Friday, 6 January 2012

Bram Stoker's Dracula

There is a common misconception that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula bites people in the neck. This is not precisely accurate: his targets are women. The central character, Jonathon Harker, who at the start of the book journeys to the Carpathians to organise Dracula’s move to England, is never threatened directly by Dracula himself, but he does have a very revealing experience (which might or might not be a dream) with three beautiful but sinister female vampires:-

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive …… I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth ….. and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle …… I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited - waited with beating heart”.

This was written in 1897. It is, by Victorian standards, soft-core pornography: the symbolism of vampirism as sex could hardly be plainer. I consider this is a vital part of the popular appeal of the Dracula myth.
Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire story. Quite apart from the fact that Count Dracula is loosely based on a genuine historical character, Prince Vlad Dracula (alias Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler) who defended his country of Wallachia - not Transylvania - against the Turks, the vampire myth is very ancient: the undead spirit who threatens the living. Even in England as late as the 19th century, suicides might be buried at an unmarked crossroads with a stake through the heart to prevent the ghost from walking abroad.

Stoker was not the first author of the Victorian age to write a popular vampire story. Back in 1872 the Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu published a story called “Carmilla”. The central character is Laura, travelling in Germany with her father, a widowed general. She meets and befriends Carmilla, a girl of her own age, who makes quasi-sexual advances to her. Laura dreams she has been bitten by a strange cat-like creature, and falls ill. Later, her father meets a certain general Spelsdorf, who tells him how has niece had had a similar experience with a girl called Millaraca (spot the obvious anagram!). A priest tells them that the girls have been bitten by a vampire. It is realised that Carmilla/Millarca is the reincarnation of Countess von Karlstein. They open the Countess’s tomb and destroy her body, and the girls are cured.

Did Bram Stoker read Le Fanu’s work? The structure of the two stories is so similar that it seems certain that he did. But there is one major difference.
I first came across Le Fanu’s story in a modern compilation of horror fiction, where it was fittingly renamed “The Vampire Lovers”. The idea of a girl biting and sucking the blood of another girl has deeply lesbian overtones. Similarly, a vampire who sucked the blood of other men would have a homosexual symbolism it would be impossible to overlook. I don’t think the world of popular entertainment is quite ready yet for a gay Count Dracula!

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