When appraising Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which turns 120 this year, one can’t ignore its long, penetrating cultural influence.
The film adaptations are too numerous to count. The Vampyre has been played not only by Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Gary Oldman, but also by George Hamilton —who appears to take his ghastly repose, down through the centuries, in a tanning bed— Leslie Nielsen and, saints preserve us, Adam Sandler. There have been pornographic versions; derivative novels, comic books, and cartoons (memorably, “Count Duckula”); videogames, toys, Pez dispensers; a children’s television puppet who needs no introduction; even a classic breakfast cereal, Count Chocula. And surely no small portion of the Great Pacific garbage patch is composed of plastic vampire teeth, produced and discarded by the millions each Halloween.
An awful lot of that cultural output is, like those fake fangs, garbage. So it is worth asking whether the novel that spawned it ought to be resurrected, or permanently staked to the bargain table.
Because Stoker’s Dracula has been so overshadowed in the popular imagination by movies—many of which erase or combine some of its protagonists and omit large sections of its dialogue and action—one forgets just how finely wrought and affecting a novel it is in its own right. With the tenebrous beauty of its prose, and its by turns life-affirming and despair-inducing themes, it possesses an essential gravity that of all the films only F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu can hope to match. By all indications, Stoker’s Dracula will never die.
From the young solicitor Jonathan Harker’s first approach to Castle Dracula, through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, the reader encounters Stoker as landscape painter: the “deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks,” the “masses of weeping birch, their white stems shining like silver through the delicate green of the leaves,” a forbidding moon “sailing through the black clouds . . . behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock.” In small details, like the taste of paprika or the “snake-like vertebra” of a leiter-wagon, Stoker grounds us in a travelogue’s actuality before bearing us onward to the fantastic.
Stoker’s gift for indelible description is even more welcome when he turns it to the grim and grotesque. We find ourselves in a candlelit tomb in which “flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns” and where “the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance.” We watch the Count recoil from a crucifix and a Communion wafer, wearing an “expression of hate and baffled malignity,” his “waxen hue greenish-yellow by the contrast of his burning eyes . . . the red scar on the forehead showed on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound.”
Were Dracula only an aesthetic experience, a promenade through a great hall hung with images of the fearsome and uncanny—beheaded corpses, sentient fog, baying wolves, a sea of rats, a lunatic eating flies—it would be a horripilating delight. Were it a mere detective story, a gothic noir in which our world-weary but sanguine hero, Professor Van Helsing, must lead his friends in a race against time and a superior foe, it would still deserve to be read with relish.
Yet it is both of those things and much else besides. As a tale of good versus evil, it dwells as thoughtfully on the former as it milks the latter for venom. Dracula is a celebration of friendship, cooperation, duty and sacrifice. The Count’s bloodthirsty selfishness is held up by contrast as evil, yes, but also as infantile.
In its depiction of the battle between superstition and reason—a battle that never ceases, not even in the minds of men of science—Dracula says that nothing is less rational than to believe we grasp all things. “Do you not think,” asks Van Helsing, “. . . that some people see things that others cannot? . . . Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”