Two Sharp Teeth

Philip Ball

  • Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote ‘Dracula’ by David J. Skal
    Norton, 672 pp, £15.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 63149 386 7
  • The Cambridge Companion to ‘Dracula’ edited by Roger Luckhurst
    Cambridge, 219 pp, £17.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 316 60708 4
  • The Vampire: A New History by Nick Groom
    Yale, 287 pp, £16.99, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 300 23223 3

Few writers have seemed less likely to produce a modern myth than Bram Stoker, not only because of the limits of his ability and imagination but because for much of his life he was furiously overworked as house manager for Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London. Aside from Dracula, Stoker wrote nothing of note, and plenty that was excruciating. ‘There is a semi-heroic, Everyman quality about his intense command of the mediocre,’ the critic Ludovic Flow wrote, ‘as if the commonplace had found a champion who could wear its colours with all the ceremony of greatness.’ David Skal’s new biography of Stoker follows his 2004 study, Hollywood Gothic, which managed to take Dracula on page, stage and screen seriously, but not too seriously. It becomes clear reading the Cambridge Companion to ‘Dracula’ how difficult it is to find that balance.

As the ‘new history’ of vampirology by Nick Groom, ‘prof of goth’ at Exeter University, reveals, European folklore has always been full of the undead, although it’s not until the 18th century that tales of ghouls preying on the living and coffins prised open for fresh blood start to coagulate. In the Romantic period, these feral figures became our familiar louche aristocrats and sapphic seductresses, most notably in John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (the other story written during that famous summer on Lake Geneva in 1816), Keats’s ‘Lamia’, Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Groom calls Dracula a ‘brilliant culmination’ and ‘gamechanger’ of this tradition, though that perhaps grants too much method to its author.

Stoker was born and raised in Dublin to a Protestant family clinging to the lower rungs of the middle class. He never seemed to feel that one full-time occupation need preclude others, and while he was studying at Trinity College Dublin he took a job in the civil service, established himself as a theatre critic, and in 1873, aged 26, accepted the editorship of the Irish Echo (he was essentially the only member of staff). In 1867 he saw a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals starring Henry Irving. Stoker was smitten, and when Irving returned to Dublin in 1876, Stoker’s reviews of his production of Hamlet were so effusive that the acutely vain actor invited the young critic to meet him. At the end of 1878 Irving, by then actor-manager at the Lyceum, asked Stoker to come to London as front-of-house manager.

It’s sometimes said that Irving, who exploited Stoker’s blind devotion to make outrageous demands on his time and energy, was a model for the blood-sucking count. Certainly Stoker’s dedication earned him little affection or respect. His friend the Manx writer Hall Caine said that he had ‘never seen, nor do I expect to see, such absorption of one man’s life in the life of another.’ Stoker’s was, he went on, ‘the strongest love that man may feel for man’.

One might assume from this that Stoker was a repressed homosexual. But what that actually means isn’t straightforward. In her essay in the Cambridge Companion, Heike Bauer writes that it was only in Stoker’s day that the boundaries of sexuality started to be fixed – indeed, that the word ‘homosexual’ was coined. In 1897, the same year that Dracula was published, Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds argued in Sexual Inversion that same-sex desire was a common state with a long history, albeit an ‘inversion’ of the norm. Before sexuality began to be medicalised, it hadn’t been seen as a label of identity, and distinctions between mutual affection and sexual desire often went unscrutinised. Homosexual preference didn’t have to be incompatible with heterosexual marriage. Oscar Wilde’s marriage can’t simply be dismissed as a matter of social form; neither can Stoker’s. Both men courted the same woman, the Irish beauty Florence Balcombe. She chose Stoker but got little joy from it, and Skal suggests that at the end of her life she regretted that she hadn’t stayed with Wilde, in spite of what had befallen him. The Stokers and the Wildes knew each other in Dublin, but Wilde’s flamboyance seems to have made Stoker wary of the connection when the two men lived in London. Wilde’s trial in 1895 showed what one could expect from public discovery of homosexual activity. There is, in any event, no evidence Stoker had a sexual relationship with another man. What we know of his frustrations, fantasies and fears we know from his stories.

Dracula, Christopher Frayling writes in his preface to the Penguin edition, ‘was probably transgressing something – but the critics weren’t quite sure exactly what’. The author probably wasn’t sure either. All Stoker seems to have wanted to do was to write a successful shocker. Instead he produced what Maurice Richardson describes as ‘a kind of incestuous, necrophilous, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match’. Something for everyone, in other words. In particular, there was sex. This is from Jonathan Harker’s Transylvanian journal:

The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth … Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer – nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart.

What makes the sensuousness of Dracula so compelling is that Stoker himself was terrified by it. The perils of the wanton woman are displayed in Lucy Westenra, Dracula’s first victim. While her friend, the demure Mina Harker, is safely married to the insipid Jonathan, Lucy is a New Woman, spirited and up for anything. That part of Stoker’s moral, at least, is deliberate: he was disturbed by the assertive modern female, and a girl like Lucy was never going to get a fair deal. ‘Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her?’ she sighs, at the advances of her suitors. All three men do eventually become, in some sense, her partners, after Lucy, weakened by the blood the count has drained, needs a transfusion. Along with Van Helsing, the Dutch professor hunting Dracula, they take it in turn to mingle their fluids with hers. Driving the point home, Van Helsing says: ‘Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist.’

But Dracula returns and Lucy becomes one of his brides, whereupon the men seek out the coffin where she sleeps and drive a stake through her heart. Stoker’s description remains shocking, because what we are witnessing is a symbolic gang rape, as if in revenge for Lucy’s spurnings. ‘The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions … But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it.’ ‘The sexual implications of the scene,’ Elaine Showalter writes, ‘are embarrassingly clear.’

The sexism of the Hammer horror films pales in comparison to Stoker’s misogyny. It was at its most lurid in his last novel, The Lair of the White Worm (1911), where the description of the fetid ‘hole’, which is the home of a great worm that can manifest as a beautiful aristocratic woman, makes for stomach-churning reading. As the lair is blown apart with dynamite, we see ‘a horrible repulsive slime in which were great red masses of rent and torn flesh and fat’. The theme of foul corruption, given an almost comically Freudian guise, may have seemed particularly pertinent to Stoker, who by then appears to have been in the final stages of syphilis.

The Lair of the White Worm also reveals Stoker’s anxieties about race. The servant of the novel’s villain is a grotesque stereotype of an African, ‘hideously ugly [and] so brutal as to be hardly human’. Dracula too has characteristics common in antisemitic caricatures: a ‘beaky’ nose, sharp teeth, claw-like hands – think of the cadaverous Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). But Dracula also represents a wider unease about the threat posed to the stout Anglo-Saxon bloodline by the ‘Oriental’ types of Eastern Europe. He tells Harker that his ancestors were related to Attila the Hun, and comes to England as an illegal immigrant just as thousands of Russian and Polish Jews were fleeing the pogroms and settling in London. As David Glover says in the Companion, the anti-immigration sentiment prompted by this influx culminated in the 1905 Aliens Act, which imposed the first peacetime restrictions on British immigration.

Behind all of this is a fear of degeneration. It was the spectre of the age, aroused by Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), which linked humans to more primitive forms of life. Darwin’s ideas were crudely recycled in the supposed hierarchy of races, with Northern European whites placed highest on the evolutionary tree, along with the belief that individuals could be more or less bestial, and that this would be apparent from their physiognomy. That idea was proposed by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, whom Mina Harker refers to when she describes the count as a ‘criminal type’. Mina also mentions Max Nordau, whose book Degeneration (1892) was seen as a dire warning that Western civilisation was sliding towards collapse. Dracula testifies to the anxieties of the fin de siècle but its contemporary relevance is plain.

Both Dracula and Frankenstein owed their immediate afterlife to unfortunate theatre adaptations. Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) turned Mary Shelley’s book into a moralistic tale of hubris, as well as making the creature mute and introducing Victor Frankenstein’s pantomimic assistant (here called Fritz). The production of Dracula that Stoker’s widow licensed to the actor-manager Hamilton Deane in 1924 for his provincial repertory company – she desperately needed the money – turned the count into a suave ladykiller in a dinner jacket and high-collared cape. It was, Catherine Wynne writes in the Companion, merely a ‘domestic melodrama’. Neither Mary Shelley nor Florence Stoker seems to have been much perturbed by these travesties.

The stage versions, not the original novels, were adapted for the films made by Universal Pictures. Tod Browning, who directed Dracula, kept the star of the Broadway production, the obscure Hungarian actor Béla Blaskó, whose stage name was Bela Lugosi. (They had wanted Lon Chaney, but he declined and in the end the studio hired Lugosi because he was willing to accept such a small fee.) He was wooden and, having very little English, recited his lines phonetically – but he could do a great hypnotic stare. Happily he had little else to do: the movie was slow and static even by the standards of the time, redeemed only by the sumptuous set constructed for the scenes in the count’s Transylvanian castle. Here Dracula stalks not Jonathan Harker but an effete, white-suited Renfield, the psychiatric patient possessed by him in the novel, played as an American’s stereotype of a pansy Brit by Dwight Frye.

On its release in 1931, Dracula was successful enough for Universal executives to demand more horror pictures, and some aspects were recycled for James Whale’s Frankenstein. The castle became part of Frankenstein’s laboratory; Frye was cast as the lolloping Fritz. The vampire and Frankenstein’s creature had long been inseparable: as early as the 1820s, stage productions of Presumption were accompanied by an adaptation of Polidori’s The Vampyre with the actor Thomas Cooke in both lead roles. It was the original horror double-bill. By the end of the century they had started to merge: a musical burlesque called Frankenstein, or The Vampire’s Victim was put on in London in 1887. When Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein in the 1948 film, Dracula (again played by Lugosi, at the start of a slow decline into drugs and obscurity) was there too. They were old buddies by 2004, when Hugh Jackman as a brawnier, sexier Van Helsing stalks them across Europe.

Like all modern myths, the story of Dracula is over-determined and self-contradictory, a stew of obsessions and anxieties rich enough to withstand endless reheating. To some, Dracula is an occult book informed by the late Victorian taste for esotericism. It can be read as a parable of empire and its decline. It is a gift to queer theorists interested in the dissolution of heteronormative boundaries of gender and sexuality. This is a theme taken up in Wilde’s own version of the vampiric, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, because it is far more cleverly allegorical and skilfully wrought, lacks the generative qualities of myth. But the Companion reveals the danger of Dracula studies: they may bring too great a weight of scholarship to bear on a work that relies for its power and resonance on manic energy and high-camp fun. As Skal suggests, there is a ‘strong probability’ that Dracula meant ‘far less to Bram Stoker than it has come to mean to us’.