In Horror Fiction 101, Gothic literature was the main focus; haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto marked the beginning of the genre, and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. As time passed, literature changed. The haunted house remains, but with some alterations and additions, and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows now that it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred; evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the prey seek each other. Victorian horror dawns.
Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:
Horror Fiction 102: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Horror Fiction 102: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Horror Fiction 102: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Horror Fiction 102: The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
Dracula by Bram Stoker
When discussing monsters and men, the vampire is a prominent figure. This supernatural species has maintained its relevance in popular culture for decades by evolving and adapting to the audience's demands. As a vampire, Count Dracula stands at the forefront of this popular species. He was not the first, but definitely the one that had the most impact on horror fiction. Dracula was a representation of Victorian worries and anxieties, while also encapsulating the essence of horror fiction during the Victorian era. There is no shadow of a doubt that Victorian horror cannot be entirely understood without reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As mentioned in the previous instalments of this series, Gothic fiction commonly took the action and the horror, far away from its readers. The stories took place in faraway lands, and in castles surrounded by powerful nature. However, the 19th century was a time of change and scientific advancements that completely changed daily life and, unsurprisingly, literature. Modernity extended its influence to the Victorian horror genre: the villains were no longer bandits or threatening aristocrats; they were now criminals, madmen, and scientists. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the action was relocated to an urban setting. There was no longer a distance between the world of the text and that of the reader. The horror was now home.
Even though Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker in Transylvania, the action is soon relocated to the British Isles. After absorbing as much knowledge as he could about the British from Harker, Dracula landed in Whitby with a boat filled with coffins and was ready to wreak havoc in Victorian England. This aspect of the story has been interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again, and it is particularly relevant from the point of view of Victorian horror. Not only because it is an example of the domestication of the elements in horror, but also because it reflected one particular anxiety that consumed Victorian society: the fall of the Empire and reverse colonialism. The British in the 19th century were fond of the Roman Empire and they concluded that its fall was due to “a moral decadence leading to racial degeneration” (Spencer, 1992, p. 205).
Dracula was an unwelcomed visitor in Victorian England society for two main reasons. Firstly, he represented the threat of the “colonised” world falling under the influence of a “primitive” one. Dracula came from a feudal society that believed in superstition. He was old aristocracy, Eastern European, Catholic, and Slavic, and completely different from Victorian England which considered itself scientifically advanced and democratic, Protestant, rational and industrial (Spencer, 1992, p. 210). However, this fear of reverse colonisation is deeply rooted in racist and xenophobic Victorian tendencies. The way Dracula is described, especially his appearance and his shape-shifting abilities, evoked, for a Victorian reader, images of the Jew, Slavic, and Romani people in a very derogatory light. Furthermore, many Victorians were aware of the theories of Cesare Lombroso who used Darwin’s discoveries on evolution to argue that criminals could be recognised thanks to certain physical features that indicated a closer relation to the ape-like human ancestor. A clear example of this belief also appears in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Mr. Hyde, the evil doppelganger, takes the shape of a deformed and terrifying creature that reminds everyone of his criminal nature upon sight. All of this combined, creates in Victorian society the concept of evil, crime, and degeneracy coming from poor Eastern European immigrants and the lower classes in the British Isles.
Nevertheless, Dracula is Victorian horror where evil is attractive and addictive. Like Polidori’s The Vampyre and Le Fanu’s Carmilla before him, Count Dracula is seductive and almost impossible to resist by both male and female characters in the novel. The vampire in Victorian horror is a metaphor for sexual relations; the teeth penetrating the skin, the focus on the mouth, the exchange of bodily fluids, the bite never described as painful but something that inspires erotic pleasure. Jonathan Harker himself confesses in his diary how utterly powerless he felt in the presence of the three female vampires in Dracula’s castle: “All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (Stocker, 1897, p. 33). This scene shows the heavily erotic atmosphere surrounding vampires, as well as the subversion of the gender roles according to the society at the time: Harker (the man) acts as the passive figure in an erotic situation while the vampires (the women) are active and in full control. This was particularly disturbing to the Victorian public who had a rigid system to classify society, and severely punished anything that escaped the norm.
This scene continues with Dracula transgressing once more by threatening the gender roles when he expresses homosexual desires towards Harker. Dracula interrupts the encounter right before the female vampires bite him, “How dare you touch him, any of you? […] This man belongs to me!” The conversation continues with the female vampire accusing him, “You yourself never loved; you never love!” to which Dracula answers, “Yes, I too can love.” (Stoker, 1897, p.34). Even though he never acts on his desires, Dracula’s homoerotic tendencies towards Harker are clear. To a society that forbids homosexuality (Oscar Wilde’s trial took place only two years before Dracula’s publication), this was particularly disturbing. Since Polidori’s The Vampyre, vampiric figures have been surrounded by an explicit homoerotic atmosphere; Aubrey and Lord Ruthven, Dracula and Harker, and Carmilla and Laura in Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
Returning to the scene with Harker and the female vampires, there is one detail that should not be left unnoticed. Through vampirism, women can be sexually active and in control, and there is also an inversion of the penetrating and the receiving sides in sexual relationships (Craft, 1984, p. 110). During the 19th century, women in England were arguing for marriage and reform bills; they wanted to own property themselves and not through their husbands. Women were supposed to be the angel in the home, they had to be the very essence of purity and propriety. Therefore, a female vampire that showed interest in sex, was sexually active and able to 'penetrate' with their teeth, was a complete transgression of the Victorian norm. Even the difference in the ending for the other female characters, Lucy and Mina, can be analysed through this perspective. While Mina is the perfect Victorian woman with a family to protect her and never stepping out of line, Lucy lost her parents, suffers from sleepwalking, and is sought after by three different men. Her sleepwalking causes her to wander in the middle of the night wearing only a nightdress – considered 'naked' in Victorian standards – and leaves her exposed to Dracula's influence. Even though she eventually chooses one suitor, she cannot help but gloat “Three proposals in one day!” (Stoker, 1897, p. 48); she even continues to say, “Why can't they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (p. 51). Lucy's sexuality is not under control, therefore while Mina manages to heal and avoid vampirism, Lucy cannot do the same. She fully transforms and has to be killed by the group of vampire hunters.
As a work of Victorian Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a prominent example of how horror fiction reflects the worries and anxieties of the author's time; from the fear of the fall of the Empire, to the destruction of societal roles with homosexuality, and the female wish to have rights as citizens. Even though Polidori’s The Vampyre was the first to introduce this new image of the vampire, Count Dracula champions the forefront of the vampiric figure and will remain as the one example for others to follow, even in popular culture today. Bram Stoker’s novel was a turning point for the vampire and horror fiction as a whole.
Craft, C. (1984). "Kiss Me with those Red Lips": Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Representations, No. 8, pp. 107-133. University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928560
Punter, D. (2004). The Gothic. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford, England.
Spencer, K. L. (1992) Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis. ELH, 59, (1), pp. 197-225. The Johns Hopkins University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/2873424
Stoker, B. (1897). Dracula. Wordsworth Classics. Wordsworth Editions. London, United Kingdom
Vicente, F. (2014). Drácula [Illustration]. El Reino de Cordelia. Madrid. España. https://www.fernandovicente.es/libros-ilustrados/libro-dracula-de-bram-stoker/