Matthew Baldwin's Journal

Serpents and Bats

10.09.09 | 8 Comments

Dracula has often been called “an inversion of the Christian mythos”. Well, I don’t know if it has “often” been called that. A friend once told me that in a bar over beers, and it sounds smart, so I’m repeating it here.

Still, you don’t have to go far into the novel before the religious allegories begin to make themselves apparent. Take this passage, from Chapter 2:

“You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, [says Dracula] except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not wish to go. There is reason that all things are as they are, and did you see with my eyes and know with my knowledge, you would perhaps better understand.”

Now where have I heard such admonishments before?

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.

Despite the threat, Adam wasn’t killed when he sampled the goods-instead he got evicted from the garden. Hawker, on the other hand, received the exact opposite punishment. Far from giving our timid solicitor the boot, the Count lit the “No Vacancy” sign and sealed all exits.

In both cases it is knowledge that is disallowed, of Good and Evil in Eden and of Just Plain Evil and Castle Dracula. And once they acquire that knowledge, they instantly come to regret it. This is a fairly common occurrence in horror literature: the protagonist discovers That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know (usually after being told repeatedly not to go a-lookin’), and is thereafter tormented by the horrible things to which he is now privy. Worst still is his realization that he cannot share his findings with others, even those he loves, lest they become haunted by the same terrible knowledge.

Horror is often given the short-shrift by the literati, but many of the ideas explored in the genre are among the most profound. This particular motif–the burden of knowledge that cannot be shared–is central to any number of novels filed away it your local bookstore’s “Literature” section. If Harker’s discovery had been more along the lines of “oh god I am forty-seven and haven’t achieved my life goals” rather than “uhhh the dude who served me dinner is crawling down the castle wall”, maybe Dracula would receive a bit more respect.

Although I will concede that Harker’s dilemma is a bit more straightforward than your typical treatise on existentialism. The obstacle he must surmount in communicating with those he loves is not the unfathomable chasm between the self and The Other, but rather the fact that he is sealed in a castle thousands of miles from home, with his mail routinely read and nary a cell-phone tower in sight.

And Harker is not the only victim. Bram does to us, the readers of the novel, what Dracula does to Harker: reveals the evil afoot, but prevents us from telling anyone. Through the use of dated journal entires we know not only what is happening in Castle Dracula, but when these terrible events occurs. And when Stoker abruptly changes the location to London and the date to early May, all that unfolds is tainted by our knowledge of the events to come. We too find ourselves wishing to warn Mina, but find ourselves in an even worst position than Harker to do so.

This is Stoker putting into practice something Alfred Hitchcock called “The Bomb Theory”:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

I don’t know much about Victorian fin-de-siecle literature, but I’m guessing Dracula wasn’t then only horror novel to be written. But already, a third of the way in, it’s clear why it has been canonized as a classic of the genre. Stoker understood that while surprise may startle, suspense of the show-the-the-bomb variety has the potential to evoke true, stomach-churning dread.

And so far, Dracula has been absolutely dreadful. For a horror novel, there is no higher praise.