In A Nutshell
Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Dracula, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.
Vampires: so last year.
So last century, even.
In 1897, Bram Stoker took central European folk tales and turned them into one of the most famous horror books of all time. But the CW isn't going to be speccing a script about this guy anytime soon—at least, not Dracula as Stoker wrote him. Stoker's Dracula isn't young and sparkly; he's creepy, old, and has a penchant for turning into bats and clouds of mists.
Creepy, old, and occasionally downright boring (just stop with the train schedules, Mina)—yes. But just like some vampire stories we could name coughVampireDiariescough, Dracula is a lot more interesting to talk about than it is to read. Just like today, vampires in 1897 stood in for a lot of contemporary fears and anxieties: the increasing globalization of London, the risks of sexual activity, or even the increasing presence of technology.
That's right: technology. Just as You've Got Mail hinges on the wacky new technology of email, Dracula hinges on telegraphs, typewriters, and phonographs—only with much more gruesome results.
Here's the quick version: Count Dracula leaves his native Transylvania (modern-day Romania, in southeastern Europe) to immigrate to England—presumably to feed on the "teeming millions" in the huge capital city of London.
"Invasion literature," or literature that had to do with monsters invading the British Empire (which, at that point, still covered a lot of the world beyond the British Isles), was ridiculously popular at the time. Authors like Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all wrote sensational adventure stories about fantastic creatures or threatening monsters from around the world.
At the time Stoker was writing, there weren't that many other vampire stories to go on. The one exception? John Polidori, the doctor of Romantic poetry, Byron, wrote a narrative about a vampire for the same ghost story competition in which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Polidori's vampire could be considered a model for Dracula: he is suave and aristocratic, but monstrous and bloodthirsty beneath that smooth veneer.
Stoker didn't think of himself as a great artist; he was primarily a businessman. He managed the famous Lyceum Theatre in London and was good friends with a lot of the actors there. Stoker only wrote novels to pay the bills. Honestly, he'd probably be astonished at the lasting impact Dracula has had on popular culture. He wrote it in a piecemeal, haphazard way—a little here, a little there. At the time it came out in 1897, it was popular and well received, but hardly a blockbuster hit. It wasn't until later in the 20th century, when film versions of the novel started to appear, that the novel's popularity really skyrocketed and its impact on popular culture became clear.
Step aside, Bella Swan. There's a new (read: super old) chick-who-likes-bloodsuckers in town.
Why Should I Care?
Dracula might not be the first vampire book, but it's certainly the most influential – ever since it was written in 1897, film makers, novelists, and playwrights have been inspired by Stoker's vision of the vampire, and by his combination of superstition and tradition with modern technology and science. Pretty much every vampire book or movie in the twentieth century owes something to Stoker's novel, from Nosferatu, a silent German film made in 1922, to Blade (1998) to the Anne Rice Interview with the Vampire series. Even vampire Edward Cullen of the Twilight saga acknowledges the impact Dracula has had on our collective imagination, as he finds himself needing to re-educate his human girlfriend Bella such that she doesn't believe all of the vampire stereotypes that originated in Stoker's novel. In terms of popular culture, Dracula is everywhere, once you start looking. The "Count" on Sesame Street, for example, is modeled on Stoker's vampire. And do you like sugary cereals? Count Chocula is a shout-out to Dracula, too.
If monster books just aren't your thing or its pop cultural importance doesn't do it for you, there's still plenty more to Dracula. Stoker had lots to say about some of the most important political questions of his day. Many critics like to read Stoker's Dracula as being about the British fear that the people they had colonized and oppressed for so long would come to Britain to take revenge. Or you can read Dracula for what it says about the role of women – the most dangerous women in the novel are also the sexiest.
In short, Dracula is a cultural touchstone – it's got something in it to appeal to almost everybody, from gender politics to blood-sucking colonialism to sugar cereals. If you think you know a lot about vampire lore, give this book a shot – it's where it all began, and you're bound to be surprised.