Why Bram Stoker’s vampire tale endures, despite its flaws.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first published in 1897, was not the first entry in literary vampire fiction. In 1820, John Polidori published “The Vampyre: A Tale,” a product of the same contest out of which also arose Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. After Polidori’s, other forays also preceded Stoker’s. But his remains the most famous, and tends to get most of the credit, surely in part because it has been so well-adapted. Just to say “Dracula” invokes for many the image of a black-and-white, cape-clad, fang-bearing man moving slowly yet surely toward his next feed. (For that, we can also thank Tod Browning, director of the 1931 film adaptation, and Bela Lugosi, its star).
But given what came before and what has come since, does Stoker’s novel deserve the renown it has earned as the essential vampire tale? Having come to it for the first time this Halloween season after an unavoidable steeping in vampire pop culture, I think the answer is yes — and no. For while it undoubtedly collected and popularized much of the then-extant vampire folklore, set the template for much of what came after, and bears an ultimately redeeming message, it is also somewhat inconsistent, limited by its presentation, occasionally achingly a product of its time, and in some — though not all — senses outdone by its children of the night.
The best case for the merits of Dracula comes in its opening section, which in itself presents many of the tropes and lore we now associate with vampires. It depicts the journey of English solicitor Jonathan Harker into the gothically rendered, mysterious land of Transylvania, wherein he must do business with the eponymous count. Herein, the advantage of decades of awareness of the import of the mere name Dracula serves only to heighten the dramatic tension. To see Harker correspond by letter with Dracula, to interact with him casually, only drives in the helpless horror one feels as Harker gradually becomes aware of his plight. The hints are doled out in escalating fashion, sketching out the nature of the horrible Beast in a manner familiar to us now but still somewhat novel — despite existing antecedents — to readers in 1897. As local peasants bestow upon Harker garlic and crucifixes en route, as Dracula innocuously reveals his strength and then not-so-innocuously betrays his blood lust, we both know what to expect and fear for the man who does not. Even a line born in the novel, but now nearly ubiquitous to the language of horror, serves simultaneously to informed-but-new readers of Dracula as a kind of fan-service and simultaneously a worrying discovery: When Dracula, referring to the wolves — over which he, of course, has sway — rapturously intones: “Listen to them — the children of the night. What music they make!”
First-time readers of Dracula see in this section and throughout the book the introduction of forms and formulas from which much of not just later vampire fiction but horror generally draw. Aside from establishing a pat example of the classic horror-film three-act structure — described by National Review’s Rob Long, among others, as: “(1) What is it? (2) Oh, there it is. (3) How do we kill it?” — the novel’s innovations and popularizations also come to the level of specific forms and characters. The vampiric aversion to Christian iconography, the post-death transformation of one smitten by a vampire’s bite, the method of vampire destruction — all are seen in Dracula, together and subtly executed for the first time. We also get the old, wise vampire hunter (Van Helsing), the doomed female vampire victim (Lucy Westenra), the vampire’s familiar, and, of course, the count himself, to whose presence and charisma — proceeding largely from Stoker’s basing the count off of his actor friend Henry Irving — almost all vampires in later fiction owe some kind of debt. Even the simultaneously alluring, frightening, and profane sexuality of the vampire begins with Dracula, whose title character seems to have a special preference for female victims.
Alas, for as many of the useful forms Dracula introduces, it also bequeaths to us some of the more annoying horror tropes. You ever find yourself watching a horror movie, beholding some incredibly asinine decision by the main character, and then yelling at the screen, begging him not to go down to the basement or up to the attic or into the woods alone? Well, these movies are firmly in Dracula’s company. For even in the opening section, of which I spoke so highly, these tendencies are evident. Though Dracula has dark designs on Harker, for a time he is under the count’s protection against other evils; thus he warns Harker not to enter into places in his castle forbidden to him. So what does he do? Bored one night, he wanders. “The Count’s warning came into my mind,” Jonathan admits, “But I took a pleasure in disobeying it.” Promptly he lands himself in a situation somehow worse than merely being Dracula’s prisoner. In a later part of the book, as Van Helsing leads a desperate effort to keep Lucy from turning, he finds his plans stupidly thwarted by the ignorant charity of others, ultimately leading to Lucy’s demise. Lamenting this turn of events, Van Helsing cries out: “Oh, how we are beset! How are all the powers of the devils against us!” No, Van Helsing — you’re just in a horror movie.
Other flaws of Dracula are rooted in its time. Epistolary in structure, the novel’s narrative proceeds mostly by hopping from one journal of a main character to another. As a result, those characters without journal entries not only tend to lack much definition, but also the nature of the story seems warped by its method of conveyance. Much of its proceedings revolve around one character reading another’s journals, or writing his own. And because the epistolary format denies a sense of immediacy — by definition, it is hard to write about something while it is happening to you, so virtually all of what we hear is after the fact — this method both reduces suspense and strains credulity. Jonathan, for example, while in the final throes of his struggle to escape the count, apparently spent valuable time frantically providing a well-written account to us of what he was doing up to the moment he attempted an egress. That this is one instance where suspense is maintained does not excuse the weirdness of this presentation elsewhere, and points to another defect of the novel: It is not all that scary.
Nor does it excuse some of the more unbearably Victorian attributes of the novel. Forget the various characters constantly fainting or suffering from brain fevers, and accept the benefits of the Victorian style — it is the women, particularly Mina Harker, who suffer the most in this regard. Throughout the second half of the novel, the men who take it upon themselves to slay Dracula constantly vacillate as to the level of involvement Mina should have in their plot, here wishing to protect her delicate constitution, there worrying that she might be made vulnerable in their absence (which does in fact happen). It is maddening almost the point of unintentional hilarity. Even those, such as myself, who try to remain circumspect when apprehending the mores of fictional representations of other societies, cannot help but notice the Victorian self-own this depiction constitutes.
It is for this reason that other vampire fiction has, in some ways, outdone Dracula. They do it in part by standardizing or refining some of the things Stoker left unclear or that seemed problematic for story construction: e.g., that, in Dracula, the title character can walk about during the day, but only in human form, whereas at night his powers seem almost unstoppably immense (he can teleport and control the weather and foul beasts, among other things). Or that the first vampire bite is not necessarily the sign of doom — it is possible to undo the curse. They also simply expand upon Stoker’s imagination, such as by realistically depicting a truly mass vampirism only hinted at in Dracula. Stephen King does this and many other things in his modern Dracula update Salem’s Lot (1975) (my Halloween read last year). King’s climactic showdown with his Dracula, Kurt Barlow, also runs circles around the almost anti-climax of Dracula.
Yet vampire fiction still owes much to Bram Stoker. For in addition to supplying much of the raw material from which later efforts were fashioned, Dracula provided the redeeming moral barometer by which vampire fiction ought to be judged. The vampiric aversion to Christian iconography hints at it, but simply stated, it is that Dracula resides in a clearly moral universe. Its heroes act on the side of good — and God — whereas Dracula and his minions are clearly diabolical. Subsequent vampire fiction, by emphasizing some aspects born in Dracula and downplaying others, often muddy this distinction. But this is a mistake. As frightening as these gothic horror tales are, many of them can, do, and ought to point to the reality of good implied by their depiction of evil. That Dracula does this, and did it well, is to its credit. And may well prove that Dracula remains immortal — even as we fervently pray that Dracula himself does not.