Reading Dracula is a weird experience. Dracula himself is such a genre-defining character that, having never read the novel before, it feels unnatural to take all the cultural knowledge I’ve absorbed about vampire fiction and try to root it in one single book with a specific arc and a specific style. Obviously this isn’t the first ever vampire novel, but it’s one of the first, and it’s the one everyone has heard of.
The first thing I was struck by when reading was how early the horror elements kicked in. I’m not a reader of horror novels, so I think I’ve been conditioned by horror movies to expect that a large chunk of a horror story’s beginning will be about setting up a mundane status quo.
In Dracula, even though it takes some time for the protagonists to be put in immediate peril, spooky gothic stuff starts happening before we even meet Dracula, and when we do meet him it’s immediately clear there’s something unnatural about him. And it’s not even the pantomime he’s behind you type of clarity. The narrator in these sections becomes aware quickly that he’s in a scary situation, and there’s simply nothing he can do about it.
It’s probably worth remembering that horror as a movie genre is actually quite distinct from gothic fiction in the literary sense, though they’re both about expressing and exploring specific fears and anxieties. On that front, I’ve seen a lot of interesting interpretations of Dracula and vampire fiction in general.
One is how Dracula as a character represents Western Europe’s fear of Eastern Europe, with the industrial, capitalist and scientific Britain pitted against the feudal and superstitious Transylvania. In this interpretation Dracula’s undead immortality makes him a literal relic of the past, but one with an unholy insistence on continuing to exist outside the natural passage of time.
I’d heard this interpretation before I read the book, and I’m actually surprised how bluntly these themes are expressed. It’s all quite obvious in the text, and absolutely riddled with xenophobia and racism. Though none of that takes away from how interesting I find the concept.
In my own writing I place a lot of importance on time and history, and so even though that kind of anxiety is not one I share, I definitely find it fascinating to read about and see embodied in a character – especially one who turned out to be such a pop culture icon.
The other theme I see talked about a lot is repressed sexuality. Funnily enough, I don’t see much of that in Dracula, but I think that’s because I’m reading it through a modern lens. All the arguments about how sexuality is represented are ones I understand on an intellectual level, but the representation itself doesn’t have any impact on me.
I think this is sort of the reverse of the xenophobia situation; as a mixed race person in 2022, I’m a lot more startled by the book’s treatment of cultural supremacies and a lot less by its treatment of sexual freedom, ambiguity, and desire. I have to imagine this is the opposite of how a reader from Victorian England would have felt when it was first published.
Another thing I find interesting is that it’s an epistolary novel. This was something that I initially thought added to the strangeness of finally reading Dracula, because it’s such a unique structure and format that I thought it was weird for it to have produced one of the broadest stock characters in modern fiction. But, thinking about it now, it actually makes the reading experience feel less strange because if we were following one narrator, we would only be getting a single perspective on Dracula.
Instead, the fact that we see the character through the eyes of so many different characters with their own voices, cultural contexts and levels of understanding, it almost makes it feel like the novel is foreshadowing how many different versions of him we’d see in the next century.