If you are like me a fan of the supernatural, the weird and the wonderful; Dracula is a must read. It offers a fascinating look at a critical moment in the evolution of the genre, and you can trace the threads leading from it to all subsequent writing and film and television about the supernatural, specifically vampires.
There is no shortage of vampire related media in contemporary culture, from bestselling literature to incredibly popular television shows and films: Buffy, True Blood, Being Human– the list goes on. The subject has been treated in a myriad of ways, vampires as heroes and villains and something in between, and endless variations made on a few generally accepted rules: namely, a vampire’s antipathy to garlic, sunlight and stakes.
Dracula is fascinating not only as a collection of these myths about repelling vampires, to this list the book adds an unsurprisingly heavy religious element in stressing the importance of the crucifix and holy wafer, but in the business-like way in which it is handled. We have a motley crew of (mostly male) vampire hunters- including an English peer, a Dutch professor, an American adventurer- who are brought together by their goal to destroy Dracula who has killed the innocent and pure Lucy, in order to prevent the spread of the scourge of vampirism and save the soul of Mina Harker. Notwithstanding the obvious period elements, like Mina’s initial exclusion from the action as a woman, the tone is surprisingly modern and reminiscent of any contemporary action thriller as they plan how best to take down Dracula, assemble their weapons and eventually follow him back to his castle.
There are elements that can be found in numerous subsequent vampire narratives; what to do when one of your own has been bitten, how to use the vampire’s weaknesses against them and being prepared to break the law in the process.
In addition to this, Dracula offers a fascinating perspective on issues very much of its time; namely feminism or ‘the woman question’. The bite of the vampire corrupts the soul of those who suffer it, and it is the women who are seen to suffer its effects, turning from pure and innocent girls into seductive, violent and morally repugnant creatures who feed on children without compunction, perverting the traditional mother instinct. This could be read as a metaphor for the dangers of new ideas, at a time when women were gaining more freedom and the spectre of the New Woman who rejected marriage and wanted to work and live like a man lingered in the media, and it was feared what would become of these women. The brides of Dracula are the conventional morally upright man’s worst nightmare- women who actively employ their sexuality and superior strength to destroy men.
Mina is a very interesting character, as on the one hand she is the image of the ideal woman, the perfect wife and helper to her husband and morally pure and devout, but on the other she is determined to stretch these traditional boundaries. She learns to typewrite and is an essential part of their fight against Dracula, even predicting his final movements which allows them to catch him. Furthermore, she actually wields a weapon (!) in the climactic scene, although does not use it. Undoubtedly she is not one of the terrifying New Women but appears to represent an attempt to take a few of her more ‘acceptable’ qualities and incorporate them into the traditional image of womanhood.
Mina constantly reminds the others to feel pity for Dracula himself as a trapped soul, and is glad to see the look of peace on his face once he has been staked. This idea that they are doing the vampires a favour by destroying them offers an intriguing counterpoint to several contemporary vampire narratives where we are on the side of the vampires and actively root for them to avoid destruction, and is an interesting example of how changing social contexts can impact the development of a narrative.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Dracula and ended up getting through it much more quickly than I usually do with classics. Read it and enjoy, although perhaps not alone in your room in the dead of night…