Elizabeth Miller is recognized internationally for her expertise on Dracula – its origins in folklore, literature and history, as well as its influence on the culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has written several books on the subject, the most recent of which–Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula–was published last month. You can find links to all of her Dracula-related writing and research at blooferland.com.
In 1908, Irish writer Bram Stoker (far better known in his own day as a theatre manager than as an author) approached a young Winston Churchill about an interview for a London newspaper. Churchill, who eschewed interviews, made an exception in this case because, as he told Stoker, “You are the author of Dracula.”
The novel Dracula was published in London in 1897. The book has never been out of print, and has been reissued in hundreds of editions including dozens of foreign language translations. Today, its title evokes instant recognition. It is one of those rare novels that just about everyone has heard of but few have actually read. While the novel was by no means a best seller during the lifetime of its author (Stoker died in 1912), its later adaptation into stage plays and movies would assure its immortality. The figure of Count Dracula has managed to permeate just about every aspect of our culture: from comic books to chamber musicals, from Halloween costumes to ballet productions, from Dracula websites to Dracula tours. In a way, Dracula has become a victim of its own success. The plot has been mangled (especially by the movies), and the figure of Count Dracula has been trivialized to the point of ridicule.
“Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!” With these words, Count Dracula invites Jonathan Harker (and the reader) into his castle. I have a word of advice for the first-time visitor to this unusual novel: leave all your preconceptions and misconceptions outside the castle door. Forget the tacky movies, forget “I vant to suck your blooood” (a line that does not appear in the book), forget the Count on Sesame Street, forget Anne Rice, forget Twilight. And above all, forget Vlad the Impaler!
Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire. While vampires are part of the folklore and legends of many cultures dating back to ancient times, they did not make their appearance in British fiction until the early nineteenth century, with the publication of John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819). Polidori based his vampire – Lord Ruthven – on his former employer, the infamous Lord Byron. Interest in vampire literature continued through the nineteenth century. But it was Dracula (1897) that became the yardstick by which all future vampires in both fiction and film would be measured. Though Stoker appropriated certain elements of earlier fiction, his novel represents a major break from the Byronic tradition. He reached back to folklore to establish his vampire as more animalistic and repulsive – a walking corpse with fetid breath, hairy palms and pointed fingernails. The Count Dracula of Stoker’s novel is not, to the disappointment of many first-time readers today, the romantic, suave figure that evolved during the twentieth century.
Thanks to the availability of Stoker’s Notes for Dracula (124 pages of plot outlines, lists of characters, descriptions, medical details, an article entitled “Vampires in New England,” and research notes), we know a great deal about the genesis and development of the novel. For example, the Notes indicate that Stoker found the name “Dracula” in an obscure history book (William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia) in the Whitby Public Library where he was vacationing in the summer of 1890. He had already started his novel, and even had a name for his vampire – Count Wampyr. He was attracted to the name “Dracula” because a footnote in his source indicated it was derived from a Romanian word meaning “devil.” He appropriated the name, and Dracula became a vampire. Apparently, Stoker knew very little about the original Dracula (Vlad the Impaler). As for Transylvania, that was not Stoker’s first choice as a homeland for his vampire Count. That distinction belongs to Styria, a province in Austria and the setting of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872). The change was apparently inspired by Emily Gerard’s article “Transylvanian Superstitions” (The Nineteenth Century, 1885).
Prior to the 1970s, the academic community paid little attention to Dracula. That began to change, as post-modernist challenges to the traditional literary canon became more widespread. Dracula is now viewed by many as a significant novel. Indeed, its links with a vast range of disciplines, including anthropology, folklore, history, literature, medicine, psychology, religious studies and cultural studies have led to exciting scholarship and criticism. Many point to its psychosexual underpinnings. For others, it provides a window through which we can view the late Victorian age, the “fin-de-siècle” with its many fears and anxieties: the blurring of gender roles, waves of immigration from Eastern Europe, the erosion of traditional Christian beliefs in an increasingly skeptical age; the fear of regression, a reversal of evolution, a return to our more primal animal state.
In spite of its improbabilities, its overwrought dialogue and its internal inconsistencies, Dracula is a classic. The explosion of scholarly interest in what for decades was dismissed as an inferior novel is both a measure of Dracula‘s significant contribution to the bridging of the gap between popular and elitist writing and an indication of the enduring power of the myth that Stoker borrowed and reshaped, a myth that resonates in different ways for each generation, inviting them to confront their own fears, anxieties and desires. Dracula has managed to implant itself firmly in our cultural consciousness. While the craftsmanship is somewhat flawed, we have in Dracula another example of what Harold Bloom once said of Edgar Allan Poe, a work that is “somehow stronger than its telling… What survives is the psychological dynamics and the mythic reverberations.”
It is a novel that demands to be read.
Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition. Transcribed and annotated by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller. McFarland, 2008.
Clive Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel and the Legend – A Study of Bram Stoker’s Gothic Masterpiece. Desert Island Books, 2001.
Elizabeth Miller, Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon. Pegasus, 2009.
Paul Murray, From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker. Jonathan Cape, 2004.
Carol A. Senf, Dracula: Between Tradition and Modernism. Twayne, 1998.
David J Skal, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. Faber & Faber, 2004.