Monday, October 26, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dracula

First published in 1897, Abraham "Bram" Stoker's Dracula is one of those rare works of literature that, while being thoroughly steeped in the genre out of which it arose, in this case Gothic fiction, nevertheless manages to transcend their origins. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Dracula is one of the most influential novels of all time, inspiring not just many imitators but also whole genres of fiction and ensuring that the vampire is one of the enduring archetypes of Western mythology.

Like most people, I knew the character of Count Dracula long before I read the novel in which he appears. As a kid growing up in the 1970s, before the advent of inexpensive VCRs, I watched old movies on Saturday afternoons on local TV channels, among them the many Hammer films of Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee, which, as it turns out, were important influences on Dave Arneson. It was Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula that has probably stuck with me all these years as the interpretation of the titular character, despite its deviation from what Stoker himself actually wrote.

I only read the novel for the first time when I was in college and I was initially rather taken aback. Dracula is an epistolary novel rather than a traditional narrative. There are journal entries, telegrams, newspaper clippings, even transcripts from phonograph recordings, and they each shed a different light on the unfolding story of Count Dracula's "invasion" of late 19th century London. This gives the novel a somewhat disjointed feel, particularly since it's told from the perspective of several narrators, some of whom are unreliable or at least ignorant of all that is transpiring. Likewise, the novel is written in a style that sometimes felt stiff and "distant" to me, at least in parts, but I eventually came to realize this was intentional.

The general outline of the novel's plot are well-known: a Transylvanian vampire seeks to acquire real estate in England in order to gain access to a larger population on which to feed and to pave the way for his long-planned attempt to rise to power. What made the novel so fantastic, though, was not its plot but its characters, chiefly Count Dracula himself, who is at once repulsive and attractive. I'm not sure that the character has ever been adequately portrayed in film, as most portrayals tend to over-emphasize his seductive qualities at the expense of his monstrous ones. Dracula-as-Byronic-hero is a common misinterpretation of this character and, while there's little question that Stoker does make Dracula an alluring figure -- by design -- there's also no question that he's a villain and one who must be destroyed to ensure the safety of the world.

Like Stoker's Dracula, I find vampires to be both attractive and repulsive: attractive, because the idea of nearly-immortal damned souls stalking the night is a terrifying one; repulsive, because too few people nowadays look on vampires as unambiguously evil. I suppose that's as much proof as we need to illustrate the glamor of evil, but I can't help but feel disappointment at the way the archetype of the vampire has been so watered-down and indeed neutered of the power it packed in Stoker's day. I think there's still a lot of punch left in vampires but most of that punch comes from contemplating their status as thralls of Hell (whether literally or metaphorically) rather than as forever-young demigods.


  1. Next "Library" post on Frankenstein and flesh golems?

    (VerWord: perslers (pl. n.) -- apprentice pickpockets younger than age 10

  2. James,
    That's a good take on Bram Stoker and Dracula! I think that changes in culture was partly responsiblr for the new fascination with vampires. A while back I was talking with a boxer and personal trainer who caught the vampire bug through his girlfriend, who was into Anne Rice. I asked him what was so hot about vampires and he said: They are strong as hell and they live forever. I guess that's the appeal i out modern age.

    Also, I think that modern Vampire story has served a purpose diffrent than of just being a scary tale about a monster. Stephen King's Salem's Lot worked becausae it was really a (social) criticism story about a dying town in Maine written at the time when the US economy started transforming and New England mill towns started dying. Then you had Orson Scott Card's Lost Boys and the movie that was made based on that novel. The novel was a ghost story featuring child abuse and murdrer. The movie was more about peer pressure and youth gangs, BUT the filmmaker kept enough of the original novel to pattern the lead vampire on a real life manipulative child molester type who maintains a cirfcle of current and former victims who procure additonal victims for him. Hollywood actually did it's research and played it oh so subtly. Then you had Dusk Till Dawn and Fright Night, in Fright Night it was PERFORMANCE ARTIST as Vampire (and their decadent bohemian lifestyle), they even got a troupe of Spamish Ballet dancer to play themselves with vampire make up, awesome film! Dusk Till Dawn was the similarly done vampire hunting action flick, but with the Drug fueled decadence and violence of the Southern California/Mexico scene to provide the inspiration. And After all that you had Vampire role playing gfame and the mainstream faacination of the pop cultuire with vampires.

    Unlike dracula, the Vampire tales of the eighties ushered in by Srephen King were using the motif of the Vampire story to tell another kind of s story in an entertaining fashion.

    BTW, I read LOrd Byron's unfinished piece aboiut an encounter with the Vampyre and find it the best written of the four that were done that summer (which also produced Frankenstein). One summer in the mid 1800's, Lord Byron, his Doctor, Percy Busse Shelley and Mary Shelley went to tour Europe and each wrote horror stories which they read to each other. Not sure if Bram Stoker went on that trip. There is a book that has collected all the unpublished takes orm that trip, Byron's prose was the best. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (and may have also gotten pregnant) on that trip.

  3. As much of a soft spot as I have for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's portrayals of the good count, I'll always have a soft spot for Gary Oldman's version which, despite the romantic plot tumor, struck me as suitably vile and "creepifying."

    Then again, I'm still a great fan of Count Orlock, myself. Simultaneously repugnant and charismatically aluring.

  4. What is most interesting about the original Dracula is how it is the exact opposite of vampires in modern popular culture.

    Dracula is, in many ways, a detective novel. The principle characters use science to understand and thwart what was assumed to be supernatural, and hence incomprehensible. This is why vampires now have so many damn rules; these rules where the outcome of the characters' investigation. Thus this book is, in many ways, a story of the triumph of reason over superstition.

    Modern vampires, on the other hand are often used as a representation of the inadequacy of science and reason. They are the manifestation of "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. "

  5. Two observations:

    1) I am more than disappointed at the modern portrayal of vampires as "forever-young" demigods. They are vile, murderous, cold-blooded monsters. I find it ironic that as our culture has become more secular, our longing for immortality has turned to these monsters as our archetype.

    2) Vlad Dracul is an actual historic figure who, to this day, is seen as a hero by the Romanian people. He brutally protected Europe from Ottoman invasion, and his association with the fictional Dracula is unfortunate.

  6. I heartily concur that we don't see enough of the repulsive side of vampires and I, too, was heartily influenced by viewings of Hammer vampire flicks on Saturday afternoons. I think Lee's Dracula is undeniably powerful but unmistakably villainous, also. Marv Wolfman's depiction of the Count in the '70s Marvel mag Tomb of Dracula is also a favorite.

  7. The Lost Boys is based on an OSC novel? I knew that the film was written with an eye to Peter Pan, but I've never seen anyone assert that it was based on a novel. I'll have to look into that!

    Dracula is hands down one of my favourite books. I'd love to turn it into a Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign, as I think it has a rollicking good pulpy plot, but alas everyone is far too familiar with it. Oh well.

  8. I recently re-read Dracula and still can't find anything attractive in the Count. He's a monster.

    I guess that was my initial revulsion to the Vampire RPG. I was wanting a Vampire-HUNTING game, and when I found out you played Vampires (this on the heels of the Coppola movie in the early 90s which I hated for making Dracula a sympathetic character), there was no way I was going anywhere near it.

  9. Kelvin Green,
    oh... is IS based on Peter Pan, as is the OSC novel. Woithout giving away any spilers the Lost Boys the novel goes like so: In the days of the Atari and Intellivion ahem... early 1980's... Busy dad has an abandoned kid who gets addicted to playing videogames on his Commodore 64... yes, brothers, and the game this kid is playing seems to be based on Peter Pan the novel, since the lost boys are running around a giant pirate ship that was stolen from Captain Hook... and the kid gets progressively weirder as he starts talking to the characters in the videogame instead opf playing with his friends in little league, and than DAD starts paying attention and notices that the kids in the videogame bear a striking resemblence to kids on milk cartons... heh-heh... lost boys, indeed.

  10. I wanted to like Dracula. Really I did. I loved Frankenstein and considered it one of the geeat works of horror. But I just found Dracula very, very dull. But I loved Brust's Agyar. maybe that means something...

  11. Kelvingreen and Brooze the Bear:

    Sorry to burst that bubble, but there's no direct connection between Orson Scott Card's novel Lost Boys (pub'd 1992, based on a short story pub'd in 1990 in F&SF) and the vampire film/Kiefer Sutherland vehicle Lost Boys (released 1987). There are a few thematic similarities--the family is new in town and all that--but both owe more to Peter Pan than either owes to the other.

    (Weirdly, Card apparently accuses M Night Shyamalan of ripping off his book Lost Boys for The Sixth Sense--but decided not to sue...)

    And no, Stoker wasn't with the Shelley/Byron party at Chateau Diodati in 1816, because he wouldn't be born for another 30 years. But Dr. Polidori, Byron's physician, did write a novel titled _The Vampyre_ which developed out of the story he told Byron and the Shelleys.

  12. Sorry for multiple posts.

    I agree with much of what's been said about modern vampires, but I think the de-fanging of the vampire is part of a bigger trend--the rejection of the monster and the alien/other generally as an acceptable category. The sympathetic monster is a big deal in literature of the last fifty years, from _Grendel_ to _Interview with the Vampire_ to Hannibal Lector, because 1) we have come to reject categories of otherness that these monsters are often used to symbolize, i.e. Dracula is a scary foreigner, and 2) the monster is being used more and more to symbolize our own sense of alienation, i.e. in some ways I'm a lot like Dracula.

    Even zombies are getting a more and more sympathetic treatment these days.

  13. Jack,

    I have no problem with the concept of accepting the radical other (Christianity is founded on God Himself becoming a radical other in order to save that radical other). The problem with the monster as an acceptable category is that it neuters our ability to recognize evil when we see it. Rather than a symbol of our own alienation, our recent love affair with vampires, serial killers and even zombies is a symptom of our own inability to distinguish good from evil.

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  15. "The problem with the monster as an acceptable category is that it neuters our ability to recognize evil when we see it."

    Ehn, you could as reasonably argue that it represents a greater interest in determining evil than simply assuming it. Or, more likely, because the tide's shifted back towards the tragic/romantic end of things when it comes to vampires. Buffy famously had a couple of "good" vampires some years back, but also hordes of soulless predators that deserved no better than a quick dusting; Whedon and company were, at the time, pushing back against the tragic/romantic vampire shtick that was dominant.

  16. I stand corrected on the Lost Boys the Card novel versus the movie.

    Tolerance and Diversity is what makes us (and what made Romans) great. other call it decadence. With regards to Evil, I did a typology of evil once for my D&D Campaign. There was bestial evil of a sentient lion eting the cubs sired by another male, there was abstract intellectual, Faustian arrogance, there as aleinness, which did not see humanity as anything more than a a bunch of chickens at an industrial chicken farm, and a few other types I have forgotten, I threw away those notes. The point is that tolerance as gets exdpressed in the sympathetic monsters and evil, as it gets recognized by society, are two sepaarte issues, and I wouldn't worry. People who deal with the issue of evil in out society, the pedagogues, the clergy, the social workers, do not typically escape into Tolkien and fantasy. There are esxamples of street people/urban poor who escape into sci-fi/horror/fantasy and D&D. Since they are the ones, who are marginalized as "Others" by the cool and the high school jocks, you can see where stories tolerant of the monsters would appeal to them. On tghe other hand, Future technocrats, engineers and academics in grad school who get into sci fi and role playing, they don't usually have the wherewithal to spot the colonial stereotypes in Tolkien, for instance. For that reason, I wouldn't worry about us as a society failing to recognize evil, oe rather, we would be just as ignorant if there weren't those pc monster as misunderstood hero stuff on out book shelves.

  17. I think the obsession with information technology, miscegenation and "Old Europe" is at the heart of Dracula, although the Gothic trappings certainly didn't hurt its popularity.

  18. I wonder whether Robert Howard had Dracula in mind when he wrote about Akivasha the undying princess...despite his brief appearance, she is one of the scariest characters ever:

    "I am Akivasha! I am the woman who never died, who never grew old! Who fools say was lifted from the earth by the gods, in the full bloom of her youth and beauty, to queen it for ever in some celestial clime! Nay, it is in the shadows that mortals find immortality! Ten thousand years ago I died to live for ever! Give me your lips, strong man!" Rising lithely she came to him, rose on tiptoe and flung her arms about his massive neck. Scowling down into her upturned, beautiful countenance he was aware of a fearful fascination and an icy fear. "Love me!" she whispered, her head thrown back, eyes closed and lips parted. "Give me of your blood to renew my youth and perpetuate my everlasting life! I will make you, too, immortal! I will teach you the wisdom of all the ages, all the secrets that have lasted out the eons in the blackness beneath these dark temples. I will make you king of that shadowy horde which revel among the tombs of the ancients when night veils the desert and bats flit across the moon. I am weary of priests and magicians, and captive girls dragged screaming through the portals of death. I desire a man. Love me, barbarian!"

  19. Eric,

    Whedon and company were just as guilty as every one else. While I appreciated that Buffy was a Vampire Hunter, the show and its spin-off Angel were both very ambiguous about monsters. This very ambiguity is symptomatic and reflective of a society that no longer is certain about what constitutes evil.


    Christ took on everyone's humanity. Evil, otherness, colonialism, etc. are universal to the human experience. Beware of arbitrarily dividing humanity into groups and dismissing ideas because they don't apply to a particular group. It smacks of intolerance. I might also remind you that the Romans weren't too tolerant of Christianity for three hundred years...

  20. Fr. Dave, what are you trying to say about colonialism and genocide being universal to human experience? You aren't suggesting acceptance? I was talking about D&D players accepting certain stereotypes in ignorance due to limited experience.

    With regards to Romans, I am not claiming that they were open-minded, or "good", only that they wree more permissiive, if not tolerant, in comparison to the others in antiquity, and that permissiveness made them more diverse and Roman Empire the pedominant power.

    Romans allowed marital separation and divorce, while the germanic tribes that destroyed Rome practiced monogamy and practiced family values. To wit, to quote from Julius Caesar's notes on the campaign against the Gauls: There was a tribe called Belgues (their land used to be Belgium). They revolted against the Rome and they grabbed the Roman governor and dragged him out of his villa. And they asked him - What makes you, a small, scrawny, swarthy man, who has sex with other men; what makes you superior to us? We are bigger than you, we are blond and we are beautiful! What makes you our governor? And they lifted their Roman goivernor on their spears and killed him. When Julius Caesar came to pacify the Gauls and laid a twenty year siege of what is now Paris, he ordered that each and every member of the Belgue tribe be hunted down and killed. Within his lifestime, Caesar has completely exterminated the Belgues as a ttibe.

    So, I am not saying that Romans were good, only that they made a great empire, partly due to greater tolerance. Pax Romana!

  21. Lots of interesting discussion here. My own observations, however, are much more pedestrian.

    This seems to be an inevitable cycle. Create a kind of monster. It is then a compelling story to consider a unique individual of that kind who has recognized and rejected their monstrousness. Then, if there can be one, then there can be many. At some point the “good” ones outnumber the monsters. So, they no longer serve the purpose of monster or unique individual.

    So then, we have to create a new kind of monster and repeat the cycle. I don’t know that this is a bad thing, but it seems awfully silly.

  22. The book Dracula, is the very first "Vampire" book. Not to mention a window into a time that is long past. It has some of the best characters ever invented, and is a perfect example of the Evil Puppet Master at work. You never heard from the vampire; he's always in the shadows manipulating everyone.

    At the time of its publishing, the western world marveled at it exposing many of the fears of the East, and implanting them into the minds of the west.

    I do find it interesting what film has done to the vampire myths of the past. The very first film "Nosferatu" went into one direction, which absolutely terrified the audience. Bela Lugosi was both mysterious and dark, and Lee's Dracula was imposing, intelligent, and powerful.

    What is really the mystery to me is Why they chose to claim that Mina was somehow related to Dracula's past and that he loved her. Dracula loved nobody! He was a great villain, yet I honestly don't know what created this trend of actually siding with him and giving him human motivations which he clearly was never mesnt to possess.

    As far as D&D influence, I think that the death, rebirth, and confrontation of Lucy is the perfect scenario, though I am also partial to how Stoker describes the people and their customs. This is a masterpiece, the fact that it is also a horror story is secondary. The writing is incredible, and we must remember that at the time, this book was the first of its kind, and despite all of the imitations it still stands on its own.

  23. Ripper,
    Stroker's Dracula was the first vampire BESTSELLER. Vampire is uniquely a product of the Slavic folklore the way a wereworl = wer wolf = man wolf was the product of the Anglo Saxon heritage with roots of both mythical creatures going into pre-christianity. Vampire stories became known in Western Europe earlier than Stroker. The first stories were brought back with the British adventurers, spies, and soldiers, who were serving as advisors to the Greeks, Macedonians, and various other Slavic people in the fight againmst the Ottoman Empire. Lord Byron and the Romantics of his school fought in that war (Byronm was killed in it) and they brought back Vampire stories as samples of folklore and romantic fiction. As a matter of fact, there is a volume of vampire stories that were produced at the Diodati tafvels and which contains Polidori's Vampyre. BTW Plidori was much abused servant of Byron, adn their stories are written about the same thing - Byron wrote of himself as the MYSTERIOUS COUNT, Polidori wrote a plaintive compalint about a shallow arrogant abusve ariotocrat who happens to be vampiric. Byron's is a better read, no that I dont sypathize with Polidori. Polidori was of humble origins who was the type that loves with mother and has no girlfriend. Byron was poor, used his charm to borrow money from friends and acted like Donald Trump. At one dinner Polidori compained in front of the Shelleys: Why do you always get all the glory and the women, to which Byron replied: Because I soeak four languages, I can put a bullet through that keyhole, and I because I can beat you up! Apparently little changes over time...

  24. "The book Dracula, is the very first 'Vampire' book."

    Not at all. Here's a sampling of other famous examples that predate Dracula (1897), in chronological order:

  25. The "pure evil" of Dracula is only a personification of the fears of the Victorian male: Miscegenation and feminine sexuality are given a shadowy eastern hero. It is, as always, "otherness" that scares. What we love about this novel is that it is entirely one-sided. Yes, it is fun to roll all of our fears and prejudices into one character and watch its inevitable destruction at the hands of our heroes. (Including the death of Morris: notice that the "american" figure is treated the way the "black guy" figure is in our movies. Theirs is an intriguing, benign otherness that makes the tale more interesting, but marks them as expendable)

    It does not however, help us understand or fight evil. Evil is something that exists within human beings, and to localize it in supernatural monsters is to deny its nature. What made "Frankenstein" such a superior and enduring novel was its nuanced approach to evil. (Conan Doyle adds to this conversation with "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" which is a short and fun read:

    Yes, the novel sets up reason against superstition:
    Mina and Van Helsing use their logical modern minds to best the ancient supernatural foe, but it is exactly this trust in science (personified by Seward, who takes forever to accept that anything supernatural is occurring) that is being manipulated to induce terror in the Victorian reader.
    It is their understanding of the count as a "criminal", who has therefore an "imperfect" mind, incapable of remorse, that allows them to anticipate his movements and ultimately triumph. Not the sort of plot point that is going to stand up in a true detective story.

    What the modern vampire tale has done is to undo Stoker's mistake in making a villain incapable of remorse. From Interview's Luis to Buffy's Angel to True Blood's Bill, the modern Vampire/hero is born in remorse. Like the Greeks before us, we are moving toward an understanding of the tragic. Good and evil are not absolutes, they are within each of us and their war must be fought internally before it can be faced externally.