Why do vampires still thrill?
by Joan Acocella
Whether or not politics was operating in Stoker's novel, it is certainly at work in our contemporary vampire literature. Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series openly treats vampires as a persecuted minority. Sometimes they are like black people (lynch mobs pursue them), sometimes like homosexuals (rednecks beat them up). Meanwhile, they are trying to go mainstream. Sookie's Bill has sworn off human blood, or he's trying; he subsists on a Japanese synthetic. He registers to vote (absentee, because he cannot get around in daylight). He wears pressed chinos. This is funny but also touching. In "The Vampire Chronicles," Anne Rice also seems to regard her undead as an oppressed group. Their suffering is probably, at some level, a story about AIDS. All this is a little confusing morally. How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil? That question seems to have occurred to Stephenie Meyer, who is a Mormon. Edward, the featured vampire of Meyer's "Twilight," is a dashing fellow, and Bella, the heroine, becomes his girlfriend, but they do not go to bed together (because of the conversion risk). Neither should you, Meyer seems to be saying to her teen-age readers. They are compensated by the romantic fever that the sexual postponement generates. The book fairly heaves with desire.
But in Stoker's time no excitement needed to be added. Sex outside marriage was still taboo, and dangerous. It could destroy a woman's life—a man's, too. (Syphilis was a major killer at that time. One of Stoker's biographers claimed that the writer died of it.) In such a context, we do not need to look for political meaning in Dracula's transactions with women. The meaning is forbidden sex—its menace and its allure. The baring of the woman's flesh, her leaning back, the penetration: reading of these matters, does one think about immigration?
The novel is sometimes close to pornographic. Consider the scene in which Harker, lying supine in a dark room in Dracula's castle, is approached by the Count's "brides." Describing the one he likes best, Harker says that he could "see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips," and hear "the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth." It should happen to us! Harker is not the only one who does not object to a vampire overture. In Chapter 8, Lucy describes to Mina her memory of how, on a recent night, she met a tall, mysterious man in the shadow of the ruined abbey that looms over Whitby. (This was her first encounter with Dracula.) She speaks of her experience frankly, without shame, because she thinks it was a dream. She ran through the streets to the appointed spot, she says: "Then I have a vague memory of something long and dark with red eyes . . . and something very sweet and very bitter all around me at once; and then I seemed sinking into deep green water, and there was a singing in my ears, as I have heard there is to drowning men . . . then there was a sort of agonizing feeling, as if I were in an earthquake." This is thrilling: her rushing to the rendezvous, her sense of something both sweet and bitter, then the "earthquake." But Lucy is a flighty girl. The crucial testimony is that of Mina, after Dracula's attack on her. "I did not want to hinder him," this honest woman says. Her statement is echoed by the unsettling notes of tenderness in Seward's description of the event: the kitten at the saucer of milk; Mina's resemblance, with her face at Dracula's breast, to a nursing baby. The mind reels.