In a time when Edward Cullen and Underworld's Selene are the poster children of vampires, the terror of Bram Stoker's Dracula seems distant and even quaint—but only if you haven't read it. Dracula doesn't sparkle in the sun, have a plan for world domination, or mope around in a big high school listening to emo music. Dracula drinks blood, terrorizes Romanian peasants, and uses his sexual magneticism to seduce innocent women and turn them into vampires blind with blood lust.
Stoker's late-Victorian audience certainly found his story exciting and scary. England was under the spell of spiritists like Madame Blavatsky, occultists held séances in upper-class homes, and interest in Continental folklore led to a deluge of popular and scholarly works on the subject. The reading public, in short, was primed for a supernatural adventure story filled with creatures of the night from countries most Western Europeans knew next to nothing about. And with metropolitan culture on the rise, a man as haute as Count Dracula added the elitist appeal needed to make Stoker's novel an immediate success.
At least part of the terror of Dracula is due to the immediacy of its presentation. The entire novel is a series of letters, diary entries, ships' logs, and newspaper clippings, presenting a number of distinct narrators each with their own psychology and particular fears. Organizing the narrative like this gives a sense of its reality, that the story is not simply a story, that Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, Dr. Seward and the rest were actually haunted by and did battle with a malevolent undead entity. Stoker isn't the greatest stylist, but that only contributes to the realism, indicating these are average people telling the truth rather than creating a literary lie for our enjoyment.
Not that Dracula isn't literary or enjoyable—it's both. Stoker invested extensive research in his project, including the formation of his famous antagonist, basing the Count on an actor friend whose elegance and presence he found particularly compelling. As entertainment, Dracula is unsurpassed. Coming amid a torrent of exotic adventure stories, Stoker's work borrowed elements of the pulp fiction of Haggard and Doyle and wrapped them in darkness and fear, basically single-handedly inventing the horror genre. But unlike those lesser novels, Dracula isn't mere escapism, providing commentary on Victorian society, human nature, and the reality of fear in a society not given to much acknowledgement of anything beyond pleasure and its pursuit.
You may or may not be scared reading Dracula, but that's hardly the point. Stoker's point wasn't to make people scared of vampires, but to draw attention to a certain kind of fear that still permeates Western society. The inherently meaningless social conventions that both Dracula and his victims observe, the social constructs that bind them, are ultimately that which kills them. But it's a slow killing, a leeching away as of blood draining from a punctured neck. Victorian England may have been family-friendly on the outside, but down deep there was no content and it was sucking the good on the surface out little by little. Count Dracula is scary on a visceral level, but much more terrifying as a symbol of the empty constructs of Western culture and their vampiric sustenance at the expense of entire populations.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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