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Fear and Flee the Vampire? Reading Dracula in Lockdown London

By Katharina Donn.

The white noise coming through one of my students’ mics is deafening. And while we sort through the tangle of online issues, the frozen screens and intermittent WiFi that has replaced the usual teenage shuffle into my classroom, things begin to stabilize. The shouts of ‘Hi Miss!’ by sixth formers still bemused at seeing their teacher in a video call begin to reverberate through my studio flat, as we get ready for the new normal: remote teaching.  Our current topic, Gothic literature, seems eerily prescient in a world whose vulnerability Covid-19 is so relentlessly exposing. And our class read has indeed placed us on the literary verge of a first taste of an infection of a different kind:

The virus ensnares you by stealth. In the shadows of the night, under a silent moon and beating with the rhythm of the wolves’ howl, it lures the innocent. It bites. And infects them with corruption, sickness, and a dreading sense of approaching death. “Unclean, Unclean!” screams Mina, one of the infected, invoking the stigmatisation of those suffering from leprosy in the Old Testament; yet while the sense of divine wrath, as “even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh,” might seem out of step with our times, the isolation hitting the sick, who “must touch or kiss” their lovers “no more,” leaves 21st twenty-first century readers with a sinking feeling: denying the sick the touch of the held-out hand is a visceral reality returning from seemingly biblical pandemics. This virus, though, is of a different kind to the Covid-19 variant that has the world in lockdown. With fluttering bat wings, Bram Stoker’s Dracula spreads the disease of the undead. A confident female eroticism, inexplicable hypnotic powers, night-time command of wolves and supernatural fires are among the symptoms of anyone thus drawn to the dark side.

That Dracula is a narrative of infection as much as a vampire-tale full of horror and gore was easily side-lined in a twenty-first century Western world blissfully oblivious of any viral threat of the non-digital variety. For Bram Stoker himself, epidemic perils loomed much larger. Consider a letter written in 1875 by his mother Charlotte Stoker as a testimonial to her son of the 1830s cholera epidemic in Ireland. “The world was shaken with the dread of a new and terrible plague which was desolating all lands,” she writes, as a distant “plague” that had first broken in rumours, “as men talk of far-off things which can never come near themselves” (413), became an all-too-immediate reality. The parallels to the present pandemic are striking, and not just because of the Western population’s perceived distance from the horrors of such a “strange kiss.” Charlotte Stoker also includes a grisly anecdote of a sick traveller, impaled and buried alive at the hands of villagers. The theme of burying infected neighbours alive continues, as human agents join viral ones in the work of deathly devastation. And while this nineteenth century chronicler describes the virus with the same misleading semantics of warfare as define current news coverage, as the illness is “attacking” houses at random, she infuses her report with a decided sense of how porous the borderlines between those fearing the disease and the virus itself can become.

This letter  not only reminds us that the imaginary of Gothic fiction with its infectious vampires was not as otherworldly in the nineteenth century as might appear today; it also intermingles the “enemy,” the disease, and the means employed to fight it, raising  complex ethical questions which the lexicon of warfare is so apt to cover. After all, it matters what narratives we use to make sense of our reality. The difference between the virus itself and the storylines and semantics spun around it is, of course, incontrovertible: both exist in different dimensions of human experience, but in this case, words shape worlds as much as vice versa. Charlotte Stoker’s letter inadvertently exposes the pitfalls of approaching a virus as an enemy in battle: if the masks have slipped from the survivors’ faces to reveal murderous grimaces, then what is it means to survive and what it means to uphold the value and dignity of life begin to diverge, until no narrative of a valiant battle can convincingly reconcile the two again.

For Bram Stoker himself, though, such viral threats had lost some of their physicality:  Dracula served as a trope for exploring the danger of being infected with anything an upstanding Victorian male might fear; in the fin de siècle of alleged civilizatory degeneration, the vampire’s virus is both physical and moral. Back in the classroom, this usually leads to some of our favourite discussions in which today’s teenagers can revel in the sheer surreal fabulousness of vampire’s disease with the safety of hindsight: Bram Stoker endows those bitten with an elegant ease in commanding the wolves and transforming into a bat or reptile alike, devolving back from human to animal on the roof of a Transylvanian castle in a vision of post-Darwinian de-evolution  too nightmarish for the upstanding sobriety of the middle-class clerk Jonathan Harker to behold, who promptly descends into feverish insanity; more intriguing for any mind just emerging from puberty still, the tantalising eros of those bitten by the vampire; counting how many times Stoker uses the adjective “voluptuous” is a past-time highly to be recommended and insinuates insights into the author’s struggle with female sexuality, as he succumbed to its lure and fascination whilst his stiff upper lip recalled him promptly to censor, despise, symbolically gang-rape and execute the female vampires in the ‘terrible task’ of slaughter sanctioned by the patriarchy.

Yet as the metaphor of a virus is turning back to reality, I can’t help but sense yet another, more subtle and more chilling aspect of reading the vampire as a trope for infection beginning to emanate from our discussion; beneath all its quaint quirkiness this virus exposes not just the fears haunting the narrower minds of the nineteenth century. The moral prowess of those most eager to contain the vampire virus in the plotlines of a holy battle is put into question anew, with disturbing implications.  Soberingly, our twenty-first century reality does not appear as such a secure vantage point after all: for the amphibian antics, child-eating gore and erotic fantasies of the vampire are all channelled through a perspective that is antisemitic, xenophobic or homophobic in turns. As Bram Stoker was only too aware, we’re most afraid of the darkness inside ourselves.

After all, it is no coincidence that Dracula hails from the East, the “wildest and least known portions of Europe” through which the astonished solicitor’s clerk Jonathan Harker travels, on a mission to close a real estate deal with Count Dracula. The beginning of the novel brims with Harker’s fascination at the countries he travels through, blissfully unaware of the obvious warning signs of baying wolves and “faint flickering blue flames” which mark his journey as a cul-de-sac. Yet even when retaining a superficially positive tone, of “picturesque” peasant women who “looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist,” it is shot through with an uncomfortable sense of the kind of cultural arrogance which Edward Said has termed Orientalist. Even if Dracula is not quite a work of the Imperial Gothic, set as it is in Eastern Europe instead of the Eastern areas of the nineteenth century British Empire, Stoker clearly posits this Transylvanian scene in stark opposition to the perceived rationality of the West with its punctual trains, phonographs, and medically sanctioned blood transfusions. The abode of the vampire, in contrast, entices with the abundant fertility of a “bewildering mass of fruit blossoms” but threatens at any point to tip from the seductive to the barbaric. Mysteriously “ghost-like clouds” engender “grim fancies” in Harker’s— admittedly limited—imagination.  Dracula’s castle on the “very edge of a terrible precipice” embodies this ambivalence in best nineteenth century Gothic symbolism, casting the protagonist into a “nocturnal existence” he cannot even begin to grasp.

The metaphoric significance of the idea of infection here already begins to take hold, as Harker’s sense of unreality at being cast into an unknown country will soon morph into a more physical disease which engulfs his mind and ensnares his senses in a fever from which he barely recovers. Ironically, it is not really the wolves or the multitude of locked doors which push Harker over the edge; what first infects Harker’s mind is a show of female sexual confidence in the shape of three female vampires, who, “fair, as fair as can be, with great, wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires,” their brilliantly white teeth “like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips” arouse a “wicked, burning desire” in him. Stoker goes to great lengths describing this seduction, yet a seeming aside—the vampiresses turn away from Harker and to a child, whom they devour alive—makes it more difficult to root for the vampires here.

This is the first instance of an antisemitic mould in which Stoker casts his vampires. Dracula himself appears as a tyrant of magnificent wealth who commands a castle furnished in gold and the “costliest and most beautiful fabrics;” a man whose “cruel-looking mouth,” “beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard” can hardly hide his protruding teeth in a face described as “hard, and cruel, and sensual.” Dracula’s bite thus infects its victims with foreign blood, embodying the threat of diluting the racial purity of the English race, and Stoker ensures that these xenophobic undertones remain in the reader’s mind when choosing the locations of Dracula’s real estate deals in London. The Count settles in Chicksand Street, Mile End New Town, “Jamaica Lane,” and Bermondsey along with other East London locations. This immerses him in the East End of Jack the Ripper who, in popular magazines of the time, was equally described in ways that pandered to contemporary antisemitic tropes of criminality and sexual deviancy—not unlike Charles Dickens’ Fagin (or, though in Paris rather than London), George du Maurier’s’ Svengali.

The virus of the vampire, therefore, spreads sexual seduction, the thirst for children’s blood, and mingled blood. It is cast as horrific, yet is itself the product of a xenophobic imagination. The monster’s greatest power is to demonstrate the fears and hatred within the mind of the beholder. This becomes more and more apparent as the rather pale middle-class clique of doctors and lawyers who set up shop—poignantly—in an insane asylum to hunt down the vampire reveal an unexpectedly morbid side. As Lucy, a young woman whose wish to marry three men at once had clearly met Bram Stoker’s disapproval, succumbs to the vampire’s disease, she transforms from the “sweetness and purity” demanded of her by her male counterparts to a figure of  “voluptuous wantonness” who, beautiful, deadly and newly powerful, haunts the children of Hampstead. They therefore decide to put an end to this untameable creature, dedicating themselves to the “terrible task” of pushing a “mercy-bearing stake” into her in a scene with gang-rape undertones that confirm the gentlemen’s bloodthirstiness as much as the vampire virus’ horror. “Whilst blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up,” the men revel in their own sense of a crusader’s duty.

The vampire thus emerges as a figure for the ease with which fear of infection can morph into the rejection of that which is branded as “foreign.” Using Dracula as a prism for the current pandemic, therefore, sheds light on the collateral damage of this pandemic which many might choose to ignore in the short term, but which will certainly come back to haunt us in the long term: the racist incidents against students of Asian descent in the UK, the weaponization of the virus in Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric of a “Chinese virus,” insinuating health to be a matter of national purity with all the toxic xenophobia this implies. Staying at home in a lockdown implicitly means staying at home in your nation state, making lives lived in movement and hybridity a threat to public health. This might be a pragmatic emergency solution. In the long term, though, I think it worth asking how such perceptions, once established in an emotionally heated atmosphere, can be reversed again. Bram Stoker’s answer to this is chilling. As the vampires are killed off one by one, their virus detained, a perhaps not-so-inadvertent casualty of this fight is another kind of infection—with a spirit of cultural curiosity, educational freedom and travel—which infused the pre-viral beginning of the novel. The novel began with a London clerk marvelling at the “imaginative whirlpool” which Eastern Europe appeared to him, with a palpable sense of new encounters and excitement. Bram Stoker closes in a post-virus world of re-erected borders, with a short note depicting the survivors almost in the fashion of a still life, petrified and static. The virus has been averted, but in this survival immunity equates restraint into the firm boundaries of nationality, culture, and gender. A sobering end to a novel which also features Mina, an emancipated, educated female protagonist well able to mastermind the vampire chase across the whole of Europe. Stoker ends by silencing her, forcing her into English wife-and-motherhood. Reading Dracula in lockdown therefore not only brings the eerie shivers of Gothic literature that go so well with a present that seems to be holding its breath. It also contains a warning about the world to be shaped anew once the lockdown is over.

Dr. Katharina Donn is a teacher, lecturer and author in 20th century and contemporary literature. Her 2016 book A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11 focused on trauma and memory in contemporary culture, exploring the entanglement of intimate vulnerability and virtual spectacle that is typical of the globalized present. She is currently interested in the politics of literature, and will publish a second book, The Politics of Literature in a Divided 21st Century, later this year. Katharina has taught at the Universität Augsburg in Germany and the University of Texas at Austin in the US, and has held research fellowships at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 27th, 2020.