“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some imaginative whirlpool; if so, my stay may be interesting.”
One day in August 1890, Bram Stoker strolled around an historic, and atmospheric seaside village on the wild, and tempestuous North Yorkshire coast of England called Whitby. It`s houses clung like barnacles onto the steep headland around a small, but vibrant fishing port: high upon what seemed the cloud topped seat of heaven, stood the gaunt remains of an ancient abbey, and a sombre, brooding church surrounded by the countless graves of the communal dead, and of drowned corpses which had been recovered and planted in good, sacred English earth to rest for all eternity.
However, that morning, Stoker stopped on the Quay at an open area known as Coffee House End, and spotted the small local library, which he sauntered into and happened upon a book which would change the course of his life, and sow the seeds of one of literature`s greatest, and most enduring legends.
He opened a book by a former British consul in Bucharest called William Wilkinson, entitled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with various Political Observations Relating to Them. Published in 1820, it recorded Wilkinson`s experiences in these two principalities remote from the modern world, in what would later become Romania. Stoker read a potted history of the region and it`s most note worthy characters: an interesting mention is made of a 15th century prince known as Dracula; adding in a footnote, that “Dracula” in the Wallachian language means Devil.
This could signify that Dracula was courageous, cunning, or just plain cruel and heartless: whatever he may have been, Dracula had made himself conspicuous by his actions on the local mythology.
The significance of this discovery is apparent when we realise that Stoker was working on a vampire novel, which he had conventionally set in Austria, and had called his central protagonist by the unimaginative name of Count Vampyr.
Bram Stoker`s visit to Whitby changed the course of his life: he spent six further years polishing up his novel before it`s publication in 1897; time spent on researching the landscape, culture and customs of Transylvania. The history, salty sea tales from local ancient mariners, the abbey ruins, windswept churchyard and the incomparable atmosphere, of geographical isolation and violence of rain lashed sea breakers crashing against the cliffs and harbour defences, opened his eyes to fresh possibilities, and became new ingredients in an enriched story growing in his mind.
Of course, Dracula was not the first vampire novel, but the central evil at the core of it`s story is of such a substantially vigorous physical and intellectual presence, that it sometimes seems astounding that he comes to Britain after making such immaculate and precise plans of world domination, only to come unstuck by a sexual infatuation with the wife of a provincial solicitor. His ultimate downfall is far too easy once his plans quickly unravel after clapping eyes on Mina Harker: this may be the profound misogyny at the core of Victorian society rearing it`s ugly head; women are dangerous and unpredictable creatures for men to be around, and need to be constrained and controlled at all times. Their infinite capacity to derail and upset the plans of the best of men by just being a woman is a perpetual cause for concern to Victorian menfolk.
Harker`s encounter with Dracula`s vampiric harem in his castle keep seems to be a fine example of Victorian concerns about the consequences to male weakness when confronted by feminine charms………..
“The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal….I could feel the soft shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there.”
It seems that as soon as the stricken Demeter arrives in the harbour at the head of a colossal storm, abandoned by it`s crew except for the captain lashed to the steering wheel by a rosary, Victorian masculinity is in danger from female hormones, which turn out to be more dangerous to Dracula than a stake through the heart.
As the storm rages, a massive dog bounds from the destroyed ship and disappears up the steps to the headland: Lucy starts to sleep walk and is bitten on the neck by “….a dark figure with a white face and red gleaming eyes” in the churchyard on one of her nocturnal ramblings. Once the Count locks eyes with Lucy`s friend Mina, he quickly loses the plot and allows himself to be hunted down by his enemies.
Dracula doesn`t have much of an origin story, there are gaps to be filled in: for the reader, he only exists in “the moment” of his attempt to take Mina as his consort of the undead. This has led to countless re-imaginings and spin-offs of the legend coming into play. Books have been written, movies and television series made with Dracula as their inspiration: some even give us the intriguing possibility of Mina Harker “living” on as a vampiric dominatrix.
“The Draculas….. were a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance , among the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt , where the Devil claims the tenth scholar as his due…”
Dracula sold his soul in order to gain dark knowledge and eternal “life”.
Dracula`s nemesis, Van Helsing, pays Mina the greatest compliment a Victorian gentleman could ever give a woman while helping her struggle against Dracula`s malign influence………..
“She has a man`s brain–a brain that a man should have were he much gifted–and woman`s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me when He made that so good combination.”
By the time a physically broken Jonathan returns to his wife, Mina is turning into one of the “things” he narrowly escaped from back in Transylvania…………
“To one thing I have made up my mind. If we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she will not go into the terrible and unknown land alone. I suppose it is thus in old times one vampire meant many…..so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks……”
This beautiful turn of phrase introduces one of the most common terms of figurative language in modern literature: What to do, and what does it mean if I love a vampire? Jonathan seems to be telling us that he would follow his wife to hell to be with her…………But in the meantime, he would try his damndest to make sure it didn`t happen. He was ready to kick vampire ass.
Bram Stoker`s Dracula is not the fey, anaemic bloodsuckers of Twilight: he was a ruby lipped, ancient primal horror, who corrupted the tender flower of Victorian womanhood, murdered with impunity and without remorse, and who threatened the heart and values of empire itself.
“And so you, like the others, would play your brains against mine. You would help these men to hunt me and frustrate me in my designs! You know now, and they know in part already, and you will know in full before long, what it is to cross my path. They should have kept their energies for use closer to home. Whilst they played wits against me-against me who commanded nations, and intrigued for them, and fought for them, hundreds of years before they were born-I was countermining them. And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful wine-press for a while; and shall later on be my companion and my helper. You shall be avenged in turn; for not one of them but shall minister to your needs. You have aided in thwarting me; now you shall come to my call.”
Dracula fuses together folklore, myth, scientific reason, rationalism, psychiatry, anthropology and so on and so on……..It is a Gothic frightfest and gargantuan smorgasbord to rival Mary Shelley`s Frankenstein in it`s manipulation of the imagination.
It`s imperfect: it leaves lots of questions unanswered, which is up to the reader to find and deal with them; but it measures up as far more than the sum of it`s parts. It gives us a wonderful glimpse into Victorian pre-occupations with sex, sexuality and moral fraility: nothing unnerved a sturdy, upright Victorian gent more than sexual ambivalence, and the vampire myth embodies the prevailing neuroses of racial purity in the bloodline quite nicely. Dracula was not a viewpoint character in Stoker`s novel, so much of his purpose is hidden from our view; but Victorians needed to be assured of their rightful place as rulers of their world, and to have an upstart, “Johnny Foreigner” with tainted blood turning the place over as if he owned it, was just not on. The dilution of British identity was of paramount concern in Stoker`s time of an ever expanding empire.
At the centre of Dracula beats not only a strong heart of forbidden love: it`s a magical fable of sex, desire and of contemporary British culture, sexual and national mores, in which ultimately, Johnny Foreigner is given a damn good thrashing, and the British way of life saved.