Set in far away Transylvania and Victorian England between the months of April and November, Bram Stoker’s original novel is a series of 27 separate journal entries, diary extracts and letters plus one final note, a catalogue of intrigue, horror and inhuman goings on. Together with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) it completes what might be called a 19th-century trilogy of original gothic horror written in English.
It starts innocently enough with a journey undertaken by a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, from London to Count Dracula’s castle in eastern Europe, and climaxes with the pale aristocrat’s extermination on page 447, ‘the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.’
Stoker’s ability to control the narrative from different angles using various personalities – Dr. Seward, Lucy Westernra, Mina Murray/Harker, van Helsing – helps build scene after scene into a complete and powerful whole. There is repetition in parts but it has a personal slant, bringing more colour and detail to the flow. Descriptions of Dracula are spot on. Thin,pale, with an aquiline nose and intense eyes. Picture actors Christopher Lee, Christopher Walken and Jack Nicolson as one character, in a black cape with makeup, and you’ll understand how alarming charm, hypnotic hype and malevolent malice can be perfectly combined. Little wonder Victorians were gripped when the book was first published.
Things begin to turn a bit weird for the reader when an already imprisoned, stressed-out Harker spots the Count climbing down the castle walls to his coffin in the vaults one night, like some demented giant bat. Add to that a sensual dream involving three women with ‘voluptuous lips’ and sharp teeth, who come to tease the poor, already engaged Englishman and you can understand why some modern critics contend that sexuality is a theme throughout this story. In fact, critics over recent years have gone much further and alluded to sub-themes of rape, homosexuality, misogyny and promiscuity. They see the act of driving a 3ft wooden stake through the heart of a woman for example as a clear representation of sexual intercourse, the stake being a phallic symbol. And the swallowing of bodily fluids and use of the Sacred Wafer, well, this could be nothing more than a parallel with transubstantiation, wine and bread forming the blood and body of Christ.
Religion apart, feminists have opened up the debate about male fears of female influence, especially in matters of sex, claiming that Stoker was a typical repressed Victorian middle-class man who loathed the idea of being dominated by women. Hence, he created the blood-lusty King-Vampire to control all the potentially rampant women but needed good, clean Christians – Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, Quincy Morris – to make sure the world didn’t end up nosferatu.
It’s fascinating to note that Dracula’s way into the new environment he sought – the city of London, capital of the British Empire – was via the mind of a crazed inmate called Renfield, under the watchful eye of Dr. Seward. Renfield is the conduit through which the evil Count channels his dark energy as he prepares to threaten the moral order of society.
Renfield’s diet of flies, spiders and birds, all taken raw in his cell, relate to the animalistic nature of the shapeshifting Dracula, ex-alchemist turned bat, then wolf, then corruptor of souls.
Whilst it is true that Victorian ideals meant much repression – women were supposed to be angels of the household, for instance, men in charge of matrimony – is it right to pin postmodern values – ok, our obsession with sex – on what is nothing more than a good old horror story? Since Freud and company got to work on the underlying energies within our psyches however, it’s hard not to dismiss these critical suggestions.
On the other hand, don’t forget that Bram Stoker just happened to be sitting in Whitby library (on the Yorkshire coast of England) one day in 1890, researching into east European history for his new book. He came across the surname of Dracula and liked it. He is likely also to have known that a short story written by William Polidori in 1819, called The Vampyre, could have been a portrait of no less a person than poet Lord Byron, the infamous womaniser. The horrendous crimes of Jack the Ripper in the dark streets of east London in1888 must have been known to him too.
All the ingredients were there. Stoker’s book was published with the author declaring that there was nothing base in it.
So, we’re left with the notion that Dracula is a book about a changing world, the possibility of a disturbing diabolical new order, obscene and irrational, without love, a toxic threat to the established norms. Sounds serious and all too familiar.
To counteract this evil all you need is garlic, a bit of wood, a crucifix, a sharp knife and a steely determined scientist from Amsterdam who says things like : ‘This is no jest, but life and death, perhaps more.’