to England, courtesy of the real estate deal worked out for him by Harker. Once there, he attacks Lucy and eventually kills her. Lucy then rises from her grave to become the “bloofer lady” who kidnaps and kills small children. Van Helsing figures out what’s going on and, with help from his friends, kills Lucy once and for all by driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head, and stuffing her mouth with garlic. The intrepid band of vampire killers then go in search of the Count who, unbeknownst to them, has turned his attentions to Mina. They eventually track down the Count, who flees back to Transylvania. Van Helsing and company follows him and eventually kills him in a very anti-climactic ending.
But it is what’s between the lines that is so fascinating here. Written in 1897 in Victorian England, there are scenes in this book that, with a word change or two, could have emerged from a letter to Penthouse. Jonathan Harker trembles with “dreadful anticipation” as three beautiful women go down on their knees in front of him. The passage that follows is a seduction scene, though because Harker is powerless to stop the women, it is also a rape scene. Jonathan Harker is about to be orally raped by the brides of Dracula, and he’s both terrified and cool with the whole idea. It is only the last second appearance of the Count, bearing strong words for his wives, and a half-smothered baby for them to snack on, that prevents the rape.
Similarly, when Lucy is having her blood drawn by the Count the description is that of a woman who is…well, orgasmic. It is not until the next day that Lucy appears weak and ill.
Harker’s guilt over the close encounter provides the thrust of the storyline. He writes of the incident, but prays Mina never sees it. Even though he was powerless to stop it, he seems to feel guilty of committing a sin of a sexual nature. He may not have been able to do anything to stop it, but the sin may be that he didn’t want to do anything to stop it. A foursome with three beautiful women was going to be the highlight of his trip to the Old Country. Realizing that he has sinned in spirit, if not in the flesh, his response is to go mad and get lost in the Transylvania countryside.
But the ramifications of his sin spread. Dracula goes to London. Mina’s cousin, the virginal, sweet Lucy is killed. Her Undead corpse then kills innocent children. Eventually, after Harker makes his way back to England and sanity, and marries Mina, the sin follows. Mina, too, becomes “infected” using Van Helsing’s word. It is the innocent women and children who must pay for Harker’s sin.
A quick look at the author shows a man who was very much a night owl, who slept during the day, who knew how to have a good time in the nightlife of 19th century London. In fact, that nightlife gave him the syphilis that later took his life. Was Dracula a metaphor for the disease that infected the author? Possibly. There is certainly little doubt that if Jonathan Harker had been sensible and stayed to himself within the castle walls as he was instructed to do, that many of the events that occurred would never have happened. Is it coincidence that Dracula chose to go after Harker’s friends and relatives? Surely not. London was a big city even then. Harker’s loved ones are paying the price for his dalliance with Dracula’s brides. The sin follows him, and infects those he cares about.
There is a question in “lit-crit” circles about whether or not Dracula is a romance of sorts. Certainly the popularity of the current Twilight saga is based on the notion of tween girls falling for dreamy vampire hunks. But whether the reaction of Dracula’s female victims, or Harker’s reaction to the brides, can be classified as erotic or, at least, sexual in nature, is something of a distraction to the larger point. Erotic, perhaps. Romantic, absolutely not. Dracula was a vampire and vampires are vicious, cruel, blood-thirsty monsters who seek death and turn the innocent into the demonic. If they happen to use time-honored seduction techniques (staring into the eyes, caressing the neck, etc), that really just makes them more evil. "I can love," Dracula says, but the love of a vampire is based on violence and death, consummated by a penetrative act that is a sick parody of affection and that leaves the recipient weaker and, eventually, either dead or monstrous.
Let the tweens reading Twilight suck on that.