Dracula seems to be one of those love-it or hate-it type books, but for me it is all love! The opening chapters alone provide some of the most gripping, suspense-inducing, edge-of-seat anxieties I’ve ever read, all leading up to a delightfully queer twist with a male character stepping in for the traditional Gothic heroine.
Jonathan Harker fulfills the damsel in distress role quite suitably, being locked away in a remote castle and forced to navigate the domineering personality of his captor. Dracula is reminiscent of Montoni from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, particularly in the way he has control over Jonathan’s sexual well-being. When the three weird sisters close in on an unaccompanied Jonathan, Dracula stops them at the last second, saying “This man belongs to me!” before Harker “sank down unconscious.”
Outside of Jonathan getting his chance to faint like the best of Gothic women, this dominating dialogue can’t help but have a sexual undertone. There’s just something about a vampire’s possessiveness, affixation with tender neck flesh, the nocturnal visits and dangling appeal of immortality that make them hot, hot, hot! Some readers may read terror in these lines, but I think it’s hard to deny at least some titillation at Jonathan’s situation of total submission. Anyway, it is possible to have two feelings at once. Horror and eroticism may seem like polar opposites, but I think they go together like PB&J.
Dracula’s female selections also get to experience this ethereal mixture of terror and desire while under the vampire’s spell. Lucy dazedly roams the midnight hour in her nightgown, meeting the “king vampire” for a moonlit rendezvous. Mina, too, the novel’s surprisingly dynamic female star, a rare treat in 19th century lit, goes so far as to engage in a bizarre perversity of sucking upon Dracula’s bleeding breast.
Though she claims to be induced to such behavior by a trance, one wonders how much arm-twisting or brain fog was necessary. If we are to see the vampire’s bite as sexually desirable, symbolically or literally, perhaps these creatures of the night are less monster and more orchestrator of dreams. After all, Dracula is a convenient outlet for taboos to be explored, experienced, and excused from public shame. Something like that might have been especially appealing to a sexually repressed 1897 audience.
Despite being the most famous and enduring vampire novel of all time, Dracula remains a must-read classic. You won’t be surprised by some details because Stoker’s vampire “rules” are public knowledge by now, but that doesn’t make the novel any less thrilling, enticing, and occasionally shocking. There’s some really gruesome moments that totally caught me off guard. Also, the epistolary storytelling device works well. There’s a lot of subtleties hidden in the diary entries that slowly build horror—arguably too slowly—and the effect is notably more realistic and more chilling than even the novel’s impressive reputation had me expecting. So happy to finally check this read off my bucket list!!
PS: For Stephen King fans, IT is so clearly modeled after Dracula that it’s almost shocking. Every beat of this classic appears somewhere in King’s book, with Dracula and Pennywise sharing many traits and the power of working together being a major theme. The way the monster controls side characters is also familiar. Renfield and Henry Bowers share a lot in common, for instance, as do Mina and Bill’s wife.
“Dracula’s Guest” is a deleted chapter from Dracula (1897) that was published by Bram Stoker’s wife after his death. She described it as a “hitherto unpublished episode,” but it reads much less like an episode and much more like a scrapped opening chapter.
For those familiar with the iconic novel, you know that the opening chapters deal with Jonathan Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula, the many red flags along the way, and the eventual realization of being trapped with the blood-thirsty vampire. “Dracula’s Guest” attempts to create the same sense of dreaded foreboding before reaching the castle, but in a slightly different way. In this version, Harker insists upon venturing down an “unholy” road despite protests from the locals. Naturally he gets lost in a sublime snow tempest and encounters spooky things along the way.
Harker’s wrong turn renders some opioid-infused descriptions of surreal swoons and moody weather, plus an unpleasant detour in a graveyard and encounters with snarling wolves. Given Dracula is generally more prone to subtlety, this chapter is an enjoyable read for its in-your-face drama if nothing else. There’s also a clear allusion to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s earlier vampire novel, Carmilla (1872), which will be of interest to literary nerds.
No question Stoker made the right decision with cutting this chapter, however. Say what you will about the occasional slowness of Dracula, but the relentless, building terror of those opening chapters are absolute perfection. “Dracula’s Guest” moves too fast and goes too big. The pacing is all wrong for the rest of the novel, there’s little sense of characterization outside of Harker being a stubborn “adventurous” Englishman, and the surreal scares are too bizarre to offer any real chills.
Still, a lovely snippet from Stoker’s world that is absolutely worth reading after experiencing the wonders of Dracula!
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