Thursday, 8 November 2001

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

Edition: Oxford, 1983
Review number: 988

The most famous vampire story of them all has become an enduring part of the mythology of our culture. Hundreds of books, films and TV programmes have been based on the ideas in this novel; its only rival as a Gothic myth is the story of Frankenstein.

The story is told in what I suspect was a new variation on the form of the epistolary or journal novel, being supposedly a collection of documents - letters, journals and newspaper clippings - that together tell the tale of Count Dracula's involvement with Jonathan Harker and his friends. There are three distinct parts to the story - Harker's visit to the Count's Transylvanian castle; the Count's arrival in Whitby and the death of Lucy; and the campaign against the Count under the direction of van Helsing.

The novel has obvious defects. The sensationalist prose may have set the standard for trash fiction, and certainly fits the subject matter, but it would hardly win prizes for literary merit. The contributions supposedly the work of different hands all read much the same - a common defect in this sort of structure. Some of the novel's most important events are unmotivated, particularly the decision of the Count to move to Whitby (with considerable inconvenience, given his need for the soil of his homeland and the difficulty he has in crossing water) after centuries of safety in Transylvania. His meeting with friends of Jonathan Harker, who has just escaped from him in Romania, is an unlikely coincidence, too.

The reasons that the story has succeeded so spectacularly despite these defects are also quite easy to see. Stoker has taken several existing traditions and made an exciting and atmospheric whole from them. This whole is clearly related to psycholgical ideas current at the time of publication. While it would be wrong to explain away the story as being about repressed sexuality - especially female sexuality - or the subconscious, these ideas are obviously present. (The principal victim of Dracula in England is a woman, and she is transformed from a pure angelic being into a predator.) By tapping into ideas that were around at the time, Stoker ensured the immediate popularity of his novel. The themes he picked have continued to fascinate through the twentieth century, and so the myth's continued success has some connection to the way that ideas of the irrational have shaped our own time.

There is indeed an interesting strand of anti-rationality in the story; van Helsing cannot fight Dracula by explaining him away or through the application of science (the only use he makes of technology is to journey to Romania by rail rather than sea to get there before the vampire). Instead, he must attack him with knowledge of religion, arcane lore and superstition - the crucifix, stake and garlic. This is a tradition which has continued right down to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There are repeated images of madness throughout the novel, with it being consistently used as a metaphor for the feeling experienced when under the control of the vampire. Van Helsing hypnotises Mina when she falls under Dracula's spell, and this was a technique used at the time for the treatment of the insane (by Freud, among others). There is also a character, Renfield, who is an inmate in an asylum and whose insanity, influenced by the vampire, takes the form of a need to consume animal flesh (flies, spiders, and small birds).

The vampire is in part a way to externalise this type of irrationality, just as in the past a poor farmer might blame witchcraft for failed crops. Today, people tend to blame their upbringing or the government for their own shortcomings rather than the supernatural, but the connection still makes the story compelling. Stoker has turned his psychological interests into an adventure story, and while lurid it is never so trashy as to be off-putting; those are the secrets of the success of Dracula.

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