Stoker at 165


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.

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Jeff Miller

    Being unaware of this anniversary coincidentally I am finishing up re-reading Dracula tonight.

    Interesting that you mention Wilkie Collins since he wrote the first epistolary novel. Surely this had some influence on Stoker.

    What I find interesting about the Catholic elements used in the novel is that the vampire genre which uses this novel as a canonical source includes everything but the Eucharist. I can’t recall any vampire movie/novel where this was a factor. On the other hand I guess that it a good thing to some extent that the Eucharist was not so misused in this genre such as disk shaped burns in foreheads or crumbing it up to prevent vampire entry. Still it is interesting to ponder why this element was left out.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Collins casts a longer shadow than people realize.

    You’re right, though: although van Helsing leaves the Eucharist in Lucy’s grave, I don’t remember many others picking up that element. Hammer’s series may have. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen those.

    Are you reading it on ebook?

  • Jeff Miller

    Yeah as an ebook.
    I wasn’t even really aware of Collins until earlier this year. I had read Dan Simmon’s Drood where Wilkie along with Dickens are major characters in a Tim Powers like version of history. So after that I read one of his books and will be looking up others.

  • Kevin J. Bartell

    What a pleasure to read someone finally noticing Stoker’s religious side! So many critics go on about how the heroes fight the ancient evil with modern science and technology. Well, yes, they do . . . and get their a**es handed to them. Van Helsing is a first-rate scientist, but he also holds a Ph. D. in Theology. One could read the entire novel as Fides et Ratio in action. I’d like to see someone bring that out in film.

    One slight nit-pick though: “No one is exactly emulating Dickens these days.” John Irving does.