There is some debate about what is truly the first horror, Gothic, or vampire novel, but there’s no debate at all about the most important: Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Vampires have become so ubiquitous and cliched that it’s difficult to read Stoker’s tale with a mind unsullied by Buffy or sparkling or other nonsense. It is, however, well worth the effort, since it is one of the great thrillers, and a classic story of good men using faith to defeat evil.
Make no mistake: Stoker’s prose can be rough and his characters a bit creaky, but the sheer audacious energy of his tale, and the way he tells it, carries Dracula and continues to imbue it with the ability to terrify. The scene in chapter 3 in which the brides of Dracula attempt to attack Harker still shocks with its images of sexuality, temptation, raw evil, death, rape, and emasculation. In the end, it is a story of a battle between good and evil–Christ and the devil.
Dracula perverts the symbols of Catholicism, with his flesh biting and blood drinking serving as a mockery of the Eucharist. But these symbols–Eucharist, crucifixes, rosaries, holy water–become the vampire’s undoing. Stoker was not a Catholic, but he was Irish, and thus raised in a Catholic milieu. This comes through in the story, with the protestant heroes uneasy with their reliance on the trappings of popery in their battle. There seemed to be a real conflict within Stoker himself (some speculate, with minimal evidence, that he was secretly Catholic), and this plays out in the book.
Google is marking Stoker’s 165th birthday with its doodle du jour, which links to an updated version of it knowledge graph. I’d like to point you towards another treat to mark the day: The Delphi Classics edition of the Complete Works of Bram Stoker for $3.
My favorite part about ebooks are the giant public domain collections. I don’t read modern fiction, and these provide terrific compilations of material in one handy package. Many of these collections contain material that is also available for free, but anyone with any experience in ebooks knows a simple truth: formatting matters. I’m willing to pay a few bucks for something that’s well-formatted and has a good table of contents.
Until I discovered the Delphi series, I was smitten with the old Mobi compilations, which seem to have vanished from the American stores (possibly because they violated copyrights willy-nilly, something Delphi doesn’t do). I started with the Dickens (a steal at $1), and was instantly hooked. Delphi doesn’t just dump documents in a big file. They include multiple tables of contents, illustrations, book intros, rare material, and, often, copious extras. They also correct errors and issue updates, which is rare and welcome in PD publishing. Their quality control is quite good.
The Stoker collection is a little light on the extras (Dickens, for instance, includes many bios and reminiscences of the great man), but it’s a thorough collection with things not found in other Stoker ebooks, including two rare novels. The main extras here are five other early works about vampirism: Der Vampir (Heinrich Ossenfelder), The Giaour (Byron), The Vampyre (Pollidori, incorrectly attributed to publisher Henry Colburn), Varney The Vampire (James Malcolm Rymer), and Carmilla (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu).
Stoker is vivid and powerful writer of the type who would energize pulp fiction in the early part of the 20th century. Along with Wilkie Collins, he’s one of the Victorians who set the stage for the kind of mystery, horror, and suspense writing that endures to this very day. In truth, Collins and Stoker are the most influential English writers of the 19th century: more than Dickens or Thackeray or the Brontes. No one is exactly emulating Dickens these days (more’s the pity), but many are extending the genres begun by Collins and Stoker.