Although the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker, has surely been one of the most influential works of genre fiction ever written, ironically the central point of the book has nearly always been missed. Fortunately, a new novel co-written by Stoker’s great-grandnephew brings that aspect of the Dracula myth back to its appropriate place of primacy.
Stoker’s clear intention in the original novel Dracula was to make the devil, literally Satan, real to readers by depicting a naturally occurring but preternatural stand-in, Count Dracula. This is indicated throughout the book by direct references to Dracula as a devil, and by imagery and thematic elements having the same effect. In fact, the first discussion of Dracula, as recorded by the young solicitor Jonathan Harker in his journal, involves this: “When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further.”
A page or so later, Harker overhears a disturbing exchange: “I must say they [the few words he understood] were not cheering to me, for amongst them were ‘Ordog’ — Satan, ‘Pokol’ — hell, ‘stregoica’ — witch, ‘vrolok’ and ‘vlkoslak’ — both mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire.” Shortly thereafter, a companion refers to a mountain as “God’s Seat” and “crosse[s] himself reverently.” Several other characters make the sign of the cross in this chapter and throughout the book.
From the start, Dracula establishes a strong contrast between the medieval-style religious faith of the Transylvanians and the more worldly outlook of the English. Little wonder, then, that the count chooses to travel to Britain, where people are reluctant to acknowledge anything beyond the most prosaically materialistic of concerns — and thus are more vulnerable to him.
When Harker meets Dracula, the count invites the young Englishman into his house and emphasizes that he should “enter freely and of your own free will,” suggesting — oddly, it seems at this point — that Harker is making a momentous choice in doing so. “God keep me, if only for the sake of those dear to me,” Harker prays shortly thereafter. When Harker cuts himself shaving and Dracula sees the blood, “his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury,” thus linking the physical act of vampirism with an impure spiritual condition. This is also true of the numerous assertions that “the blood is the life,” a phrase taken directly from the Bible. And of course the vampires’ revulsion at the sight of a cross makes no sense as a phenomenon of nature but has obvious religious implications.
Dracula also makes numerous explicit references to demons and devils. At a climactic moment in chapter 16, Holmwood, one of the vampire hunters, says, “Is this really Lucy’s body, or only a demon in her shape?” In chapter 11, the lead vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, cries out, “Oh, how we are beset! How are all the powers of the devils against us!” In chapter 18, Van Helsing says the people of Dracula’s clan “were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One.”
And in the memorable moment when Lucy Westenra is discovered beginning to feed on a small child, as recorded by Dr. Seward in his diary, “with a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone.” Shortly thereafter, Seward notes that as Lucy tries to seduce Holmwood to go with her, “Tthere was something diabolically sweet in her tones.”
<page>Dracula is a rich mine of such references, and it’s therefore quite interesting that throughout the past century both literary critics and the giant industry of vampire fiction inspired by Stoker’s fascinating villain — which has mushroomed in recent years — overwhelmingly neglected the obvious religious intent of the story. Twentieth-century critics preferred to pigeonhole the novel according to their own sexual, ethnic, psychological (especially Freudian), political, and social-class obsessions, while ignoring the book’s real and perfectly evident central concern: the depiction of evil as a consequence of rebellion against God, embodied not only in people but also in devils and demons.
Dracula: The Un-Dead — written by Dacre Stoker and American screenwriter and historian Ian Holt, and published this month — makes a clear effort to begin a redressing of the balance. The book picks up the story a quarter-century after the hardy band of believers led by Abraham Van Helsing pursued Count Dracula and killed him. The heroes of the original novel are now old and sad, however, their lives having been plagued with disappointments and unhappiness in the intervening years.
Clearly the events of Dracula
were “a journey into hell, from which none of them had ever quite returned,” as the omniscient narrator of Dracula: The Un-Dead
notes. Although the new book is boldly revisionist about the events of the original novel, it retains the spiritual emphasis of the earlier book and provides some interesting new angles on it. Dracula, for example, is presented as many historians argue the real-life Vlad Dracul was: a protector of Christendom. There is a new main villain, a sadistic, lesbian vampire called Elizabeth Bathory. And in a rather brilliant twist, it turns out that the chief suspect in the long-unsolved Jack the Ripper case is Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.
Following the underappreciated central theme of Dracula, references to the demonic and to religious belief start in the new book’s first paragraph. Mina Harker, writing to her son Quincey, tells him that failing to know the truth about the events of a generation earlier “would put your life and your immortal soul in jeopardy.” Two paragraphs later she writes, “Evil lurks in the shadows of the world, waiting to prey upon the unbelieving and the unprepared.” A few paragraphs later she refers to Dracula as “the dark prince,” and the book explains that the name Dracula means “Son of the Dragon” or “Son of the Devil.” Mina closes her letter with the following: “If Van Helsing is correct, then vampires are truly demons, and God will be at your side as you do battle.”
One of the boldest artistic choices I’ve seen in a while occurs in chapter 6. After describing the vampiress Bathory’s initiation into homosexuality in rather sympathetic terms, the authors write, “It was in that moment that Bathory’s rebellion against God began.” Equally incendiary to the contemporary political-cultural establishment is the authors’ explanation of Bathory’s philosophy of life: “The only human for whom Bathory held any respect was Charles Darwin. Survival of the fittest. Bathory was humanity perfected,” according to her thinking. Later in that same chapter, she reflects on a prostitute whom she has just killed: “Bathory could never understand how wretched people like this whore could still find any love for God. What had God done for them?”
Before her conversion to vampirism, Bathory had a rather wretched life herself, married young to a brutish husband and exploited sexually by an older woman. She explicitly blames God for all of these evils: “God took from me everything I ever loved. . . . Well, I spit on God and his laws. And I spit on you, God’s champion.”
The authors, however, don’t accept Bathory’s excuse, and they make it very clear that evil is a choice: “Dracula had claimed many times that a vampire was not evil by nature. He did not believe that by becoming un-dead, a soul was automatically damned. Good or evil resided in the choices one made” — a vivid example of the book’s revisionism toward Stoker’s story material while retaining its essence. And at the end of the new book’s climactic fight scene, Bathory’s victorious opponent states, “God loved you. You chose to kill because you would not accept His love. You are responsible for your own crimes.”
Bathory is a wicked creature indeed, taking joy in inflicting pain and literally showering herself in her victims’ blood. With the far greater literary explicitness of our times, she is a much more sensationalistic character than Stoker’s Dracula, but she too is openly presented as a stand-in for the Devil, and, as in Stoker’s novel, those who oppose her are characterized as being on God’s side.
In chapter 2, for example, Dr. Seward prays, “Mary, Mother of God, protect her,” as a young woman is menaced by one of Bathory’s minions, who is referred to as a “dark-haired demon.” In chapter 5, as Seward prepares to face death, the authors write, “Tonight [Seward] was glad, one way or the other, that he would at last bask beside God in His light.” Similarly, as Seward dies after failing in an attempt to kill Bathory, he laments that he has “failed God.” In chapter 14, after Van Helsing staves off a heart attack by taking a nitroglycerine pill, the narrator recounts his thoughts: “There was a reason God kept him alive.”
Another character not in Stoker’s novel but embodying related themes is the police detective Cotford. He believes in the primacy of science and is repulsed by belief in the supernatural. Cotford says that there is no devil and that “true evil exists in the soul of man,” by which he means only in the human soul. Van Helsing tells him, “You see nothing. And what you do not see will kill you.”
There are indeed plenty of deaths and other horrors in Dracula: The Un-Dead, but there are good deeds as well. Notable in that regard is the book’s dramatic climax, in which a character chooses to offer up her immortal soul to save that of her son. Clearly intended to be reminiscent of Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins, this moment encapsulates the book’s themes, as well as those of its much-imitated but incompletely understood predecessor.
Like Dracula itself, Dracula: The Un-Dead is an entertaining literary potboiler with much thematic richness, and its explicit acknowledgment of the spiritual foundation of evil continues the good work initiated by Bram Stoker over a century ago. Let’s hope that this time the books’ central notion will remain un-dead a good deal longer.
– S. T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture.