BACK TO BASICS: SCARED BY THE VAMPIRE IN DRACULA

[This is long and contains many spoilers, be warned!]

Reading Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula with fresh eyes is practically impossible. Even new readers carry with them countless images of the vampire in fiction and film (and in many other media, even toys and food). Those of us who return to this bizarre text now and then do so with our vision also colonized by the ubiquitous media vampire, regardless of our previous readings of the text. I’ve tried to become, nonetheless, a reader as inexperienced as possible in my recent re-reading of this atmospheric novel, carried out in preparation of lectures beginning next week. And, to my surprise, I have found Stoker’s masterpiece scarier than ever.

In the introduction to my oldish 1983 edition of Dracula (Oxford’s World Classics), A.N. Wilson gently mocks Stoker’s efforts, sentencing that while “[t]he writing is of a powerful, workaday sensionalistic kind”, in his view “No one in their right mind would think of Stoker as a ‘great writer’”. I agree that Dracula is not in the same league as “Middlemarch or Madame Bovary or War and Peace” but, then, we’re comparing here different kinds of talent. Eliot, Flaubert and Tolstoy could never have written Dracula, for good or bad. And it does take a still poorly understood type of talent to make this weird vampire tale survive since its inception in 1897, after spawning so many other creatures of the night. Also, if you check as I have done, how many ‘original texts’ Stoker uses in each of his chapters to maintain the illusion that his gothic yarn is ‘real’, you’ll see that he did make a remarkable effort to compose his novel. This apparently extends even to his having produced a quite accurate version of how Dutchmen speak English in Van Helsing’s singular idiolect.

Unfortunately, the plethora of ridiculous American-style vampires plaguing us since Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, presenting one of the creatures as a Romantic hero, has done much harm to the vampire myth–I forgot to say that Wilson calls Stoker a myth-maker. In the original novel, as some commentators have noticed, Count Dracula is actually a secondary, even minor, character. His actions are narrated by others–his actual or prospective victims–and they always see him as a menacing, predatory monster; this is how vampires should be portrayed. Edward Cullen and his kind are, excuse me, idiotic embodiments of the still more idiotic idea that a woman might find satisfaction in loving a monster. Victorian Mina does find satisfaction in her Christian conviction that by staking and beheading her harasser the gentlemen in her circle may be saving the Count’s soul, but she is never in love with Dracula. To my dismay (and disappointment), when I explained in a recent seminar that there is no romantic plot in Stoker’s novel, a young girl announced that this is why she will never read the book.

Stephanie Meyer’s already démodé Twilight saga borrows its romantic plot from James V. Hart’s absurd screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s so-called Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). This well-received adaptation significantly deviates from the original by supposing that Mina is a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-lost lover Elisabetta, who committed suicide centuries before when both were ruthlessly persecuted by their Ottoman enemies. The Count embraced vampirism in despair but seeing her lover reborn in the portrait of Mina that Jonathan carries with him, he determines to win her back. What is baffling about Hart and Coppola’s work is that theirs is certainly the most accomplished rendering of Stoker’s novel ever seen on the screen. As I re-read the book, I marvelled at how exact some of the filmed scenes were, even despite the bizarre outfits (Lucy’s burial/bridal dress) and the strange tone used by some performers. Anthony Hopkins played Van Helsing right after playing Hannibal Lecter and something of this vampiric character is visible in his Dutch vampire hunter.

I’m going to list next some of the moments that make Stoker’s Dracula so scary (most of them well known) and try to figure out what factors are usually overlooked. Perhaps this is obvious to any reader but I’ll claim that the three strongest points of this novel are: Stoker’s grounding of his paranormal tale on the technoscience of his ultra-modern late 19th century Victorian England, the urgency in the swift race against time in the last third of the novel to save Mina’s soul by killing Dracula and, above all, a very deft use of the hypnagogic state of consciousness, that is to say, of the phase between wakefulness and sleep. The most terrifying moments happen when characters cannot tell whether they are dreaming or being actually attacked. I’m not sure whether Stoker wrote in this way thinking that his readers would read his novel in bed, but the scenes can easily generate nightmares if read before falling asleep. Give it a try… if you dare.

Here are the most horrific touches. In Chapter 2, Harker describes the Count who, incidentally, begins the novel as an old man and progressively ages back towards youth as blood nourishes him. Dracula’s “cruel-looking” mouth with its “peculiarly sharp white teeth” and his “extraordinary pallor” warn us that he’s no ordinary man; but what really scares us is that his hands sport “hairs in the centre of the palm”. When Harker feels their touch he cannot “repress a shudder”–could you? During his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan is shocked by how his jailer pretends that he’s staying as a free guest–when told that he can leave, Harker finds a pack of wolves at the door.

There are a few even more hair-raising moments. One is the sight of the Count creeping down the wall, “using every projection and inequality to move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall”. Another one is Dracula’s offering to his brides of a bag with something squirming inside which, when opened, releases “a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child”. And, of course, the death of the poor baby’s mother, attacked by the Count’s feral minions: “There was no cry from the woman, and the howling of the wolves was but short. Before long they streamed away singly, licking their lips”. Notice the concise phrasing.

The horrific events on board the Demeter, the Russian ship carrying Dracula to Whitby (Chapter 7), appear to be the earliest predecessor of the film Alien. If, as its slogan went, ‘in space none can hear you scream’, the same happens at sea during the Demeter’s doomed voyage as Dracula decimates the crew. I must also highlight, obviously, Lucy’s rape in the graveyard, witnessed by Mina (Chapter 8). Rape? Yes, indeed. Mina does not know about Dracula but we do and, so, her inability to clearly see what is going on is totally unnerving. Lucy is here sleepwalking at night in Whitby’s graveyard: “There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, ‘Lucy! Lucy!’ and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes”. Mina boldly rushes to her friend’s aid but, by then, the phallic ‘something’ is gone. Not from our minds.

Other dreadful moments colour the failed attempts to protect poor Lucy. Her mother dies of a heart attack when a wolf crashes into their bedroom window. As she dies, Mrs. Westenra tears the garlic flowers off Lucy’s neck, leaving her vulnerable again to Dracula’s bite-raping procedure. Lucy writes that “I tried to stir, but there was some spell upon me”; her mother’s dead body also weighs her down. Later, once Lucy dies, a victim of this paralysing dread, we find the most stunning passage in the whole book: Van Helsing’s stark declaration to Dr. Seward that, since Lucy is actually un-dead, he “shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body” (Chapter 13). Appallingly, Seward says: “It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected”. How callous and… chilling.

Lucy’s fiancé Arthur is initially dismayed but he soon proceeds gleefully to do the deed, with hands that “never trembled nor even quivered”. Instead of the shortish stake used in films, Arthur impales Lucy with a 90 cm (three-feet) monster weapon as “a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips”. Once the terrible deflowering concludes she looks her old pre-vampire virginal self, seemingly satisfied that her soul has been saved. Please recall that Stoker imagined this sensational assault as a straightforward horror scene, and not as a scene to show the men’s misogyny. This is doubly terrifying for us.

Van Helsing’s list of the vampire’s powers in Chapter 18 is far more daunting than any similar list of features in other versions. Here Dracula is “strong in person as twenty men”, extremely cunning, a powerful necromancer, and capable of appearing “within limitations” whenever and wherever he wants. Most vampires are burnt by daylight but the Count can walk in the sun though only as a vulnerable mortal. The film Nosferatu (1922), an illegal adaptation, introduced (I think) the trope of the lethal sun-rays (or was it the serial Varney the Vampire?). Proof that Dracula can appear as he wishes is how, once invited in by madman Renfield into Dr. Seward’s home, the Count attacks Mina after reaching her bedroom as a mysterious mist. “I thought that I was asleep” she records in her journal, and our horror is amplified because rational Mina cannot tell that this was no dream. The same happened to her husband, remember, in his ordeal with Dracula’s voluptuous brides.

Nothing, however, is as strikingly pornographic and violent as the scene in Chapter 21 when Arthur, Morris, Seward and Van Helsing catch Dracula in Mina and Jonathan’s bed. Harker is “breathing heavily as though in a stupor” and this is the revolting sight the men face: “With his left hand [Dracula] held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress”. This oral rape and/or bloody fellatio, however, is infantilized by Seward who reports to us that “The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink”. Some kitten, some milk… This is, excuse me, the climax of the whole story.

It is, in any case, Stoker’s merit as a superbly good story-teller that the anti-climax is also full of suspense. In their thrilling chase of the Count back to his Transylvanian lair (he needs to be killed or Mina will become a vampire when she dies, even if never bitten again), our heroes even take the Orient Express!! For, as we are told again and again, this is the 19th century with a vengeance and the vampire cannot compete with the rush of the modern world. And rush the gang of heroes do, all the way to Dracula’s crumbling castle, where Van Helsing indulges in more female decapitation (of the brides), and Morris finally shows that he is not a superfluous addition: the Bowie knife of the American hunter is the tool that stakes Dracula’s heart. Thus is his soul saved, as Mina wishes, although, perplexingly, Morris is also killed (by a gypsy henchman of the Count).

In case you’re interested, the word ‘blood’ appears in the text 115 times (‘vampire’, just 28). ‘Soul’ is mentioned 65 times, and the verb ‘save’ 34. Now here’s the surprise: ‘sleep’ appears 193 times (‘asleep’, 47) but ‘dream’ only 18, and ‘nightmare’ just 6. The biggest surprise of all is that the real keyword of Dracula is ‘time’, with 386 appearances; ‘late’ is used 60 times (‘rush’ 10, ‘hurry’ 10). And ‘train’, 36… they didn’t have modern cars back then. Characters rush here and there in mortal fear that time is running out and that they are too late to save those who risk losing blood and soul while they’re apparently asleep, unaware that they are actually under attack by a monstrous vampire. This gives Dracula its amazing tension, its terse suspense, and its huge capacity to scare.

Step aside, Cullen and company.

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