On Vampires

This is a slightly edited piece of personal correspondence in response to this piece and Jonah Goldberg’s post. For a great illustration of the Evil Vampire vs. Sexy Vampire, see this Final Girl post on 30 Days of Night. Also note this hilarious and dead-on follow-up letter to the editor at NR. N.B. some of the links at the end contain partial nudity.

Confucius will defend Kristy Swanson’s honor! (Or at least that of the scenarists of the movie she was in.) Your Volgi does not think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie) was part of the “romantic outsider” vampire genre. It’s been years since I saw it, but if I recall right, the main vamps were Rutger Hauer—a much older, not particularly romantic figure by the standards of vampires (there’s, what one dream sequence?)—and Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Rubens as his loathsome henchvamp. They were purely evil.

Your Volgi was shocked that the article’s writer doesn’t even mention Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles are a foundational text of the cool-Boho vampire cult. Lestat is literally a rock star in at least one of those books, as I recall.

Anyway, the guy is right and wrong about the sexual symbolism of Dracula (which I’m re-reading now by chance). The way I’ve always seen it is that the book depends on a number of binomial oppositions with Dracula on the one side and the heroes on the other.

Of course the vampire represents sex in one sense, as his m.o. is to take women (in Stoker’s book) in isolated locales and swap bodily fluids. It’s not a coincidence that he’s always played by someone who’s sexually attractive in movies. Christopher Lee is the obvious example in the sexy Hammer Draculas, but it’s worth remembering that Béla Lugosi was considered extremely sexy in the 1930s. Even in person. I remember reading something about a contemporary who knew him when he first came over and said that when Lugosi entered the room, every woman’s eye was drawn to him. It’s hard to see that now, of course, but if you watch enough of his old stuff, it’s there.

However, Dracula represents disordered eros, with his polygynous harem back in Transylvania, his (if you continue the metaphor) seduction/rape of the young, unmarried Lucy Westenra, and then of course, his final trespass into a marriage by preying on Mina, by then Mrs. Jonathan Harker. Mina, interestingly, always shows bad side effects from the vampire’s predation, unlike Lucy, who’s kind of perky early on (as if enjoying a lover’s tryst, rather than evincing guilty complicity [however unwitting] in adultery). The idea, of course, that either Lucy or Mina were willing participants is explicitly denied in the text, but of course catnip to today’s critics who want to see “transgressive” desire everywhere. (And who have plenty to work with—blood and sex are clearly linked in the book (and the Victorian mind), not least in an odd-to-us motif of, “Ohmigod, don’t tell him you transfused your blood into his fiancée! He’ll be so jealous!”)

Drac’s sick “relationship” with Mina Harker is explicitly contrasted with her passionate, married love with Jonathan, which is to say rightly-ordered eros. Mina’s such an energetic, vibrant, modern young woman; reading between the lines, one suspects that she likes to give the bedsprings a healthy workout. But she’s also strongly engaged with the right ordering of society, viz. her concern with the potential pitfalls of the idea of “the New Woman” despite the fact that she embodies it in more than one sense. This isn’t the hypocrisy that I’m sure feminist critics have charged her with, but rather a genuine concern for what changing sex norms mean for society, and that she’s particularly aware that the trend to which she’s obviously closest in fact (if not allegiance) may have serious costs, even as she (guiltily?) enjoys its benefits. So her marriage may be the single most important symbol in the book.

But that’s not the sole dimension of the book—and if it were, it’d be as lame and reductivist as the bozo critics—and the contemporary Romantic Vampire genre—are. Dracula is southern/eastern Europe, nobility of the old blood-and-sword caste, sensuality, backwardness, and irrationality. The heroes of the book—Mina, the Englishwoman, three Englishmen, a Dutchman, and an American*—are northern Europe; educated modern professionals, gentry, a New Woman, and a cowboy; social and technological progress (remember, it was the equivalent of a techno-thriller); and rationality—both religious and scientific.

It’s on these vertiginous oppositions that the whole book teeters—mostly successfully, I think. And—one more digression—it’s where Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula totally breaks down. He split Mina’s allegiance between the zero that is Keanu Reeves’ Harker and Gary Oldman’s swanky Dracula, since she’s supposed to be the latter’s reincarnated lost love, and in the end she helps redeem the Count as he’s destroyed. This is incredibly unsatisfying narratively, as it blows up the whole tension of the original book in which Dracula—embodying all these dark, spooky forces Victorians thought they’d banished to the margins of society—is actually a massive and terrible threat metastasizing in London and is destroyed only by brave men (and a woman) risking their lives. And even then, it’s a close-run thing. Instead, FFC’s BS’s D is a third-rate love triangle. Coppola wants it both ways: Dracula as loathsome monster, and romantic hero. I suspect this is the post-modern love of “complexity” getting in the way of coherent storytelling. Mina once explicitly sympathizes with Dracula as a pitiable hunted thing—though it’s arguable that this is because of Dracula’s telepathic link with her, though it’s certainly a rather Victorian sentiment.

Mina must feel the illicit pull of the vampire but if she gives her self over to it, what’s the point? The whole narrative falls apart. (Credit where it’s due, though: Coppola actually does more, more successfully, with the erotic elements of Dracula than most filmmakers, but he unsurprisingly tends to go too far. Lucy & Mina gallivanting in their night dresses? Ok, sure, fine, but their big ol’ sexy kiss? In the rain? Awesome soft porn, but ludicrous within the world of the novel. That said—Drac’s very sexy harem? Drac as wolfman getting in on with Lucy on a tomb? Lucy’s more-than-vaguely orgasmic reaction to a vampire visit? Not out of bounds within the implied world of the novel and modern standards of sex on screen.)

That’s why Dracula still holds up, I think. It’s about sex, and science, and thought—civilization, really, and its voracious, insidious, devious, powerful enemies. It’s a second-rate novel artistically, but a first-rate thriller with some pretty great subtexts.

For a pretty good modern vamp novel, let me point you to this review of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

*Unless you believe the very clever revisionist argument that Quincey Morris is actually secretly in league with the Count.