Thrilling and Repulsive – an oxymoron perhaps, but one that neatly summarises the central theme of Dracula. The broad elements of the plot of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel will be familiar to most if not all, but the text is unlikely to have been read by many outside those compelled to do so by college curricula, horror enthusiasts, or, like me, the Kindle-curious.
However imposing physically the Count may be, Dracula the character is in many ways a weak opponent – like Sauron or He Who Must Not be Named he doesn’t personally engage in the struggle with the rather Scooby-Doo like gang assembled to fight him, and is far too easily despatched when finally cornered. His inability to walk during the day, to be seen in mirrors, to rest outside his coffin filled with Transylvanian earth, combined with extreme allergies to garlic, crosses, holy water, and peanuts (I may have made the last one up) makes it hard to fear him. The only character he is able to conquer misses multiple opportunities to avoid him (eg closing her bedroom window at night – Doh!).
The cast of characters are noble, brave, and fearless in their pursuit of Dracula – but boy are they dumb! Jonathan Harker sees that Dracula has no reflection in a mirror in just the second chapter of the novel – but lets it pass without much concern or interest, and continues to treat his client as an eccentric European gentleman. Now I appreciate some of the vampire traditions had yet to be firmly entrenched in western consciousness, but how dense do you have to be not to spot that something supernatural is going on there? The long slow reveal of Dracula’s identify would be spoiled by too much emphasis or scrutiny of this episode, and that to Victorian readers the penny would take longer to drop, but still!.
There are some genuinely chilling moments in the novel. A small child is kidnapped and thrown to the three female vampires as a snack. The child’s mother is torn apart by wolves. A mental patient breeds and then eats insects – I am surprised he has not been included in the film adaptations of the text. The ghost ship pulling into Whitby harbour is equally effective.
Finally, and most strikingly, there is so much sex. This isn’t a new observation of course, and I know critics have seen descriptions of every form of sexual behaviour in this text, but the lasciviousness of the characters – compared to what we would normally expect in a late Victoria novel – is genuinely shocking. Although the sex act itself is not explicitly described, little else is left to the imagination. Innuendo stalks every chapter. When Harker first meets the three female vampires in the Count’s castle, he describes their encounter in highly and specifically sexual terms: one of them says “He is young and strong. There are kisses for all of us”. Harker then says “I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation….The girl went on her knees and bent over me…There was a deliberate voluptuousness, which was both thrilling and repulsive.” (Chapter 3). I think you have the heart of the issue there – sex in all its delicious variety was to the Victorians both thrilling and repulsive. Or take this description of one of the fallen characters being “staked”:
“Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it […]. And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over.”
Coitus interruptus indeed.