Illustration by Kaitlin Chan, courtesy of the artist and Restless Books

No one is likely to shame you for not having read Dracula, the way they do The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch, though perhaps they should and perhaps that is, ever so subtly, what I am up to now. I was once the sort of person who thought they knew Dracula, and might have spent my adult life without reading the novel until a close friend dropped some very suspect-sounding and yet enthralling literary gossip: Dracula was rumored, he said, to have been inspired by Bram Stoker’s visit to see Walt Whitman with Oscar Wilde. Stoker had seen them kiss. Who inspired Dracula of the two, I asked him. Wilde, he said.

I threw everything aside to read the novel at last and to look up the story to which my friend referred. He had it almost all wrong. Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde had not visited Whitman together, for example. But both men were greatly in love with Whitman’s writing, and both visited him at his home in Philadelphia within two years of each other in the early 1880s. Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe, who could so easily have been the model for Mina Harker, had once been romantically linked to Oscar Wilde; Stoker and Wilde had been young writers together in Dublin, friends and then rivals for her attention. But what I suspect from the histories now available to us is that they were rivals for Whitman’s attention as well.

Wilde went first, visiting Whitman in 1882, telling him how he grew up with his mother reading to him from Leaves of Grass. In Michèle Mendelssohn’s biography, Making Oscar Wilde, she notes of their meeting:

No reporters were invited to witness the meeting between Whitman
and Wilde. This was a strange choice for two dandyish men who loved
self-promotion, but it was a canny one: they would each give separate
interviews afterwards, and double the attention they received. In the two
hours they’d spent together, both said they’d had a very pleasant time.
“One of the first things I said was that I should call him ‘Oscar,’” Whitman
told a reporter afterwards. “‘I like that so much,’ he answered, laying his
hand on my knee. He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy.”

And then she notes another, more tantalizing and intimate description from Wilde: “Years later, he told a friend, ‘The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips.’”

Stoker went to see Whitman in 1884, though he had sent the poet years earlier a passionate set of letters—one written in a wild heat after reading Leaves of Grass, and then another, four years later, explaining why he hadn’t sent the first letter right away. I am very fond of the first letter, as it reveals the extremely private Stoker confiding a secret self to Whitman, including a description of his physique that is a kind of proposition:

I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to
be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong
and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy
jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and
straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large
amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world. I take a
delight in letting people I don’t like—people of mean or cruel or sneaking
or cowardly disposition—see the worst side of me.

In an article for Humanities about this correspondence and influence, Meredith Hindley describes Stoker as someone entirely enthralled by Whitman. The letters in tone could be anonymized and deposited in Dracula, where they might seem to be written by a man entirely under the vampire’s spell. When Stoker did finally present himself to Whitman, it was in the company of another man he had bound himself to by then, the actor Henry Irving, whom Stoker managed for many years, eventually even writing a two-volume memoir of him. While Stoker does not say whether he too received a kiss from Whitman, he did receive a signed copy of Leaves of Grass with a photograph of the poet. And when Whitman died, he left Stoker a copy of his notes for a lecture he’d given about Abraham Lincoln, one of Stoker’s and Whitman’s shared idols.

On the possibility of Whitman’s presence in Dracula, Hindley observes that Stoker’s biographer, Barbara Belford, noted:

The Count and Whitman share common physical traits. “Each has long
white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine
bearing. Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and
the deathlike quality of love.”

Stoker didn’t leave any explicit clues behind to suggest whom he had
modeled Count Dracula on. But given that Whitman wasn’t averse to a
little hero worship, he might have liked being turned into an immortal
creature with a lustful fan base.

By the time Dracula was published, it was too late for Whitman to see the resemblance. Perhaps Stoker painted this likeness for Wilde to see, or for Balcombe? A strange love triangle presides all the same over the novel, though perhaps it is a pentacle: Whitman, Wilde, Stoker, Balcombe, and Dracula.

* * *

The first line of the note at the beginning, sometimes left out of the many editions of Dracula, asks us to play a game: “How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them.” The opening chapters are taken from Jonathan Harker’s journal and rendered in shorthand, followed by letters from Mina to Lucy, sections from Mina’s journal, a fragment from a newspaper, notes taken by the vampire hunter, and so on. Who, then, has ordered these papers? Dracula himself? Mina Harker? Who is the survivor who could or would gather it all? And perhaps it will entertain you to riddle this out for yourself, if you even remember to do so—the novel’s trance is intense and engrossing. A folio novel — which is what this is — is a sibling to the epistolary novel, posed as letters collected and found by the reader or an editor. In the case of Dracula, the result is one of the world’s most famous stereoscopic narratives, created out of several accounts of people dealing with Dracula, but never an account from Dracula himself. We do not see Dracula sign his name to any of these documents. The novel is a fragmented narrative, as well, but is almost never acknowledged or discussed as such.

I would urge you to take your time with the novel. Do not miss the many sweetly naïve notes about the food — how often Jonathan Harker, our blithe young gentleman, notes that he would like to ask for the recipe to something he eats on his way to Count Dracula’s castle so that Mina, his wife, can make it for him when he returns. The comedy of someone intended to be the Count’s next meal collecting recipes along the way to his first appointment is worthy of great satire, even if that is not what this novel is.

But really, you should be looking at the monster.

* * *

In 2008, while putting together a class on fiction writing at Amherst College, I decided to teach my students from Anna Karenina, Dracula, and The Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King. I was interested in asking this question: Is there an emerging aesthetic in American fiction that combines the literary aspirations of Anna Karenina with the Gothic aesthetics of Dracula? Because it seems as though there is. And Stephen King is either the progenitor of such a movement or its most visible face. I was also interested in at least two ways of reading these massive, classic novels. Both are approaches to writing about Evil. Both are also novels with main characters known to you even if you’ve never read the books themselves — novels whose characters have become fictional celebrities. Whether or not the novels are immortal, the characters are.

The experiment was as much fun as I suspected it would be. King’s anthology did seem to be about this emergent mix of horror and the literary, and we laughed when we found one Amazon review noting that the characters who die might be the lucky ones. Newer writers like Lauren Groff and Karen Russell, alongside established ones like Jim Shepard and Alice Munro — all working in very different modes — gave us an even stronger sense of that aesthetic.

My students found Tolstoy’s approach to writing about evil to be something of a game, one that sounds a lot like life. No one in the novel is truly evil, they observed, but everyone takes turns being a monster. In Stoker’s hands, Dracula becomes almost heroically evil, not least because everyone else in the novel seems either to lie to themselves or make the most obvious mistakes, letting their guard down at the moment they should not. As a result, my students found themselves siding against his victims. The aesthetic is known to fans of horror as Rooting for the Monster.

I was interested in having these conversations with my students about the many ways we can write about evil, as it seemed to me that there was so much evil to write about, and we lacked the tools to do so. And Horror is always here. Horror is here to say, “Oh hey, the monster,” when no one else seems prepared to say “monster.” Horror becomes the truth-teller.

I’d started thinking openly about monsters in stories when I found myself watching an episode or two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer every day early in 2005, during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — especially the drama of the National Guard being deployed like an imitation of active military troops, sent to serve without working modern equipment, followed by the abject news of families trying to send body armor to their loved ones via Amazon. And these were followed almost immediately by the photos of the hooded man, as he became known: an Iraqi man being tortured by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, posed in a variety of positions, like a doll.

The comfort of a show like Buffy was that she killed her monsters, and they vanished in clouds of dust. She met an increasingly powerful set of enemies but always emerged triumphant. These easy victories over evil felt like a victory buffet after the scenes from long seasons of torture and state-sponsored murder. Buffy thrives on an irony only made possible by Dracula. When the Buffy version of Dracula appears on the show in season five, we almost expect him to ask for his myth back.

By the spring of 2008, when I taught the class, President Obama was still a candidate, as was John McCain. George W. Bush was president, and the financial crisis was underway. By the summer, I would hear about people living in their cars and dying there. By the winter, as we waited for President Obama to take office, news reports came of Americans burning their furniture to stay warm but who were lucky all the same to have a home. As I write this fifteen years later, another financial crisis is underway, thanks in part to the weakening of the regulatory protections enacted after 2008. Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, is now president. Waves of shooting deaths cover the news, and with a specific character: lost children and teens getting shot for ringing the wrong doorbell or getting into the wrong car; a family shot to death for suggesting their neighbor stop firing his AR-15 at night because it was keeping their baby up.

Looking back, I think of how naïve I was to believe we had rescued ourselves from the forces that created the financial crisis, especially now. We are not so different from Dracula’s victims, foolishly removing our garlic necklaces at night.

It is hard, in the era of the AR-15, to fear a vampire. And yet what greater tool is there to write about complicity, the amiable foot servant to so much destruction, than a monster who cannot enter unless invited in?

* * *

During the tumultuous months of the Trump presidency, during the Covid-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprising, the feeling that our fictional sense of evil was not sufficient to match the evil in our world repeated as I watched some of the popular entertainments meant to help me stay inside my home, safe from the virus and out of the overburdened hospitals. As Covid reshaped the world’s economies and democracies, and the spectacle of, first, the Trump administration having competence forced upon it and, second, the playing out of the Biden administration, I kept thinking, “The scale of this evil is set too low.”

Pop culture has tried to improve upon the monster of Dracula, with not entirely satisfying results. Thanos, the popular Marvel villain, for example, while technically more powerful than Dracula, is boring in his omnipotence. How am I supposed to fear an ecoterrorist — a popular villain in movies, but never seen otherwise — when Trump undid air safety regulations around particulates that now kill 10,000 people a year — likely more now, with Covid — and it doesn’t even rank among the things for which we might prosecute him? How do I get myself worked up over a single murderer, of any kind, as thousands die every night due to governmental terror or neglect in countries all over the world? Trump and Bolsonaro’s destruction of Latin America’s healthcare system, done in the name of fighting Cuban Communism, while Covid spread — while they themselves had Covid — is closer to the scale of the horror I speak of, the horror we must write about.

What is a monster now? What has it always been? What could it be? Why has Dracula stayed in our minds after all of the horrors of the twentieth century, much less the twenty-first? Ask yourself this as you read the novel. Consider the prismatic nature of Dracula, the way so many shades of evil emerge despite the stark black-and-white aspirations of the text. Ask yourself what you might really fear, and why. For all that the characters around Dracula try to insist he is the source of evil in the world, the ways they become vulnerable to him existed before he entered their lives, long before they began to fear him, as if they were waiting for someone like him to release them from polite society. Is he truly evil, or does his evil reveal theirs? Is that why they fear him, even if they cannot discern this?

This far into our new century I find myself imagining vampires dealing with climate change, facing the fact that they most likely will live in an era of permanent monsoon. A contemporary update might find the Dracula of 2050 putting his coffins and Transylvanian soil into the hold of a ship where he must live permanently, perhaps even a submarine, as in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. One side of the ship devoted to those he will harvest, kept safe from climate change in the hold of his submarine.

And what if this means that monsters like Dracula are our real saviors, perhaps the only ones who can understand us? Can we find a way to love ourselves, them, and each other? Or can we live, at last, without monsters?

From Alexander Chee’s foreword to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, illustrated by Kaitlin Chan, out this month from Restless Books

Alexander Chee

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, all from Mariner Books. A contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR, his essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, T Magazine, The Sewanee Review, and Harper's. He was the guest-editor for The Best American Essays 2022, a 2021 United States Artists Fellow, and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction. He teaches as a professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

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