“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”
Is there anything more that needs to be said about Dracula? Probably not: the Count’s presence in pop culture is so significant that even the parodies are old and cliched. Still, there’s good reason the old Count’s done as well as he has (besides looking fabulous in an opera cape), and if your only exposure to Dracula has been through his movies, you really owe it to yourself to read the original. And if you have read it, you should read it again.
Shorn of the crust that has accrued around him, the Count is far from his postmodern persona of the urbane gentleman; he may appear civilised, but at his core, he is little more than a sentient disease. Part of his ubiquity lies in the number of fears that he embodies: fear of contamination, of sex, of the other, of nature. Dracula is a boggart; he’s Pennywise; he represents all our worst fears. He is the wolf pack hiding in the forest, stalking us as we stray away from civilisation. He is the taint of madness and disease lurking in our blood He is syphilis, a walking STD, an idea that has lingered in horror ever since, linking sex and mortality in the most literal way I’ve seen until It Follows.
And yes, he’s xenophobia made flesh. At its heart, Dracula is still problematic: its chauvinistic, sexist and firmly in defence of the status quo. At its core, it’s a rallying cry against the Other, a warning about “bloody foreigners, coming over here, sucking the blood from our women!” It’s part of a broader genre of invasion fiction where the backwards and uncivilised foreigner is driven from the metropole back by the WASPy heroes. Its treatment of mental illness is regressive. The women in the book are idealised and victimised and never allowed to tell their own story.
It’s essential to place Dracula in the context of its time because it’s still a great read, still a masterpiece of pacing and perhaps the example par excellence of what can be done with an epistolary novel. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest…