Vampire Narrative

The play between mythological and modern significance, between mystical and scientific visions of horror and unity, sexuality and sacred violence, is focused in the figure of the vampire. In Mary Braddon’s ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ (1896) the vampire theme signals the barbarities that result from human vanity and scientific illusions. Centring on a naïve young companion growing weaker and weaker from a mysterious ‘mosquito bite’, the mystery is explained as a series of blood transfusions designed to extend her old and withered mistress’s life beyond natural limits. A scientific version of the quest for eternal life, the story highlights the horrible illusions of alchemical powers that surround contemporary science. In contrast, Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1874) makes no attempt to rationalise superstition within the bounds of everyday realism or nineteenth-century science. The Gothic features of the narrative temporally and geographically distance the story from the present. The events are framed as a case from the files of Le Fanu’s psychic doctor, Martin Hesslius. Castles, ruins, chapels and tombs signal the Gothic tradition and its atmosphere of mystery and superstition. At the centre of the mystery is ‘Carmilla’, a beautiful young woman who arrives at the castle of an aristocratic family. Uncannily, Carmilla is the very image of a figure who appeared, years before, in a childhood dream of the family’s daughter Laura. The latter, attracted to and repulsed by Carmilla, establishes an intimate acquaintance. Deaths occur in the locality, accompanied by superstitious rumblings. Oblivious, Laura soon becomes the prey of Carmilla. Laura is saved however, by the intervention of the guardian of one of Carmilla’s other victims. As vampire lore is expounded, and her tomb discovered, Carmilla is subjected to the traditional measures of decapitation and a stake through the heart, a perfectly natural end in a story in which superstition, legend and folklore are part of the everyday reality.

The story’s sexual images, none the less, have a resonance in the context of the late nineteenth century. Female sexuality, embodied in Carmilla’s languor and fluidity, is linked, in her ability to turn into a large black cat, with witchcraft and contemporary visions of sexual, primitive regression and independent femininity: feline, darkly sensual and threatening in its underlying, cruel violence, Carmilla’s unnatural desires are signalled in her choice of females as her victims and the alluring as well as disturbing effects she has on them. Exciting amorous emotions in Laura that are far from innocent, the attraction is shadowed by an incomprehensible fear and anxiety when Carmilla’s romantic passions are articulated in terms of blood, sacrifice and fatal possession. Laura’s susceptibility to Carmilla’s disturbing charms is finally interrupted by the reassertion of a male order of meaning and sexual differentiation. The secrets of Carmilla’s behaviour and her resemblance to an old portrait are explained as vampiric immortality. Her changing yet singular identity is disclosed as a play on words: she has masqueraded under names that are anagrams of Carmilla. The curiously ambivalent power, the superstitious allure of the vampire herself, lingers in the memory of Laura, haunted by the dual images of ‘beautiful girl’ and ‘writhing fiend’ (p. 314), images that only partially described the polymorphous representations of female sexuality.

20180823_234418_0001As a haunting figure from past narratives like legends and folklore, and as an irruption of unavowable energies from the primitive past of human sexuality, the vampire remains disturbingly ambivalent. The female vampires in Dracula display the effects of desire and horror attendant on the dangerous doubleness of sexuality. In Stoker’s use of the legend, however, the principal vampire is male, a feature in line with the legacy of Gothic villainy and Dr Polidori’s Romantic and Byronic hero, Lord Ruthven, in ‘The Vampyre’ (1818). Wresting diabolical ambivalence and agency from its association, in ‘Carmilla’ and a whole host of other tales of female demon lovers, Stoker’s novel subordinates feminine sexuality to a masculine perspective in which women serve as objects of exchange and competition between men. Dracula recuperates the Gothic romance in making men the primary subjects of terror and horror, thereby addressing and attempting to redress, in its movement between figures of the past and present, the uncanny mobility of normal, natural and sexual boundaries in the 1890s. Akin to Radcliffe’s Montoni, Polidori’s Ruthven and Maturin’s Melmoth, the malevolence of the Count, his pale, gaunt features, demonic eyes and callous libertinism are bolstered by supernatural attributes of metamorphosis, flight and immortality. Dracula’s heritage extends deeper into the Gothic past: the account of his family history is full of tribal migrations and conquests, a militaristic, warrior past characterised by values of blood and honour (pp. 42–3). This history is, in part, that of the romance as traced by eighteenthcentury antiquarians: stories of uncertain origin, romances, according to different versions, began among the nomadic warlike tribes of northern Europe or peoples migrating from the East. The Carpathians formed the crossroads where these traditions met. The vampire is not only associated with the dissemination of the romance. In travellers’ accounts from the eighteenth century onwards the significance of the vampire in the folklore, superstitions and customs of Eastern peoples was recorded and assessed. The origins of the vampire were explained as fears of the Plague, thought, since the Middle Ages, to have emanated from the East. Dracula’s principal companions and alternative forms—rats, wolves and bats —were associated with disease.

In the setting of Dracula stock features of the Gothic novel make a magnificent reappearance: the castle is mysterious and forbidding, its secret terrors and splendid isolation in a wild and mountainous region form as sublime a prison as any building in which a Gothic heroine was incarcerated. The place of a heroine, however, is taken by the naïve young lawyer Harker. Throughout the novel ruins, graveyards and vaults—all the macabre and gloomy objects of morbid fascination and melancholy—signal the awful presence of the Gothic past. Dracula is more than a Gothic villain, however, more than the mercenary and mundane bandit that they too often turn out to be. As the sublime synthesis of the human and supernatural terrors of Gothic writing, he is both villain and ghostly diabolical agent whose magic and power cannot be reduced to mere tricks or effects of overindulgent, superstitious imagination: more than rational, he serves to elicit rather than dispel superstitious beliefs, demanding, not a return to reason and morality, but a reawakening of spiritual energies and sacred awe. The form of the novel testifies to the excessive, unpresentable nature of this demand. The letters and journal entries telling different but connected parts of the same story compose a whole whose immensity, like the unrepresentable horror of Dracula’s unreflecting image, remains obscure.

Dracula’s narrative fragments are of a distinctly modern cast. Though alluding to the Gothic devices of lost manuscripts and letters, Dracula’s fragments are recorded in the most modern manner: by typewriter, in shorthand and on phonograph. There are other indicators of modern systems of communication: telegrams, newspaper cuttings, train timetables are all signs of contemporaneity as are the medical and psychiatric classifications, the legal documents and the letters of commercial transaction. Not only useful in recording the story, these systems provide the information necessary to follow Dracula’s trail and investigate his plot. The modernity of the novel’s setting is also signalled by the professional status of the men who combine against the vampire: apart from the aristocratic leftover, Arthur Holmwood, they are lawyers and doctors at the centre of late Victorian commercial life. Even Mina, by no means a ‘New Woman’, acknowledges in her secretarial abilities shifts in the nature of work within and outside the family. Van Helsing is a combination of professor, doctor, lawyer, philosopher and scientist. Like his former student, Dr Seward, and his systems for classifying psychiatric disorders in his asylum, Van Helsing is well versed in contemporary theories: the criminology of Lombroso and Nordau is cited, as are the ideas of Charcot concerning hypnotism and the notion of unconscious cerebration. Dracula’s archaic, primal energy is reformulated in scientific terms: his ‘child-brain’ a sign of criminal regression which is also characterised by his egocentricity (p. 389). Renfield, the inmate of Seward’s asylum and ‘index’ of the Count’s proximity, also displays the characteristic criminal traits of secrecy and selfishness. In his strange eating habits, progressing from flies to spiders, sparrows and, he hopes, kittens, Renfield selects a bizarre food chain which links animal to human life in a caricature of Darwinian theory. Reconstructing natural events with its scientific explanations, modernity also supplants the myths, the explanations of the past, with its own version of things: the occult powers of Dracula’s castle, Van Helsing suggests, might well be natural, mysterious forces of geological and chemical origin (p. 411).

Dracula_0368_DC___Super_PortraitModernity’s progress, threatened by Dracula throughout the novel, is not as secure as its explanations suggest. As Harker observes: ‘unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill’ (p. 51). Irrepressible forces from the past continue to threaten the presents idea of itself. In response to the deficiencies of contemporary culture and society, in part embodied in its scientific values, the science in Dracula does not simply replace superstition with deterministic knowledge, the latter bound up with cultural degeneration and the parasitic nature of capitalist social organisation. A want of culturally unifying and elevating values underlies the repeated invocation of sacred forms in the novel. The threat of wanton and corrupt sexuality is horrifically displayed in vampiric shape. Their decadence, nocturnal existence and indiscriminate desires distinguish vampires as a particularly modern sexual threat to cultural mores and taboos: they are modern visions of epidemic contagions from the past, visited on the present in a form that, like venereal disease, enters the home only after (sexual) invitation. Against the threats of contagion and disintegration a sacred order is reconstituted. Dispensing with its inadequate materialism, science offers grander visions of a mysterious and sacred universe. Van Helsing is more than a scientist: he is also a metaphysician who deals with ‘spiritual pathology’ as well as physical disease, a psychic investigator or transcendental doctor like Le Fanu’s Hesselius or Stevenson’s Jekyll. Van Helsing does not discount superstition and is the first to use sacred objects like the crucifix and the Host. Science involves mysteries and opens on to a more than rational plane in line with Victorian attitudes towards spiritualism and psychic investigation. The fusion of scientific knowledge and religious values is made possible by the demonic threat of Dracula: his diabolical powers and primitive energy, leading to a’baptism of blood’ for his victims (p. 414), mark the utter profanity that demands a more than rational response.

Under the unifying and priestly command of Van Helsing the men of middleclass Victorian England reinvigorate their cultural identity and primal masculinity in the sacred values that are reinvoked against the sublimity of the vampiric threat. In the face of the voluptuous and violent sexuality loosed by the decadently licentious vampire, a vigorous sense of patriarchal, bourgeois and family values is restored. Out of the collective fragments of the text a new masculine image is assembled in opposition to the dark, inverted figure of pure evil and negativity. Dracula is the dark double of the brave and unselfish men whose identity is forged in their struggle; he is the regressive in-human otherness lifted from the realm of individual psychopathology into a cultural field as its absolute antithesis. Without mirror image or shadow, Dracula is a pure inversion. On a symbolic level he is the mirror and shadow of Victorian masculinity, a monstrous figure of male desire that distinguishes what men are becoming from what they should become. He forms a mirror that must be destroyed since its already fragmented textual composition signals regressive narcissism, perverse egoism and a terrible duplicity of appearance, unreality and un/naturalness that threatens all cultural values and distinctions. Dracula’s duplicity is multiple, doubling Harker by donning his clothes in order that his disappearance is not linked to the castle. Dracula is also a foreigner trying to pass as English. On a symbolic level he passes for Christ, Beast and various identities within the family. This has the effect, as in the case of his interception of Harker’s true letters and ordering him to write brief notes, of a dissimulative disruption of proper systems of communication.

Dracula’s crossing of boundaries is relentless: returning from the past he tyrannises the present, uncannily straddling the borders between life and death and thereby undoing a fundamental human fact. In crossing the borders between East and West he undoes cultural distinctions between civilisation and barbarity, reason and irrationality, home and abroad. Dracula’s threat is his polymorphousness, both literally, in the shapes he assumes, and symbolically in terms of the distinctions he upsets. His significance is dangerously overdetermined: in the scene where he is interrupted in the act of pressing Mina’s mouth to his bleeding breast he appears as an inversion of Christ as Pelican, nourishing his subjects with his blood in an unholy communion, and as a mother suckling Mina with the milk of his blood. ‘The blood is the life’, as Renfield reiterates throughout the novel. The exchange of bodily fluids renders the scene shockingly sexual, its violence as masculine as any act of rape. Blood, indeed, is linked to semen: Arthur, after giving blood to his fiancé, Lucy, states that he feels as if they are married. The fluid exchanges present a perverse sexuality, unnatural in the way it exceeds fixed gender roles and heterosexual distinctions. Dracula’s fluid, shifting and amorphous shape is, like Carmilla’s, threatening because it has no singular or stable nature or identity. Meanings, identities and proper family boundaries are utterly transgressed in the movements of vampiric desire and energy. For all his sovereignty and violence, Dracula is, in respect of his polymorphousness, strangely feminised and, like Lucy, condensed into an objectification of total excess, ‘a Thing’ (p. 277, p. 293), as inhuman, ‘hellish’ and ‘inorganic’ as Hyde (Jekyll and Hyde, pp. 94–5). Lucy is presented as a ‘Thing’ just before the band of men symbolically subject her to phallic law by driving a stake through her heart and decapitating her. Restoring the boundaries between life and death, body and soul, earth and heaven, the ritualised killing of vampires reconstitutes properly patriarchal order and fixes cultural and symbolic meanings. The vampire is constructed as absolute object, the complete antithesis of subjectivity, agency and authority. The ritual killing also restores systems of communication in which women remain objects for male exchange. By way of women Dracula attacks men; through women he will contaminate and colonise the teeming metropolis of London. In the name of women the good men respond to the threat. Through and over women their bonds, relations and identities are established, Lucy, for instance, being courted by Arthur, Quincey and Seward.

Women constitute the objects and supports for male exchanges and identities, supports that are narcissistic in their reflections on and between men. Dracula’s mirror thus returns the novel to its specific cultural and sexual context even as it serves to project sacred identities into a universal, metaphysical dimension. Dracula’s effects, imaginarily, in the way individuals perceive his threat, and symbolically, in the cultural significance assigned to him, are infectious, producing doubles and reversals in images that contaminate all limits. As the males of the novel consolidate themselves against Dracula they begin to duplicate as well as reverse his effects. The mirror that Dracula composes for them becomes a mirror of male desire, of what men, in the 1890s, have to become in order to survive. The hunter becomes the hunted, and vice versa, as Dracula is driven out of western Europe. In the process western civilisation and rationality grow increasingly barbaric and irrational. Superstition, both religious and folkloric, takes precedence over reason. Male emotions become more visible: Van Helsing lapses into hysteria after Lucy’s funeral (p. 225); Arthur sobs hysterically on the paternal and maternal shoulder of the professor after impaling her and later bursts into tears in Mina’s arms (p. 279, p. 295). Having found its maternal place by arriving on Mina’s shoulder, male hysteria is a sign of the breakdown and longing for proper social bonds. These are nostalgically invoked by Quincey in his recalling of ‘yarns by the campfire’, dressing ‘one another’s wounds’ and drinking ‘healths on the shore of Titacaca (p. 83). The bonding produced by exclusively male adventures forms an idyllic boy-scout past that is reconstituted and sanctified in the pursuit of the vampire. In the final stages of the chase Seward observes how ‘those adventurous days of ours are turning up useful’ (p. 461). Van Helsing appeals to this spirit when he describes how the vampire may be beaten by the ‘power of combination’ and the unselfish devotion to a cause (p. 306). It is a cause that requires the letting of blood. In an earlier context, Van Helsing says to Quincey ‘a brave man’s blood is the best thing on this earth when a woman is in trouble. You’re a man, and no mistake. Well, the devil may work against us for all he’s worth, but God sends us men when we want them’ (p. 194). The jolly fortitude of this statement is tested later when Quincey loses more than the amount of blood required in a transfusion.

Manhood, blood and bravery form the cornerstones of Van Helsing’s fatherly notion of cultural and spiritual renewal. The appeal to male strength, blood and bravery culminates in the violence of the hunt that marks the return of a buried warrior tradition represented and mourned at the beginning of the novel by Dracula’s description of his heritage: ‘the warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told’ (p. 43). Engaging in battle with Dracula, Van Helsing’s vampire-killers reawaken racial memories and myths of blood and honour: Quincey is described as a ‘moral viking’ and Arthur is compared to Thor as he impales Lucy (p. 225, p. 277). To combat the racial myths associated with the creature originating in the East, myths of northern tribes, myths linked to Gothic notions of freedom and strength, are invoked. A warlike paganism is combined with Christianity, a sacralisation of racial myths whose function within an embattled and aggressive cultural and imperialist imagination is starkly emphasised when Van Helsing invokes divine sanction for their project: in God’s name they ‘go out as the old knights of the Cross’ (p. 412). The appeal to past history and romance is not merely invocative of a fictional tradition: it alludes to the belligerent pursuit of a religious cause, in the Crusades, against the nonChristian peoples of the East. In the context of Gothic fiction this seems like a nostalgic appeal to a long-dead world, a disappeared past imagined as noble, strong and purposeful. It is also a return to myths and fictions that reinvent a sacred unity for the degenerate 1890s. The return to myth, the invocation of romantic fictions within a Gothic fiction, has an uncanny effect on the values of domesticity and patriarchy whose superiority, stability and naturalness are finally affirmed at the close of the novel. These start to seem like myths themselves. Indeed, throughout the novel there are no examples of model families. The only biological parents, Lucy’s mother and Arthur’s father, die, while other paternal and maternal figures are only surrogates: Hawkins bequeathes his property to Harker and Mina in a fatherly gesture, Van Helsing is a good father to everyone, as Mina is their mother. Dracula is allotted the role of bad father. The absence of family underlines the nostalgia for the family that is literalised by the birth of a child at the end. Structurally inscribed throughout the novel in the paternal and maternal duplicates, the myth is only realised in the closure of the fiction.

The making real of this mythical model of the family demands, for a culture disintegrating without it, blood, expulsion and sacrifice: family values are restored by the ritual destruction of Dracula and the sacrifice of female sexuality embodied by Lucy, and are vitally monumentalised in the self-sacrificing death of Quincey and his subsequent and nominal immortalisation in the Christian name of the Harkers’ son. The romance quest provides the structure of a male fantasy of sacred, immortal power, of its originary values restored in the present by violent, sacrificial energy. The horror embodied by Dracula reawakens the primitive and powerful emotions of his opponents, emotions of attraction and repulsion in which his intimate doubleness is expelled and repeated in another terrible expenditure of energy. Civilisation and domesticity needs to retain and channel its buried natural, even barbaric energies, signified in hunter and warrior myths: its spirit, unity, strength and immortality are nourished by the undead myths of its own duplicitous self-image.

Turning the Gothic romance into a male quest romance, Dracula feeds off prevailing cultural anxieties concerning corruption, sexuality and spirit. For Van Helsing, the penetration of evil mysteries and the redemption of proper identities by means of sacred horror involve clerical and ideological powers. As a scientist and psychic doctor his powers are rational and more than rational like the world investigated by Hesselius and another popular, secular and yet strangely magical figure, the detective, as exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The mysteries, terrors and horrors explained by his penetrating mind, endowed with a rationality that seems more than rational, are, though ultimately mundane and deviously criminal, imbued with an aura of the fantastic, spectral and diabolical. Dracula’s adventurous romance also alludes to the tales of adventure that, from Scott ’s romances onwards, provide a more popular and exciting alternative to domestic realism. The associations of Dracula with the East are important in this respect. For the East, at the high point of Victorian imperialism, provided many wonderful adventures and strange tales, which, in Kipling’s stories about India and, similarly, in Rider Haggard’s narratives of Africa, projected the darkness of Gothic fears and desires on to other cultures, peoples and places.


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Categories: Cultural Studies, Gothic Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Vampire Narratives, Victorian Literature

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