The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 5: Enter Count Dracula

The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 5: Enter Count Dracula
Journey into the literary origins of the vampire myth with this special series on "The Vampyre's Legacy." Part 5 sinks its teeth into the tale of Dracula.

The 1890s were a bountiful decade for vampire literature. This was the period that saw the publication of James Maclaren Cobban’s Master of his Fate (1890), E. E. Baldwin’s The Strange Story of Dr. Senex (1891), Cora Lin Daniels’ Sardia (1891), Julien Gordon’s Vampires (1891), Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897), and Thaddeus

The 1890s were a bountiful decade for vampire literature. This was the period that saw the publication of James Maclaren Cobban’s Master of his Fate (1890), E. E. Baldwin’s The Strange Story of Dr. Senex (1891), Cora Lin Daniels’ Sardia (1891), Julien Gordon’s Vampires (1891), Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897), and Thaddeus W. Williams’ In Quest of Life (1898), to name but a few. Not all these were vampire stories in the traditional sense, but all at least touch upon the theme. Most of the the vampire novels to emerge during this ten-year stretch are little-known today, but there is one shining exception. Towards the end of the decade, readers were confronted with the book that went on to replace John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” as the definitive treatment of the topic.

Dracula first edition

1897: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker came from rather different stock than the Romantic authors who established vampire literature, and on the surface seems an unlikely person to have breathed new life into the genre. Bearded, round-faced, and somewhat corpulent, Bram Stoker would have looked out of place next to the elfin likes of Byron, Polidori, and Shelley. He was known in life primarily as the business manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre and personal assistant to its owner Sir Henry Irving, his writing career being a mere sideline. Dracula is his one truly significant work of fiction; his other horror tales—The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), The Lair of the White Worm (1911), and a smattering of short stories—are remembered primarily as footnotes to his most famous novel. His non-horror fiction is forgotten.

And yet, it was this stage manager who provided the new benchmark for vampire literature. The story he told in Dracula has been so frequently adapted, referenced, and parodied that its key events will be familiar even to those who have never read the novel: Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania and ordeal in the castle of Count Dracula; the Count’s voyage to England, where he turns Lucy Westenra—a friend of Jonathan’s fiancée Mina—into a vampire; Professor Van Helsing turning up to explain the ways of the undead; and the group comprising Jonathan and Mina Harker, Van Helsing, and the three suitors of the deceased Lucy setting off to destroy Dracula.

Given Dracula’s status as urtext, the natural inclination of many modern readers is to compare it to what came afterwards. But it is just as instructive to compare the novel to what came before. Stoker had nearly seventy years worth of vampire stories to draw upon, going back to Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” He borrowed certain aspects from his forebears. Crucially, he rejected others.

For one, Stoker gave his novel a contemporary setting, with the story’s events clearly taking place circa 1897. This is in contrast both to the film versions—where Dracula tends to exist in a quasi-Victorian never-never land—and to much of vampire fiction as it had existed up until that point. A product of the backwards-looking Romantic movement, vampire literature favoured the past over the present, and generally used either specific period settings or an atmosphere of hazy timelessness. For example, Polidori’s “The Vampyre” could be set in 1819, the year it was published, but it could just as easily take place in earlier eras: Cyprien Bérard’s unofficial sequel Lord Ruthwen, ou les Vampires was able to locate its events in the sixteenth century without damaging the narrative.

In Dracula, although the vampire’s Transylvanian home is portrayed as a backwards land of superstition, the Count’s opponents are thoroughly modern people fully prepared for the dawn of the new century. The novel begins with Jonathan Harker journeying to Transylvania by train, every bit the modern traveler. Dr. Seward records his observations onto wax cylinders using a phonograph, a device invented in 1877. When trying to analyse Dracula’s mentality, Mina mentions social critic Max Nordau and criminologist Cesare Lombroso, both contemporaries of Stoker. Van Helsing, the most committed believer in the supernatural, is likewise familiar with modern theorists: he laments the passing of Jan-Martin Charcot, a pioneer in the study of hypnotism who died just four years before the book’s publication. The novel even contains what today would be termed pop-culture references, as when contemporary actress Ellen Terry is invoked as a byword for feminine beauty.

It is this modern milieu that is invaded by Dracula, a survivor from an earlier era. He arrives in England by boat, having killed the entire crew; by the time the ship comes in, even the man who guided the vessel is just a corpse tied to the helm wheel. This is a deeply macabre image, one worthy of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and given that Coleridge belonged to the same Romantic era as Byron and Polidori, what better way to herald the return of Romantic literature’s most durable symbol of evil, the vampire?

Of course, Dracula was published nearly eighty years after Polidori’s seminal tale, and the vampire did not survive those decades intact. While Polidori described a deadly but beautiful figure based directly upon the fatally charismatic Byron, Stoker’s vampire enters the narrative in a perhaps rather dilapidated state:

His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine; but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse—broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.

In one famous scene, the imprisoned Jonathan Harker encounters three seductive vampire women in Dracula’s castle. Dracula interrupts the scene and flies into a rage; whether this is because he desired Harker’s blood for himself, or because he resents the erotic affection being afforded the younger man, is debatable. The three women respond by taunting him: “You yourself never loved; you never love!” Dracula, his anger seemingly dissipating into shame, can only whisper his self-defence: “Yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past. Is it not so?”

Compared to earlier vampire literature, the scene feels like nothing so much as a cruel parody: the Byronic ladykiller has aged into a henpecked, cuckolded husband. But this is merely one of many faces worn by Count Dracula, who repeatedly transforms throughout the novel. In some cases he does so through a simple change of costume. The coachman who takes Harker to the castle turns out to be Dracula in disguise, for example, and the Count later dons Harker’s clothes outside the castle so that the English newcomer is blamed for Dracula’s evil deeds (a somewhat quaint ruse that would be more at home in a cheap mystery yarn than a novel of supernatural horror).

Other transformations are more substantial. After glutting himself with blood, the elderly Dracula physically rejuvenates; he is later spotted walking around England as the gentleman villain of Victorian literature, with a pointed beard and white kid gloves. Elsewhere in the story Dracula abandons human form altogether, changing into a bat, a wolf, and even a cloud of mist.

In creating his distinctive take on the vampire theme, Stoker appears to have drawn upon a few earlier works in the genre. Karl von Wachsmann’s 1844 story “Der Fremde” (translated into English as “The Mysterious Stranger”) is a likely influence, depicting as it does a group of travelers visiting the Carpathian castle of a vampire who rejuvenates after drinking blood. The memorable scene where Dracula is thrown into a frenzy upon seeing Jonathan Harker cut himself shaving also has a direct parallel in Théophile Gautier’s “La morte amoureuse” in which the protagonist suffers a similar incident while cutting fruit.

Stoker appears to have been familiar with J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla as well, as his descriptions of Lucy sleepwalking—and later becoming a vampire who wanders in and out of her tomb—closely recall that story’s title character. He also captures some of Le Fanu’s dreamlike intangibility where female vampires are concerned. The three women in Dracula’s castle, when departing, “fade into the rays of the moonlight and pass out through the window,” a process that Van Helsing later describes as “com[ing] on moonlight rays as elemental dust.” Meanwhile, the vampirised Lucy can alter her dimensions to the extent that she passes a closed door through a slit “where scarce a knife-blade could have gone.”

Far from content to merely imitate earlier writers, Stoker adds a number of original details to the vampire mythos. It was Dracula that gave vampires the power to turn into bats and established that they cast no reflections, two ideas that, despite carrying the ring of folkloric truth, are Stoker’s invention. Some aspects of the novel may seem unusual to today’s readers, such as Dracula’s ability to walk around in broad daylight (he would not develop a fatal allergy to the sun until the novel was adapted for film), but the familiar vampire “rules” are by and large recognisable. Van Helsing even does us the service of neatly laying them out in the eighteenth chapter.

Perhaps the most significant of these rules is that vampires can transform their victims into fellow vampires. This idea was already an established part of both folklore and literature, but authors had generally used it is little more than a background detail. (Gautier’s “La morte amoureuse” is an exception that proves the rule, as its treatment of the theme is wildly different from that of modern vampire fiction.) In Dracula, Stoker builds the midsection of the novel out of Lucy’s gradual death and rebirth as a vampire, and uses the threat of Mina undergoing a similar transformation to drive the climax. In doing so, he is able to explore the process of an innocent becoming a vampire in close detail: the change in personality, the reactions of the victim’s loved ones, and the tragic but necessary destruction of the body. All of this is now a stock situation within the vampire genre. In her way, Lucy Westenra is almost is iconic and influential a character as Dracula himself.

Stoker can also take credit for giving vampires a definitive homeland. Earlier writers had, with varying degrees of folkloric justification, cited Turkey, Greece, Styria, and Scotland as the native habitats of the vampire; Stoker himself had initially planned to locate his vampire in Austria. But as he developed the narrative, he decided to replace Austria with Transylvania. Thanks to this late-in-the-day choice, generations have come to associate Transylvania with vampires.

Upon choosing his location, Stoker made an effort to explore the folklore of Transylvania. This is a crucial aspect of the novel’s appeal, for at its weakest, vampire fiction merely borrows from other vampire fiction. At its strongest, it often draws directly upon folklore. In his introduction to “The Vampyre,” Polidori cites Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and Antoine Augustin Calmet; in Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu name-checks Johann Christoph Harenberg; and Stoker, hoping to bring an authentic touch to his novel, turned to the writing of Emily Gerard.

The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania by Emily Gerard

Emily Gerard’s 1888 book The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania goes into some detail about the region’s vampire beliefs:

More decidedly evil is the nosferatu or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. There are two sorts of vampires, living and dead. The living vampire is generally the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons; bit even a flawless pedigree will not insure any one against the intrusion of a vampire into their family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons till the spirit has been exorcised by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin. To walk smoking round the grave on each anniversary of the death is also supposed to be effective in confining the vampire. In very obstinate cases of vampirism it is recommended to cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing its ashes over the grave.

The idea that vampires are created through sex outside of marriage is obviously lacking in dramatic potential. Stoker, in looking for an appropriately sinister origin for his villain, adopted another aspect of Transylvanian folklore discussed by Gerard: an occult college called the scholomance:

I may as well here mention the scholomance, or school, supposed to exist somewhere in the heart of the mountains, and where the secret of nature the language of animals, and all magic spells are taught by the devil in person. Only ten scholars are admitted at a time, and when the course of learning has expired, and nine of them are released to return to their homes, the tenth scholar is detained by the devil as payment, and, mounted upon an ismeju, or dragon, becomes henceforward the devil’s aide-de-camp, and assists him in “making the weather”—that is, preparing the thunderbolts.

In Dracula, Van Helsing states that the Count “dared even to attend the Scholomance, and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay.” Dracula was presumably the tenth graduate of his class, although his destiny was to become something rather different than the apprentice storm-god of folklore. By including the scholomance as a plot point, Stoker effectively melded the vampire with another archetype of supernatural fiction: the Faustian magician.

Somehow, Count Dracula’s background as a student of an occult school run by the Devil never made it into pop culture. Many derivative works have tried to come up with a fitting backstory for the Count, but they generally latch onto another connection present in Stoker’s novel: that of the Wallachian ruler Vlad III.

The son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad III styled himself Dracula in honour of his father. Stoker, in addition to borrowing his name, includes multiple references to the historical figure. First, Count Dracula talks of his namesake as an illustrious ancestor. Later, Van Helsing declares that the past and present Draculas are actually one and the same, having existed for centuries as a vampire. “He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land,” says the esteemed professor.

The connection between the real-life Dracula and fictional character is largely superficial. Stoker’s early notes for his novel referred to the villain by the deeply generic name of Count Wampyr; the author’s decision to tie this character to a specific historical figure would have come relatively late in the development of the book. Stoker himself appears to have known very little about Vlad III, and his readership would have known even less. Nevertheless, the author’s decision to include a few references to a medieval Wallachian ruler has had some remarkable repercussions. Thanks to Stoker, Vlad III (who, like many rulers, has traditionally been cast as either hero or villain depending on who is writing the history books) is now associated around the world with vampires.

Not that Stoker can take full credit for the dark connotations of the name Dracula. While it literally means “son of the dragon,” the fact that the Romanian word for dragon—dracul—is associated with the Devil means that name can also be taken to mean “son of the Devil.” This is fitting, as Stoker clearly portrays Count Dracula, that Faustian graduate of the Devil’s own school, as an anti-Christ figure.

The novel underlines how, while Jesus offered his blood to his followers, Dracula takes the blood of those doomed to follow him. The Count even has a disciple in Renfield, the mental patient who becomes his servant and shows a tendency to recite distorted Bible verses. It is only natural that the heroes ward fight off this anti-Christ using religious artefacts such as crucifixes, yet another inescapable genre trapping that was popularised by Stoker. Through concepts such as these, Stoker gives his vampire a mythic weight lacking from most earlier examples. Not even Lord Ruthven or Carmilla had such a Satanic aura. Small wonder, then, that Dracula is one of an elite few literary characters who can accurately be termed a figure of modern myth.

A new century was dawning, and thanks in large part to Bram Stoker—who sent age-old superstition to invade modern England—vampires were fully equipped to cope with changing times.

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