There have, of course, been several vampire classics – and I would agree with many that Anne Rices’ series deserves to be amongst these – but if anyone thinks of The Classic Vampire Story, then it is surely ofBram Stoker’s Dracula.
Bram Stoker had a varied career. He studied mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin, and was named University Athlete. He married Florence Balcombe, a society beauty; one of his rivals for her had been Oscar Wilde, who later became a family friend. After Wilde’s fall, Stoker visited him on the continent.
For some time he was manager to his friend the actor, Henry Irvin, and he also worked as a journalist. His gothic tales are only some of the many books he wrote . The most lurid of these are perhaps The Lair of the White Worm and The Lady of the Shroud. The Jewel of Seven Stars, little known today, full of interesting hints at reincarnation, is one of the first gothic books I read.
It is an interesting thing that Bram Stoker didn’t in fact travel to Transylvania – he relied on guide books – and did a spectacular job in bringing those descriptions to life.
Dracula is particularly interesting for the excellent combination of the lurid Gothic details and realistic reports. There are evocative descriptins of Dracula’s isolated castle built on an inaccessible cliff edge in which the unfortunate Jonathan Harker finds himself trapped and down the walls of which he sees his host crawling, his cloak folded about him like the wings of a bat, of Dracula appearing first to Lucy Westenra as a pair of hypnotic red eyes – and these are interspersed with the realistic, girlishly sentimental, confiding letters from Lucy Westenra to her former teacher Mina Harker.
There are included details from train timetables, newspaper accounts of the gothic happenings about the Hampstead area, Dr Seward’s reports from his lunatic asylum and the obsessive behaviour of his patient (Dracula’s tool) and so on.
Much of the story is told in diary form – a form that has become traditional for the Gothic novel.
It is brilliantly done, and Dracula makes for a wonderful (if melodramatic and sometimes unintentionally comic) read.
Here is Van Helsing, the original of all those ‘eccentric wise doctor’ figures in versions of this and other vampire stories :-
‘Her breathing grew stertorous, the mouth opened, and the pale gums, drawn back, made the teeth look longer and sharper than ever. In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips: – “Arthur! Oh my love, I am s glad you have come. Kiss me.” Arthur bent eagerly over to kiss her; but just at that moment Van Helsing…swooped upon him, and catching him by the neck with both hands, dragged him back with a fury of strength…”Not for your life!’ he said. ‘Not for your living soul and hers!”’
Here are two fainting Victorian heroines, one of whom does not survive. While to modern women they seem absurdly over delicate, they are the ladies of the time, an age where strong opinions, a robust constitution and a streak of independence was regarded as disgustingly unwomanly (when Mina and Lucy go for a long walk, they comment ironically that their unladylike appetites are worthy of ‘The New Woman’).
Here is a team of gallant heroes (three of whom were one time suitors to Lucy Westenra, but able to surmount any feelings of rivalry) opposed to a terrible threat to civilisation.
Here is the terrible Count, the classical vampire: –
‘There, in one of the great boxes…lay the Count. He was either dead or asleep, I could not say which – for the eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death – and the cheeks had the warmth of life through all their pallor, and the lips were as red as ever. But there was no sign of movement, no pulse, no breath, no beating of the heart. ..I thought he might have the keys upon him, but when I went to search I saw the dead eyes, and in them, dead though they were, such a look of hate, though unconscious of me or my presence, that I fled from the place…’
It is a classic tale of good versus evil, and a brilliant achievement.
More on this in my next post.