Oct 26 2011 1:00pm

Dracula: Pop Culture Bleed and a Lesson in Expectation

I’ve never had a reading list; if I created one I would have a list of 500 books before I’d even started in, and I don’t like having my reading patterns pared down to a queue. So I have a general idea in my head of what I’m going to tackle next with the understanding that I can change that ephemeral inventory any time and pick up something completely different if the mood strikes me.

With that in mind, I felt properly spontaneous when I decided that it was time to read Dracula a couple months back. I already had a copy available to me, so I cracked into it excitedly and prepared myself for what was to come. It’s Dracula, after all. Everyone knows Dracula. He’s the man, the one you brag about hanging out with to all your friends. Spike, Edward, and Lestat are those poor relations that people disown when they’re not around on holidays.

Unfortunately, I ran into trouble in the very first chapter of the book. Jonathan Harker is traveling to the Count’s castle by train and coach while the Romanian population looks on nervously, fearing for his safety. There’s a lot of description of the land and clothing and all the people making gestures of protection and weather patterns and Harker wondering what could possibly be wrong and could we please just make it to the castle to see the Count?

I felt terrible, primarily because there is absolutely nothing wrong with Stoker’s narrative or pacing. In fact, were I in the right frame of mind, I would have probably enjoyed all the asides about Romanian culture and history and funny hats. I would’ve appreciated the slow burn leading up to the reveal of the Count’s home and absorbed that lingering concern that Mr. Harker is so desperately trying to rid himself of. On the other hand, I know what I’m in this story for, and it’s not to empathize with Jonathan Harker’s plight. I’m in it to imagine the heavily accented intonations of a poiny-toothed, noble-born murderer.

I’m in the story for Dracula because I’ve spent my entire life barraged by images of him, trained to recognize his unsubtle influence on every vampire tale I’ve ever come across. I’ve seen this story on film at least three different ways, and all the funny relations that came after it. I know who Dracula is; in point of fact, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know who he was.

And that’s what made the book so difficult to get through.

For whatever reason, I did not have the same problem with Frankenstein (detailed here), but it is a victim of the same tragedy. I can’t begin to count the number of people I know who proclaim their aggravation with Shelley’s best known work, citing annoyance with the framing device (the doctor’s diary entries), the slow pacing, the fact that the book is more about Frankenstein’s debilitating guilt and fear than his unlucky monster. It’s easy to understand. Even if you haven’t seen the original Frankenstein film, you can’t get away from that culturally embedded moment in blurry white and black, the doctor in the white lab coat spinning around with wild eyes and shouting “IT’S ALIVE!” You probably saw it in another film, or several other films — it’s homaged every year somehow.

This is not an indictment of pop culture and its tendency to appropriate great literary tales for its own nefarious purposes. After all, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula contains a creeping, subtle pacing that would drive most modern viewers crazy within the first half hour, and it’s a frankly brilliant film. But it raises an interesting question: has modern horror altered our perceptions so much that we have a hard time remembering why the old master strokes of the genre were scary at all?

Remakes of horror staples are always action packed and occasionally full of camp (The Mummy, Van Helsing, I’m looking right at you). Even Interview With A Vampire had it’s fair share of mansion fires and fight sequences. And now that vampires have become the darlings of the urban fantasy genre, we’re getting more reconstructions of the vampire myth than we can count on all our fingers and toes. They run at super-speeds, they don’t care about garlic or crosses anymore, they might be able to survive on the blood of animals if they’re feeling nice or guilty, they come from all over the world and are probably, like, a thousand years old.

Who else feels a little dizzy?

It didn’t used to take that much to make us jump. When the original film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was released (both movies are horrible, please don’t watch them), Gray’s decrepit, grotesque portrait was put on display at a gallery; it was so frightening to the public that women were reported to have fainted at the sight of it. Years ago we only needed to see the man, the moon, and then the werewolf, but now we want to witness the transformation in all its bone-crunching agony. And even that’s not particularly terrifying — if anything, it allows us to feel some sympathy for the creature.

Thinking of all these things, I tried to clear my head and forge onward in Dracula. It was time to pretend I’d never heard of this story before, to try and let my sense of dread build as though I had no idea what was coming next. I’m sad to report that I was not entirely successful, but I became keenly aware of the problems created by “pop culture bleed.” Is that a term? It should be.

And you know what? Dracula was scary. Perhaps not in the current Hollywood sense, but in a lasting one. There’s a reason why his caped figure constitutes a granddaddy narrative that all of these vampires yarns ultimately hang on. It’s something we should talk about. Often I think that school curriculums avoid titles like this because they think these figures are covered well enough in the public domain. They’re wrong; having seen Young Frankenstein doesn’t mean you know a thing about Mary Shelley’s classic. Seeing a musical based on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde doesn’t make you an expert on Robert Louis Stevenson’s vision. These are complex tales detailing our most basic fears, and a group of peers might help us extract more meaningful conversations from them.

In fact, the book itself might be more enjoyable if you know someone else reading it. Have a party and watch vampire movies on the side. Drink sanguine cocktails. Dress in black and keep the shades drawn. Getting in the mood certainly can’t hurt.

Because whether or not you’re into lengthy descriptions about the Romanian countryside, Dracula occupies a very special place in our collective consciousness. It’s time we give Bram Stoker’s creation its due.

Emily Asher-Perrin is part Romanian, so she supposes Dracula was relevant to her ancestoral education. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

This article is part of Monster Mash on ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. ganymeder
I really did find Stoker's prose tedious and boring, hard to get through, but it's not because I'm overly familiar with vampires. I just don't like his particular writing style.

Mary Shelley, on the other hand, wrote an incredible narrative that I couldn't put down. I thought the psychological torment added to the horror because you could empathize with the creature more even though he was doing things like murdering innocents.

But if you're a genre lover, I think you should read the classics, whether they are hard to get through or not, simply because it casts a new and interesting light on figures we think we know.

Happy reading!
Ian Rapley
2. Alfonso Baronso
I've read dracula maybe 3 times over the years, and only read Frankenstein for the first time earlier this year. Frankenstein was really interesting, but as a story to get wrapped up in, I remember Dracula much more fondly.

I'm a fan of the epistolary mode, and I think Stoker's use of it is more sophisticated and generally better than Shelly's (which creaks a little, I think). I also found Dracula easier to get swallowed up in (I don't recall ever having a problem with the prose style) than I did Frankenstein.

As for what expectations we bring to such a classic, Frankenstein definitely upended my preconceived ideas about what it was going to be about, but I found that quite refreshing. Whilst I'll give you that Stoker's dracula is a different beast in many ways to my mental idea of a vampire, the book as a whole was pretty much the gothic horror story I was expecting, and the Carpathian scenery, or whatever it was, is part and parcel of that. By contrast, I went into Frankenstein having read a few things about how it can be a bit of a surprise, and was still surprised at it.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
I also had a hard time with Stoker's particular prose, but once I got through it (or just skipped a bunch of it), the action-y stuff hooked me.

Interestingly enough, the first time I read this was when I was about 13 or 14. I read the entire thing in church, hiding it in my lap during services and on the floor while kneeling during prayer. It was my first foray into challenging the religious establishment (and my first step toward abandoning religion all together), and the thrill and excitement I felt by doing something "wrong" and with such occult material made me love it even more than I probably would have if I just read it at home.
Linden H
4. Lynd
Huh. Interesting! I read Dracula when I was 16 or so, having found it via the Internet Public Library, and devoured it. It was very different from what I was expecting, but I did really enjoy how atmospherically creepy it was, even though I knew the general plot. It was a little like watching a train crash in slow motion: the people on the train have no idea what they're headed for, but you do and are watching in horrified fascination as it unfolds.

It also made me realize that while I was familiar with the general plot (creepy castle, then some lady in England is mysteriously not doing well) -- as, you noted, are we all -- the details of how it all went down were new to me. I remember, too, puzzling over the undercurrent of sexual... something... in Dracula's interaction with Mysteriously Sick Lady. Nowadays, it'd be right out there in your face, but in Dracula it was this awkward sort of unspoken thing. Very Victorian, I suppose.

Anyway, thanks for this post -- now I want to read Frankenstein :)
5. PaulR
Parprika Hendl rules! Peasants! Train rides! Bistriz! The Borgo Pass! I can't imagine Dracula without these. I read the book at an early age and the first part, especially Harker's journey, never left me. Looking back, it was probably Harker's journey that instilled my love for gothic settings. I love watching Hammer horror films for the scenery more than anything else. I love Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers for the same reason.

I do think that modern horror affects the way some people view the old classics- not so much a matter of desensitization, but the expecations that are cultivated in modern horror fans. In many cases modern horror (literature and films) provides nothing more than a big bloody flash-bang grenade. Stimulus in, imagination out.
6. Minch
I only read Dracula within the last year, but it instantly cemented its self as one of my favorite novels. Unlike you I luuuuurrrved the writing style, don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you, I just did. The whole thing is so atmospheric and creepy and sexual, I would and do recommend it to everyone!
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
Wow! my impression, upon treading this novel for the first time a couple of years ago, were significantly different.
First of all I felt the pacing was not slow at all. It's a late-victorian novel, but a very modern one. Dracula is less a gothic romance and more a turn-of-the-centry equivalent to modern technothrillers.
At the time it was written, there were already many existing vampire
tales. I think Dracula was successful becasue it was a "modern" take on vampires. Dracula is not the "grandday" of vampire tales - he's more like the culmination of a long line of such tales, and was so pivotal that the earlier ones (varney, carmilla) were mostly forgotten!

I expected the characters to be something like Lovecraft characters, who take their sweet time coming to terms with the supernatural. I did not expect the characters to even be aware of the concept of vampires. But Harker mentions the word "Vampire" very early on, while riding the coach. From there on, It's a struggle between ancient evil and modern technology and outlook: The characters use evey conceivable gadget in existence at the time, from cameras to typewriters to telegrams which are used so frequently the characters might as well be texting each other. They even use advanced medicine (blood transfusion!) to overcome the Count's bloodsucking.

I agree that Dracula is not that scary. Perhaps "creepy" sums it better.
I did not feel that Dracula was a weak vampire compared to modern ones. He can freely walk in the daylight. He does not crumble into ash when lightly touched by a wooedn stake. He's also very, very smart - the battle against dracula is a battle of wits, not just a struggle against some monster.
8. Pixie
I remember being really impressed by the fact that Dracula could manage to be such a scary novel when I already knew all the twists and the ending, and when everything was written in after-the-fact diary entries and letters. And yet; suspense, horror. One of those moments when I don't wildly disagree with the inclusion of a particular text in the canon of Literature...
9. a-j
Michael_G@7 - pretty much totally agree.
Of the two, I found Dracula an easier read than Frankenstein. Since my first exposure to both was through fairly faithful TV adaptations rather than Universal or Hammer, I did not have an issue with the pacing etc.
One of the things I liked about Dracula is the pitting of the old gothic world against the new oncoming twentieth century world. In that way you could almost call it a Victorian techno-thriller with Van Helsing et al using blood transfusions, dictaphones and fast trains in their battle against the ancient vampire.
10. MannieJo
We actually read both Dracula and Frankenstein in my English literature class in high school (along with Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Sons and Lovers). At the time, I felt like the teacher was pandering to us by choosing the Stoker and Shelley classics. But after reading them, and re-reading them several times, they truly stand out as classics of the periods they were written in, and the story lines themselves are obviously tales that have stood the test of time and numerous horrible remakes.

It's funny that in the books, the vampire is the scarier creature and the monster more sympathetic, while modern culture has seemed to reverse this. We are still scared of the implications of Frankenstein's monster (science vs. life and death), but we romanticize the blood sucking immortal. What does this say about us?

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