125 Years Old and Still Biting

Bram Stoker’s gothic masterpiece speaks surprisingly well to our information-addled age of paranoia.

Dracula from behind
Hulton Archive / Getty

You know him. Everybody knows him. The opera cape and the tuxedo and the hypnotic gaze and the Mitteleuropean accent and the winking lines about not drinking … wine and staying out of the sun. Many of these are from Hollywood adaptations, from Dracula’s Daughter to Love at First Bite, but the original Bram Stoker novel, a century and a quarter old this year, gave the character his long-standing appeal—for reasons well worth thinking about today.

A very quick refresher of the novel’s plot, if the above is most of what you remember: The London lawyer Jonathan Harker visits Dracula’s castle in the Carpathians to help the Count with his plan to move to London—but Harker discovers Dracula’s true bloodsucking nature and is imprisoned. In London, the Count turns a young woman, Lucy Westenra, into a vampire, despite the best efforts of one Professor Van Helsing. A small group—led by Van Helsing and composed of friends and family of Dracula’s victims—hunts and kills first undead Lucy, then Dracula himself, after chasing him back to Romania. The novel, compared with most of its contemporaries, still moves like a freight train, but it’s not just the action and adventure that appeal.

Dracula has long been seen as the ultimate in allegorical tales: Interpreters of the book, including Stephen King and Francis Ford Coppola, have perceived vampires as a floating (or is it flapping?) signifier. You can squint, not very hard, for example, and see Victorian-era debates over the agency and sexuality of the “New Woman”: Poor, demure Lucy is “turned” by Dracula and suddenly possessed of predatory red lips, seeking her desire out on the London streets and getting nailed to her coffin with a phallic stake for her pain.

Oh, or in this age of COVID,  feel free to consider Dracula as a novel of epidemiology. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released in the days when HIV was still largely considered a death sentence, famously contained close-ups of vampiric corpuscles conquering human cellular structures.

But where Stoker’s novel may resonate most powerfully today is in the way it talks about information: how it spreads, who believes it, who doesn’t—an issue frequently elided in the adaptations, but one with particularly intriguing, and disquieting, contemporary relevance. And to understand how it does that, we have to do something we do very often when talking about information: We have to look beyond the novel’s plot, to its form.

Most of Dracula presents itself as correspondence: letters, journal entries (some dictated on that relatively recent invention, the phonograph), telegrams, even newspaper reports—the new, or newly exploding, media of the fin de siècle. Stoker wanted to give his story immediacy, and this was the best way to do it. His prefatory comment to the novel, which explains its method, emphasizes the nut graf, the cut to the chase, the sense of now: “All needless matters have been eliminated … There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them,” he writes.

For Stoker, this emphasis on immediacy, and the media that could produce it, achieved remarkable effect in re-creating the experience of his characters as they came to grips with Dracula’s monstrosity in real time. We, of course, have an advantage over those poor souls not just thanks to the benefit of knowing that we’re reading Dracula, not just because of our 125 years of hindsight, but because we’re given the perspective of all the characters, linearly and panoramically. Every reader of the novel—every reader or watcher of every horror book, play, or movie since Dracula—is well aware of the phenomenon of being ahead of the characters, laughing a bit when we hear them think to themselves, Oh, look, two tiny pinpricks on the neck of a suddenly pale woman; I suppose it’s nothing. But it’s worth returning to the novel as Stoker intended, experiencing the characters’ individual unease, trapped in a world quickly ceasing to make sense while they struggle to figure out what, precisely, is going on.

We know this confusion well in our own lives. That horrific familiarity of a blizzard of emails, chats, texts, tweets, multiple media, all telling part of the story, and all too often a misleading part, at that. We find ourselves barraged by so many claims and counterclaims that truth collapses, which is when a real monster can prey on our inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. (It’s worth noting that Dracula’s monstrous behaviors extend to tampering with the mail; early in the novel, he intercepts letters that might give away his planned move to London.) What happens in the interstices, while we try to make sense of everything? Evil is on the march, the novel whispers, that’s what—and who doesn’t share unease about that?

And more: What protects Dracula the most in London—what allows him to successfully attack Lucy, what allows Lucy to prey on children—is the fact that it seems impossible for anyone in modern London to believe such a thing as a vampire could possibly exist. In an age of too much information, our preconceptions and priors take over to help us weed through explanations, and in an age of Victorian scientism, that means vampires aren’t an option. Even if they very much are.

The novel offers a resonant lesson about belief in the unbelievable: It can happen here. Two of the story’s most indelible characters, on opposite sides, are believers: Renfield, Dracula’s eventual acolyte, sees dark forces more clearly than most, and is accordingly a denizen of an asylum for his (admittedly terrifying) knowledge; Van Helsing, the leader of the resistance, is introduced, significantly, not only as a “metaphysician and one of the most advanced scientists of his day” but as having “an absolutely open mind.” To Van Helsing, everything is possible. This dive into the upsides of conspiratorial thinking—in a novel where the monster that can’t possibly be real actually is—is an allegorical touchstone for our paranoia-saturated age. What do we believe and disbelieve? Dracula whispers to us that maybe we shouldn’t discount anything at all that comes across the transom, no matter how outlandish. What does it mean to live in a world like that?

Within the world of the novel, it must be said, this irrationality has its benefits: in the form of its mirror cousin, faith. What saves the day in Dracula is not the medical caduceus but the cross. Stoker’s novel very explicitly aligns the forces of good with the forces of Christianity. This has its problems, of course—its xenophobic allegory of rejecting the non-Christian creature of ostensibly old and unenlightened Eastern Europe rings uneasily in an age of resurgent nativism and anti-Semitism. (Sort of like a virus, so perhaps it’s a COVID novel after all.)

But it means that the novel’s optimistic conclusion—in which Van Helsing’s group, led by a divine sense that good will always win out, turns fragmented individualism into collectivity to overcome doubt and confusion, landing a resounding victory over the monster—is based on a kind of counterconspiracy of faith. Shadowy threats might exist, but we’ll come together, gain moral and epistemological clarity, and flatten the threat (and the curve) once and for all. You better believe it.

This sounds promising, and it’s certainly the kind of a conspiracy theory one would love to get behind.  But here’s the thing to remember about Dracula: Stoker killed him off at the end of his novel, but he just keeps coming back.