With his horror novel Dracula, Bram Stoker created a work that became something of a symbol for twentieth century society and that, perhaps unlike any other, spawned a range of publications, plays, and motion pictures. The image of the vampire, of course, dates back several thousand years, but Stoker recast the legend in a conventionally Western tradition and provided it with an aura of dark Romanticism reminiscent of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and of the voluptuous whisperings of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871). Stoker’s novel combined the basic ingredients of the classical horror story with the author’s personal experiences and inspiration.
The main character in Dracula is based on the historical figure of Vlad Tepes the Impaler, a fifteenth century Walachian prince who ruled Transylvania and Walachia (now Romania) and earned a bloody reputation by spearing domestic criminals and foreign invaders on wooden sticks. He assumed the name Dracula, variously interpreted as “son of the dragon” and “son of the devil,” as a further reminder of his powers.
Stoker’s book deals with a number of more universal themes as well, including the loneliness of death, the endless allure of erotic love, and an unnerving invocation of insanity. The author, a dreamy visionary with seemingly two sides to his nature, transfers aspects of the hate-love relationship of the vampire state to personal relationships between his characters. That lends a sexually charged underpinning to much of the narrative and creates some of the most gruesome and powerful scenes in the history of the horror novel. Stoker not only employed a series of firsthand accounts (such as diaries, journals, newspaper clippings, and other documents) to tell the story—thus returning to the epistolary technique introduced some years earlier by Wilkie Collins—he also fused several different viewpoints in the narrative. In part because he had little time at his disposal and had to write rapidly, and in part because of the Victorian cultural milieu, he lent a somewhat trite sentimentality to many sections of the book. Fortunately, however, the first few chapters of Dracula create a charged atmosphere of suspense that sustains the reader’s interest throughout. Stoker also took great care to interlace the narrative elements of the plot; every detail counts and hardly anything is superfluous. Although he relies heavily on direct testimonials, this device also possesses the virtue of imparting an immediate and believable effect. At the time the book was published, reviewers could well still have classified Dracula as a traditional gothic horror story because of ingredients such as ships lost at sea, mysterious castles, and vaults resounding with the patter of rats’ feet. What is unusual about this novel is the way Stoker treats his themes, the ambiguities in which he cloaks his vampire, and his use of forceful symbolism. Dracula has a mysterious and sinister atmosphere heightened by the narrative momentum of the vampire’s actions. Stoker offers his readers neither unnameable horror nor the kind of a rationalistic approach that might keep them from succumbing to the supernatural; rather, he concocts a suave combination of the two laced with subtle undertones of cold fear. Nevertheless, he clearly knows how to resort to nightmare horror when the occasion calls for it. Like a true horror writer, he paints with bold and deliberate strokes and as a result creates remarkable and brilliant images. For most of his life, he was deeply involved in theatrical management, and very likely his intimacy with the stage was at least partially responsible for his style. The “big” scenes are elaborate, and there is a dramatic flair to almost every incident. Although Stoker had not originally thought of converting his book into a drama—the only play version given during his lifetime was done for copyright purposes—the blatant melodrama of many of the scenes cries out for stage realization. Most of Dracula’s speeches to Harker, for example, are brilliantly dynamic (and have actually been put to good effect by many a filmmaker). Just as effective are the tableaux framed in time, for example the moment when a small band awaits the coming of the Count in Piccadilly or watches Dracula’s coffin being driven to his castle. The suspense created by these moments in slow motion is quickly relieved by the almost lightning sequence of events that tends to follow.
Stoker was never taken quite seriously as a novelist, at least not during his lifetime. Perhaps the main accusation against him was that of being a second-rate writer who churned out books and did not seem interested in refining his style. It is nevertheless his achievement that his readers are able to visualize every one of his terrifying details clearly. His blood allegory gathers to itself a host of meanings and a chilling atmosphere in which the most ordinary circumstances begin slipping into the realm of nightmare. It is precisely this ever-mounting anticipation, reeking with primordial awakenings, that creates the special style of Dracula. Here the reader is no longer dealing with a receptacle for ingenious devices of terror but with a battleground for searing issues of the body and the soul.