Before Sookie started hanging out with vampires who’d be right at home in an issue of Plots With Guns, before Edward showed Bella his fangs and his feelings, before Lestat’s ego outgrew his bloodlust, there was The Count. Mind you, by the time of Interview with the Vampire and Salem’s Lot, the undead Vlad Teppes had become something of a joke, the template for a thousand cheap horror movie show hosts. (A cliche deliciously parodied by Denis O’Hare in a recent True Blood episode.)
But Count Dracula is so much more complex than those who came before or after him. For starters, he can walk in the daylight. He is charming, intelligent, and a master of disguise. Most of all, he is actually front and center in his own original story less than 20% of the time.
Yes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is classic horror, a type only Stephen King seems capable of writing these days. Except in the beginning, Dracula’s true evil is shown only by its effect on the characters and the evidence of his deeds. In the beginning, we see him, passing himself off as a descendant of Vlad Teppes, aka Vlad Dracula, (whom the Count refers to by his title, Voivode Dracula, voivode meaning “prince.”) When London solicitor Jonathan Harker arrives at the castle, Dracula comes off as an eccentric old man. Soon, though, Harker finds out his true nature, meeting the sensual and repulsive vampire women of Castle Dracula. He then sees Dracula crawl down the side of the castle upside down. Yes, Mr. Harker’s client is a monster of some sort, and Harker barely escapes with his life.
The true horror comes later, with the Russian ship Demeter, crashing into Whitby, England, with its crew missing, save the dead captain strapped to the wheel of the ship. Lucy Westenra wastes away and dies, only to reappear soon as a vampire. The lunatic Renfield’s ravings become sort of a Geiger counter for Dracula’s presence, and soon, Harker’s wife Mina shows signs of being menaced by Dracula, who openly boasts to her that she will become his minion and kill those she loves.
And yet Dracula is not invincible. While he threatens to destroy the men who hunt him and take Mina for himself, he’s fleeing the scene, terrified of mortals wielding garlic and silver crucifixes. Moreover, Van Helsing, in his halting, awkward English, explains that, as a vampire and dark wizard, Dracula is still a child, just now figuring out what his strengths and weaknesses are.
Dracula is a product of its time, the late Victorian Era. Its attitudes toward and of its female characters are a little jarring. Of all the women mentioned in the book, Mina Harker is the most modern, having a job outside the home and functioning as a partner for Jonathan. Yet the men around her – Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and cowboy Quincey Morris – feel a need to protect her from even knowing the danger. Never mind that Mina relays her horrific, almost adulterous, encounter with Dracula.
Yet its the creation of this modern horror archetype and its way of teasing the terror out piece by piece that make it a classic. It plays on many different fears people have, which make the story resonate in different ways through different times, much like HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (which came out the same year as Dracula.) Because of this, Dracula has become timeless, seldom requiring an update with each retelling.
And as evil and dangerous as The Count is, one can’t help hoping he survived that final attack at the end of the novel. Starting with the daylight-averse Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu, the cliches have started to build – the vampire turning to dust at dawn, bad imitations of Bela Lugosi’s halting accent, the cape, the fangs. And when did they become so whiny? One might see him sitting outside a darkened house, taunting Anne Rice’s Louis, saying, “Come on, Louie. A little SPF 45 and some sunglasses won’t kill ya!”