On (Re)Discovering Dracula
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
The first time I read Dracula, I was fourteen, in the 8th grade, and it was almost May,1957, providentially the same month that the novel begins. Like most of my classmates, I had an impression of the book that came almost entirely from film — not that kids my age were encouraged to see horror films — and from comic books. Since I already had ventured into 19th century fiction well beyond Dickens (whose work I dislike to this day; I’ll be happy to tell you why another time) to such writers as Wilkie Collins and non-Holmsian Conan Doyle, I was somewhat familiar with the storytelling techniques of the period.
I found the scene-setting less purple than many of the far-away-places descriptions in other novels of the period, which interested me, since the setting really was a far-away place. Being the daughter of a cartographer, I soon looked up Transylvania in the atlas and began to check out the places mentioned as they occurred in the book: Bistritz, Varna, and Whitby for that matter. It made the book more plausible to me, and more engaging. I read the whole of it in just under three weeks, and prepared a book report on it — the last one for the semester, which shocked my English teacher, Mister Dunkel, who up until then, approved heartily of all my reading habits. He thought the book was sensationalistic — which, of course, it was — and I think, in retrospect, the sexuality of the story troubled him, as it has so many others. For the first and only time in his class, I got a B on a book report, more for the subject than my writing. As I recall, I spent most of the report talking about the idea of a monster that doesn’t look like one, or generally behave like one, until you get to know him. I had also been struck with Dracula’s remark that “time is on my side”, and although I understood it in context, I wondered if that was really true, considering how much you would lose as part of extreme longevity, a theme that has not only remained with me in my own work, but is a central aspect of Saint-Germain’s character. So that first reading did start me thinking along what is now an obvious track.
I came back to Dracula when I was 19, taking a course in Culture and Folklore as part of my social sciences requirements at college. We had spent time on the more familiar archetypes of all cultures — gods, devils, angels, demons, vampires, werebeings, shape-changers (weres and shape-changers are not the same thing: werebeings are compelled to change by factors beyond their control; shape-changers control their transformations), tricksters, magicians, and dangerous females. Having loaded up on vampire lore, I came back to Stoker and did a paper on what he had done with the archetype in the novel. By then I knew more about Stoker himself, and had read some of his other work. As a Theatre Arts and Music major, I was keenly aware of the theatricality of the book the second time through, and saw that Dracula, as a character, mirrored some of Sir Henry Irving’s performance as Mephistopheles in Faust; I commented on the blending of the vampire and the devil archetypes in Stoker, and tried to discuss what it is about the vampire that is so fascinating. On that I didn’t get very far, but I knew the whole sex-and-death thing was an intrinsic part of it, and that the combination of a figure of great power who is nonetheless almost totally dependent on ordinary mortals for survival had all kinds of ambiguity about it, ambiguity that contributed to the enthralling force of the figure. That paper got an A-, along with the note “good save”, which still puzzles me.
I read Dracula again when I was 24 or 25 and had decided to switch from writing plays to writing stories, this time to see how Stoker had put it all together. I hadn’t yet decided I would work on the vampire — or if I had, I wasn’t aware of it — but going through Dracula this time, I put most of my focus on the other characters, and did my best to figure out how the interactions of the various ordinary mortals evoked the differentness of Dracula, and what that differentness was comprised of, beyond the traditional folkloric vampire. I also spent more time examining the personalities of Lucy and Mina, since they are the characters who interact most closely with Dracula in the story.
When I began work on Hotel Transylvania in the fall of 1971, along with my review of vampire folklore throughout the world, I had another look at Dracula as the ne plus ultra literary model, and the image I planned to work against by pushing my vampire as far to the positive as possible and still remain a vampire, an idea I’m still exploring. A few years later I began work on an opera based on Dracula, which I continue to work at in fits and starts, which meant another read-through of the book looking for the crucial dramatic turning points in the story and adapting them to my purposes. Then, quite deliberately, I put Dracula aside and didn’t look at it again until I was asked to do the ill-fated Dracula’s Brides trilogy, at which time I spent a fair amount of time looking at those parts of the book in which the three women appeared, and once again I put the book aside.
Yet it seems I can’t get away from Dracula, because at present I’m involved in another Dracula-related project. There is something about that figure that continues to haunt me, and, I suspect, most writers engaged in writing in the vampire sub-genre. Stoker certainly struck a nerve — or a vein — when he came up with that character, and all of us who pursue the modern versions of the archetype owe him a debt of gratitude for creating such a durable figure and so broad an audience.