In March 1890, Bram Stoker woke from a bad dream. Seven years later, he published Dracula, one of the most influential horror stories in the English language. But the English public had been having nightmares about vampires well before Stoker. In fact, most of the European continent had been fixated with them for over a century. So why is it that Dracula is widely considered the progenitor of the vampire in English literature?
There was a lot happening by way of vampires before 1897. In 1732, one Arnold Paole fell from a hay wagon and broke this neck. A month after his death, he rose from his grave and took the lives of four people and several cows and sheep (Frayling 20). Paole became one of the century’s most sensational stories in the popular press. That is, until John Polidori’s The Vampyre. It was hinted in the introduction that The Vampyre was Lord Byron’s, stimulating a deluge of sales. The record was eventually set straight, but not before The Vampyre, and Lord Ruthven, had firmly implanted itself in the imaginations of the European public. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, the story of Ruthven was repeated ad nauseam.* As Christopher Frayling states, by the 1890s, “the genre [had] either to diversify or to repeat itself” (42). Stoker chose the latter.
Stoker did a great deal of research before writing Dracula.** The book that resulted was a combination of his notes on vampire folklore and a synthesis of several contemporary manifestations of the monster. Frayling cites four archetypal vampires from this time: The Satanic Lord (Polidori’s Ruthven), the Fatal Woman (Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla), the Unseen Force (popular in the US), and the Folkloric Vampire (poor Arnold Paole) (62). The influence of Ruthven is apparent in Dracula’s appearance. The Fatal Woman is present in Dracula’s seductive sister brides*** and in the sexualized vampire version of Lucy Westerna.
But if Stoker was repeating the same old clichés, Dracula would have faded into obscurity like its antecedents. What’s interesting about Dracula is what Stoker changed. For starters, Dracula was not the aristocrat readers had come to expect. Ruthven and many of his progeny are aristocrats, but in the suave, mysterious sort of way. Dracula is an aristocrat in the dirty old man, out-dated-class-structure sort out way. Stoker’s Dracula is also more animal than man.
As Nina Auerbach points out, for the first time vampires were associated with “hairiness, foul breath, affinity with animals and corpses” (21). Dracula can control bats and wolves, as well as transform into them. To top matters off, Stoker combines werewolf and vampire lore when creating his count, giving him hairy palms—a fact that especially repulses his guest Jonathan Harker. But more than anything, Stoker created absolute, if completely arbitrary, rules that still govern vampires today.**** As if associating Dracula with animals didn’t separate him from humans enough, Stoker also created a set of rules that made vampires absolutely distinct from humans, forever.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Dracula so enduring. It might be Stoker’s seamless combination of so many popular versions of the vampire. It might be, as Frayling postulates, Stoker’s depiction of dark physiological fears (to do with blood and sexual initiation…) that continue to be relevant (79). But I think it rests in Stoker’s imposition of absolute vampire rules. In Dracula, Stoker made vampires real. He created a world for them and gave them rules they could live by. Stoker’s Dracula rises from the mess of nineteenth-century bloodsuckers and sheep-killers as an authoritative, supreme being. And we haven’t been able to get him out of our heads ever since.
Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. Faber and Faber: London; Boston, 1992
* They started rolling all the supernatural heroes of the day into one, the demand was so high. Plays like Frankenstein or The Vampire’s Victim, which combined Frankenstein and The Vampyre, were extremely popular. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1872, a vampire-themed burlesque opened at the Royal Strand Theatre (Frayling 37-38).
** Despite the popular belief to the contrary…. Frayling tells us that when the University of Oxford Press announced they were reissuing Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the hundredth title in their World’s Classics Series, it did so with disdain. A. N. Wilson, who wrote the introduction to the new volume, said the work was of the “powerful, workaday sensationalist kind”, but that it was not literature (qtd. in Frayling 43). In addition, he stated that Stoker may have done some research—but clearly not very much. Turns out that is was Wilson who didn’t do his research. Over a decade before Wilson wrote his introduction, Stoker’s original notes for Dracula had been acquired by the Rosenbach Foundation in Philadelphia. Anyone could go and look at them who pleased.
*** They appear only once and try to “kiss” Jonathan Harker. “Kiss” being a euphemism for “sex up.” Jonathan is powerless to resist them (no for real: absolutely powerless) and is only saved from their hungry red lips when Dracula shows up with a burlap sack full of fresh babies for the ladies to eat. Whew, saved by the sack of babies.
**** To the point where they still have a hold on horror novelists today (well, except for Stephenie Meyer). When I searched “Bram Stoker vampire rules” in Google, the first entry was a British answers site where one vampire fan had posted a question searching for Stoker’s vampire rules, so that he or she might go forth and write a vampire novel too.