It’s an autumn night, circa none-of-your-business, and thirteen year-old Cat is cowering in her bed. The covers are strategically pulled over her throat, creating a cave around her head. Her breath roars raggedly in the confined space, and her heart is echoing through the mattress and up into the pillow, an assault of noise that does nothing to conceal the infinitesimal creaks near her window. She knows that each groan of the house and sound of the street outside is the announcement of something coming for her. Suddenly she’s acutely aware of every entry point into her room, each crack beneath the door and just how level her windows are to the ground. On the nightstand beside her lay the culprit for such heightened paranoia, a fresh copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a definite scratching on the window and Cat prays for sleep to come.
Dracula is a book that’s managed to retain freshness for over a hundred years. It’s the tale of a shadowy Transylvanian count, Dracula, a vampire who seeks to spread his reign of horror to London. In this process he traps and terrorizes Jonathan Harker, preys on Lucy Westenra (much to the chagrin of her three hunky suitors), and generally flies against the face of science and London’s new modernity.
It’s a fabulous book. And the most influential piece of vampire media, hands down.
In the end, nothing is as chillingly long-lived as Dracula. There are older vampire novels—like John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (the original preying aristocrat), or Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (an exploration into female, and thus lesbian, vampirism). There are older examples of lurid Gothic Romanticism—like Horace Walpole’s spooky, mad, twisting The Castle of Otranto. Yet no other tale has become so synonymous with its central monster. Vampires are Dracula. When I was a wee little child, there were essentially four monsters in all of existence: mummies, werewolves, Frankensteins (a fallacy for another day and another discussion), and Draculas. Not vampires. Draculas. It’s entered the lexicon. It is the legend. The idea has become one with the character.
With good reason. Stoker’s novel is absolutely captivating, conveying the villain in a way that is straight-forward and accessible while still delivering the spine-shivers. The other vampire tomes are delicious and taboo but err on the side of becoming lost in their own hype, as it were. The pages and pages of description and gore are titillating, but in the end leave less of an impression. They’re the slasher film equivalent to Dracula‘s classic jump horror. In the novel, everything is conveyed through letters, diaries, news clippings, so all the central action occurs on the periphery. It’s like seeing the alien for a split second turning a corner, or barely registering the dismemberment before the camera turns. Still horrifying, and arguably more so because the scenes are more disturbing as they sink in retroactively, but seen blurrily through a second lens. Dracula himself is only viewed through the eyes of others, so the reader is piecing together his power, his appetite, and his grand scheme as slowly and methodically as any film plotting.
I first read Dracula, when I was right on the cusp of wanting to become more well-read with the classics, but young enough to be intimidated by overly wrought sentence structure and the stigma of anything older than the 20th century. Color me shocked at how easily Dracula went down. My nervousness at the secondhand storytelling was abated as I became immersed in the story of our heroes fighting against evil. I had to make a personal rule—no reading after dark. Not so much out of fear over Dracula, but fear over his acolyte, Renfield. Renfield served as a reminder of how twisted humanity could be, the so-called “zoophagous” madness triggering the same personal panic and fascination that Hannibal Lecter would capitalize on years later. While the pure supernatural was unnerving, it was nothing compared to the cold hand of reality offered from Seward’s insane asylum. Dracula’s predatory nature did become more unsettling on future reads, when the full weight of his torture of Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenra sunk in, but the tale of an ordinary person willing to trade humanity for the false power constructed by consuming others still takes the cake.
Since that first read, Dracula has remained with me, stalking in the shadows of my life. My first college paper was a five-page treatise on Dracula and sexuality. I talked about feminism, the New Woman, and how the vampire myth completely corrupted Christian ideals of intercourse. My last paper of graduate school was twenty pages on Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible film version, describing how it fit into the vampire myth as a whole (spoiler—it fits in rather well, paying proper credence to the novel’s themes and the cinematic tropes surrounding vampires. This fact doesn’t make it a good movie, not in the least, which we’ll talk more about soon). This book has been a beating heart at the center of my favorite literature, held up there with East of Eden and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It captures terror and history and contains a labyrinthine exploration of religion, technology, sexuality, feminism, imperialism, queer theory…in essence, the rabbit holes of discussion in this book are many, varied, and enthralling.
The sheer scope of how many things people can discuss in the novel is part of why the specific Dracula telling of the myth is so tied up with modern descriptions of vampires. Sure, vampires have taken their own angles and shoot-offs, been twisted into new and sometimes baffling directions, but they all have this kernel of the Count. Dracula’s weaknesses have become every vampire’s weaknesses: his nocturnal activity translated into the familiar creature-of-the-night motif, thanks to him (and a certain Bela Lugosi years later) vampires became attractive foreigners, the copious amounts of garlic Van Helsing used to protect Lucy is now so well-known it’s almost a joke, and of course, the bat-morphing thing was all thanks to Stoker. These traits have become a shorthand for what the mind sees when it visualizes a vampire, and it all boils down to the novel.
When young Cat emerged from a rest full of nightmares, did she throw away her book? Did she run away from the fear that vampires instilled? No. Dracula merely planted a fascination with the myth, a deep love and respect for the tales. It’s a standard that every piece of vampire media has had to live up to. Dracula might not be the original vamp, but he’s the king.