This Day In Literary History
On May 26th, 1897, Dracula, the classic horror novel by the legendary Irish writer Bram Stoker, was published in London. Though not a huge commercial success, it was very popular with Victorian readers and critics alike.
Stoker's epic epistolary horror novel is told in the form of letters and journal entries, as different characters, both male and female, narrate the story. The novel opens with entries from Jonathan Harker's journal.
The young solicitor travels to the border of Romania's Transylvania region in the Carpathian Mountains, where he has an appointment at the ominous Castle Dracula to help the nobleman Count Dracula complete his purchase of a new estate in London.
Though impressed by the Count's impeccable manners, Harker soon finds himself a prisoner in the castle. He meets "the sisters" - a trio of seductive female vampires that crave his blood. Dracula saves him, but Harker soon learns his host's terrifying secret.
Dracula himself is a bloodthirsty vampire and plans to move from Transylvania to London in search of new victims to feed on and add to his army of the undead. Harker barely escapes Castle Dracula with his life.
Later, in North Yorkshire, England, the Russian ship Demeter runs aground and the captain is found dead and bound to the helm. The log relates the story of the entire crew's disappearance. An animal resembling a large dog was seen leaping off the ship.
From there, we meet Jonathan Harker's fiancee, Mina Murray, and her friend, Lucy Westenra. One of Lucy's suitors is Dr. John Seward. When Lucy begins wasting away from a mysterious illness he can't diagnose, Seward contacts his old teacher. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.
Van Helsing immediately recognizes that Lucy is the victim of a vampire's bite, but keeps his diagnosis to himself. After Lucy dies, the newspapers begin reporting on nighttime attacks on children by someone described by the victims as a "bloofer lady." (beautiful lady)
Knowing that Lucy has become a vampire, Van Helsing finally reveals the truth to Seward, and his former student is shocked that a man whom he considers one of the world's greatest scientists could believe in vampires.
Seward becomes a believer when he and his mentor team up with Lucy's other suitors and track her to her coffin. She attacks them, but they destroy her by driving a stake through her heart, beheading her, and filling her mouth with garlic.
Around this time, Jonathan Harker returns, marries Mina, and joins Van Helsing, Seward, and their friends to hunt and kill the vampire who attacked Lucy - Count Dracula - before he can add more victims to his army of the undead.
Victorian readers described Dracula as "the most blood-curdling novel of the paralyzed century." In a review in the Daily Mail published on June 1st, 1897, Dracula was proclaimed a classic of Gothic horror, the critic stating:
In seeking a parallel to this weird, powerful, and horrorful story, our mind reverts to such tales as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, The Fall of the House of Usher ... but Dracula is even more appalling in its gloomy fascination than any one of these.
Dracula is a novel very much the product of its time, that being the late 19th century - the waning years of the Victorian era, as a new century approached. The book speaks both metaphorically and directly of the conflicts between science and religion and traditional versus modern life.
The character of Mina Harker represents the conflict between traditional and modern womanhood. Some have suggested that in Dracula, vampirism is a metaphor for uncontrolled sexual desire, the ungodly lust for blood equated with lust for the flesh.
Sexuality in the Victorian era was a strange and sharp paradox; rigid morality and fear of the body and one's natural biological impulses ruled on the outside, with unwed motherhood a scandal worthy of suicide. Yet, behind closed doors, Victorians rarely practiced what they preached.
There was a thriving, seamy sexual underground in England at the time that included both female and male brothels catering to all desires. Some of the best literary erotica ever written was penned during the Victorian era and published in underground literary magazines and anthologies, all of which were distributed on the sly - usually under cover of darkness.
Though the suave and seductive Count Dracula's name was taken from that of the infamous Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracul - dracul meaning devil in the Romanian language - the novel was partly inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's classic 1871 novella Carmilla.
Carmilla told the story of a lesbian vampire preying on lonely, vulnerable young women. Stoker added new aspects to the vampire mythos; in Dracula, for the first time, a vampire cast no reflection in a mirror, could be driven away with garlic, and could be destroyed by driving a wooden stake through its heart - though Dracula himself meets a different, much nastier fate.
Dracula would be adapted as a stage play by Bram Stoker himself. While Dracula's name may have come from the Romanian prince, his charisma, elegance, and gentlemanly manner were inspired by an actor named Henry Irving, who also managed the Lyceum Theatre, where Bram Stoker had worked for twenty years.
Stoker admired Irving greatly and hoped he would play the vampire count in his stage play adaptation of Dracula, but Irving wasn't interested. Years later in 1931, a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, famous for his stage portrayal of the vampire, would play the part again in the first sound film adaptation of Stoker's novel.
The first film adaptation of Dracula was the classic silent feature film Nosferatu, made in 1922 by legendary German director F.W. Murnau. It was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel.
Though basically faithful to the plot of the book, in order to avoid a lawsuit, Murnau changed the ending and the names of all the characters. Florence Stoker, Bram's widow, still sued for copyright infringement.
The judge ruled in her favor. Prana Film, the studio that made the movie, went bankrupt. Nosferatu would be its first and only film. The judge's decision against Prana ordered all the studio's copies of the movie destroyed.
By then, the film had been distributed around the world, and the owners of those foreign release prints could not be forced to destroy them. As a result, the movie survived and fell into the public domain, where it could be distributed without payment.
Many distributors altered the title cards and restored the characters' original names to cash in on the Dracula names. Nosferatu would become a classic film, famous not for its sordid legal history, but for F.W. Murnau's brilliant direction and the surreal expressionist sets.
The most striking difference between Nosferatu and Tod Browning's Dracula is in the depiction of the main character. In Nosferatu, Count Dracula - renamed Count Orlock - is no suave, seductive aristocrat.
With his skeletal frame, long, claw-like fingers, bat ears, bald head, and mouth full of jagged, fangy teeth, Count Orlock, played by the legendary German character actor Max Schreck, looks like a human plague rat. There's nothing remotely alluring about him.
Though it wasn't the first classic novel to feature a vampire, over a hundred years since its initial publication, Dracula has inspired countless works of vampire fiction.
Bela Lugosi's legendary performance as the Count in the first sound film adaptation of Dracula in 1931 set the stage for the vampire on film. The character would played on film well over 200 times by other great actors such as Christopher Lee and Frank Langella. Jack Palance delivered a sympathetic portrayal of the count in a 1973 TV movie.
But it was Bram Stoker's novel that established the vampire as one of the most popular and intriguing characters in world culture. Dracula is more than just a horror novel. It's also a classic work of 19th century English literature.
Quote Of The Day
"There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part." - Bram Stoker
Today's video features a reading of the first chapter of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula. Here's a link to the complete playlist so you can listen to the entire audiobook on YouTube. Enjoy!