Why Dracula is the original - and best - of the species

Wed, Apr 18, 2012, 01:00

THE BOOK:NO MONSTER could hope to compete with the sinister elegance of the vampire: the black cloak, the evening dress, the central European languor, that tell-tale dental work. With the recent spate of teenage vampire movies based on pastiche fiction, all featuring vampires and victims with US accents and designer clothes, the genre has lost its glamour and acquired much unintentional comedy. But fear not: Count Dracula, as moulded by Dubliner Bram Stoker, mild-mannered and very normal, retains all of his allure, insatiable cravings and torment.

The element of torment is important. Dracula is in many ways a religious text rooted as deeply in Christian notions of damnation as it is in the mid 15th century European myths and legends surrounding a villain known as Vlad the Impaler. Stoker evokes an alternate world where, between sunset and sunrise, the undead stalk new prey, ever seeking fresh blood as they hover relentlessly between life and death. It is a bat-like existence, only far more grim. Their hunger appeased, the undead return to their coffins to rest before the next night’s feasting. They are known by their pallor, red lips, sharp white teeth and cruel eyes. They are invariably beautiful – this adds to the pathos – and they are always damned.

But Stoker’s young hero of sorts, Jonathan Harker, a hapless London solicitor entrusted with the task of completing the conveyancing of Carfax, an ancient English estate purchased by a mysterious client, Count Dracula, knows nothing of tales of blood-gorging vampires intent on recruiting followers. For the unsuspecting Harker, there is no history with which to contend – this apparent obliviousness proves highly effective in conveying the sheer surprise, never mind the mounting horror, as a routine business trip becomes a nightmare.

Arrival at Count Dracula’s dreary castle high in Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains heralds a desperate ordeal for him and his beloved fiancee, the resourceful Mina, as well as others drawn into the count’s vile designs. The book begins with impressive restraint – until Harker becomes imprisoned in the castle. While gazing out his window he notices movement at a lower-storey window. “I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man [the count] slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall . . . face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.”

It is probably the most dramatic sequence in the narrative. Harker fears for his own sanity, only to then see three young women standing in the moonlight. “I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them.” The count prevents the young women from seducing Harker and this reprieve of sorts enables Harker to make further sordid discoveries including 50 large wooden boxes – could they be coffins? – filled with earth taken from the graveyard of the Dracula clan. Even more horrific is the sight in one of them of the count, lying temporarily at peace, sleeping off his latest meal.

The boxes are shipped to England as planned. The count, having earlier assumed the shape of wolf, has already killed the crew. On arrival he sets off, still in wolf form, for Carfax, his new base, which adjoins a lunatic asylum guaranteeing vast supplies of blood.

The institution is run by Dr Seward who also becomes drawn into the story, but not before the dastardly Dracula has had his way with Lucy Westenra, Mina’s friend who, despite transfusions and the intervention of Seward’s old teacher Prof Van Helsing, joins the undead. She cannot rest in peace until she, sadly, receives the traditional remedy – a stake through the heart.

Stoker’s immediate inspiration lies in Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1818-73) from the collection, In A Glass Darkly, which was published in 1872. But long before Le Fanu, never mind Stoker, there had been those 15th- century central European themes already mentioned, while much closer chronologically to Le Fanu and Stoker, both late Gothic, was the wider influence of literary Gothic as evident in Emily Bronte’s dark masterpiece Wuthering Heights or in her sister Charlotte’s Villette (1853). For all the terror, Dracula is as much a thriller and a late Victorian melodrama as it is a horror story. It also has elements of the much earlier literary romantic quest tradition but far more obviously reflects the style of the 18th-century epistolary novel.

Stylistically, it is not as sophisticated as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818), also an epistolary narrative unfolding though the letters of an English Arctic explorer named Walton. Shelley’s novel was published during the height of the Gothic period and the language reflects the mood of the genre initiated half a century before by Horace Walpole’s spoof The Castle of Otranto (1764) – the second edition of which was subtitled A Gothic Story. A taste for the Gothic had been born.

Ann Radcliffe proved a leading exponent in novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), favouring a variation of Richardson’s theme, that of a virtuous heroine outwitting a sinister aristocratic cad intent on her virtue. Dublin-born and Trinity-educated Charles Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer (1820), with its Faust-like theme of a man who has bargained his soul for eternal life and is doomed to asking others to take over his arrangement with the Devil, is masterful and influenced many writers from Baudelaire to Thackeray, to Poe and beyond. It resounds with literary flourishes in a way that Dracula, intense and driven, does not. Stoker’s prose is plain, almost businesslike – considering the material.

There is a relentless amount of talking and letter writing in Dracula. Although the characterisation is minimal, each voice is defined, with Stoker at times relying on phonetic spelling. The narrative structure consists of 27 chapters devised in the form of diaries, journals and phonograph recordings. There is also a telegram and a newspaper report, as well as shorthand notes and letters.

Stoker realised the difficulties of writing this story as a conventional narrative. Lucy’s fate incites Van Helsing to action and he battles evil with a brutal form of exorcism. The latter stages of the novel are dominated by efforts to save Mina and locate the wooden boxes in which the count rests between sunrise and sunset. All but one of the boxes is rendered harmless by fragments of the host, another of the devices which again underlines the strongly religious subtext. The final box is returned to Transylvania, the count concealed within. Harker and company race after it, intent on doing their bit for mankind.

God is evoked to fight the count. The heroic is also present. But sex is an underlying theme, as are the emerging attitudes to women. The lovely Lucy is doomed, but Mina emerges the real hero of the novel.

True, readers are left to wonder at the amount of journal and note writing sustained by characters racing before darkness falls, yet Dracula with its high-speed finale and its stagy satanic anti-hero remains urgent, evocative. The count is eventually despatched, beheaded and stabbed through the heart causing his body to crumble to dust.

Best known in his lifetime for his politely non-sensational two-volume biography of the demanding Henry Irving, for whom he acted as manager until 1905, Stoker’s most famous work was not to capture the reading public until after his death in 1912. Since then it has withheld the challenges of all comers: Dracula remains the set text of vampirism.