(Photo: W. & D. Downey)
As is the case with many of our treasured writers of classic fiction, Bram Stoker only became known for his novels after his death. Throughout his life, he was mostly known for his association with famous stage actor Sir Henry Irving. While Stoker dabbled in political writings, he is primarily known for his tales of supernatural horror, such as Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm. Given that Dracula is the legacy he left that made him a household name, I will talk mostly about that.
While vampires are timeless creatures, appearing in the mythos of countless cultures across the globe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula gave birth to the modern vampire – the creatures that haunt the worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Ann Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, and so many more.
We are introduced to the story via Jonathan Harker’s journal. Jonathan, a solicitor, visits Count Dracula in Transylvania. The pace quickens as Jonathan realises that he is a prisoner in the Gothic castle.
“I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula
Bizarre happenings like this all indicate that the Count is not quite what he seems. Jonathan escapes the castle and flees back to England, on the verge of death. As he recovers, the tone of the story bounces and bounds from one perspective to another. We read letters that his fiancée Mina has sent to her friend Lucy Westenra. We read news articles about strange events in England – a big black dog jumping from a barge onto English soil. Things take an unsettling turn as we begin to understand that, unlike the typical trappings of Gothic fiction, the beast is not confined to his lair.
While there are numerous deaths in the story, Stoker makes it a point to tell us that while the death of the physical body is upsetting, it is the festering of the immortal soul in the undead body that is the true tragedy. The grotesque fate of Lucy Westenra (staked through the heart, decapitated, the mouth of her severed head stuffed with garlic) is kinder than letting her wander the streets of London, a monster preying on the blood of children.
Though Dracula is capable of such powerful evil, all is not lost. With the wise and strong Abraham Van Helsing, speculatively named after Bram Stoker himself, our company of heroes prove their worth through many trials. Knowledge and meticulous preparation are their allies against the supernatural – the golden age of scientific process was dawning at the time of publication, after all. However, their true strength lies in their togetherness, a camaraderie that Count Dracula will never know, being the lone and wretched creature that he is. Their love for one another, and for the late Lucy and the endangered Mina, allow them to overcome the great fears and weaknesses that Dracula inspires within them.
I think Stoker, amidst the disturbed imaginings of his horror stories, had a very romantic outlook on life. Even the platonic relationship between man and woman is a tool to help us fight the darkness. And in Dracula, he shows us that out of the romantic relationship blossoms the ultimate symbol of hope and life: a child.