Friday Book Club: The Fears of Bram Stoker

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to the first of October’s Friday Book Club Sessions!  This month we’re talking about Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  Is it my favorite book of all time?  Nope.  But, it is an interesting book to read in terms of culture, both Victorian and modern.

Dracula was so popular in its day because it played on late-Victorian Era fears – fears about immigration from Eastern Europe, fears about consumption and other diseases, fears about “the new woman”, fears about addiction, fears about science, and of course fears about sex.

And the impact Dracula has on modern culture can’t be overstated.  Of course there were vampire stories long before Dracula.  In addition to folktales, vampire novels were quite popular in the Victorian Era. Dracula was released in 1897.  In 1819, John William Polidori’s book, The Vampyre, introduced the idea of a gentleman vampire.  Varney, by James Malcom Rymer, was serialized from 1845 – 1847 (“Her bosom heaves, and her limbs tremble, yet she cannot withdraw her eyes from that marble-looking face…”).  And in 1872, Joseph Sheridan Le Fany published Carmilla, in which the beautiful vampire Carmilla preys upon the innocent Laura with an astonishingly explicit amount of sexual seduction.  For people with a reputation for priggishness, those Victorians were reading some pretty racy stuff.

Illustration from Carmilla

Illustration from the original edition of Carmilla, by D.H. Friston

Yet today, the book most remembered by readers is Dracula.  Without Dracula there would be no Twilight or True Blood, or Interview With a Vampire, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (anyone remember when Buffy met Dracula?  Good times.)  Dracula is the book that permanently embedded the link between drinking blood and having sex, and/or doing drugs, in the popular imagination.  Of course Dracula is also important as an example of gothic literature.  It just doesn’t get any more gothic than women wandering around in foggy cemeteries in white nighties.

cover of Dracula

1902 cover of Dracula

Why is Dracula, and not its predecorsors, so immediately relevant?  I can only assume that it’s because many of the fears Stoker’s contemporary audience held remain current, and while the story may not represent restrained, polished, poetical writing, it sure is a nail-biter.  Let’s look at some of those fears:

1.  Disease:  Stoker lived at a time when tuberculosis, or consumption, was prevalent.  People with consumption became paler and paler,and thinner and thinner, and wasted away – plus, they coughed up lots and lots of bloom.  In the modern era, a wave of vampire books and movies came out during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  The Anne Rice book Interview with a Vampire (later made into a movie) describes an ostracisezed subculture affected by something transmitted through blood exchange (highly sexualized blood exchange).  Near Dark, an early movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is very different in tone but almost identical in theme.

2.  Immigration and colonialism:  Stoker touched on the Victorian feelings of guilt and hostility and fear towards the people they had colonized.  Dracula is unmistakably “foreign”, and he invades England as a one-man (or rather, one-monster) malevolent, corrupting force.  A quick look at any newspaper from the last twenty years will confirm that modern Americans are having all kinds of political and social anxieties around immigration, race, and cultural imperialism.

3.  Drug addiction:  Victorians struggled with drug addiction in the form of heroin, cocaine, opium, laudanum, alcohol, and chloral hydrate.  The vampire could be said to be an addict – he (or she) must feed on blood, and only on blood, to live, no matter what the cost or risk to the victim or the vampire.  To make the connection more obvious, many Victorian drugs were injected directly into the vein.  Modern society also struggles with addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco.

4.  Sex:  I’m planning to do a whole separate essay on gender and Dracula. For now, I’ll just pose a couple of questions from the book.  What is a woman’s place?  Should she be at home or pursue a career outside the home, or maybe work from home?  Can a woman be sexually active and still be “good”?  What about initiating sex, can a woman do that, or does that make her ‘a slut’?  If a woman is raped, is she somehow complicit in the rape?  Is she permanently tainted, even if she is innocent of “provoking” the rape?  What is the role of men in relationships?  These are all issues that are in the headlines, on the web, and in discussion every day today and they are all addressed in Dracula.  My answers differ pretty dramatically from Bram Stoker’s.  But the fact remains that we are still arguing today about the roles of women in the workforce and the family, the dynamics of male/female relationships, and women’s rights to control their sexuality and their bodies.

1901 cover of Dracula

1901 Cover. This was the first paperback edition.

Dracula is crammed full of images and sequences that stick in the mind, which is part of why filmmakers love to adapt it – and the more films are made of Dracula, the more influential it becomes.  And the plot never lets up.  None of the movies are particularly faithful to the book (including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  It’s not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, believe me).  But the movies keep the book alive in the popular imagination, and the themes make it stick.  And oh yeah, weighty subtext aside, the idea of a supernatural figure that drains your blood while you’re asleep is still really scary!

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