Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part X: Dracula
Most of you know who Dracula is. You’ve seen a movie, or read a book, maybe you remember Dracula from a comic book; most of the really famous super heroes have fought him at least once. You probably know that Dracula got his start in Bram Stoker’s Novel Dracula. Well, first of all Bram Stoker was neither the first, nor the last person to write about vampires. In fact Stoker evidently takes at least some of his inspiration and ideas from several of his contemporaries. Stoker’s novel fits neatly into the genre of British Invasion Literature, popular at the time, alongside H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling. Stoker’s use of an invasion from continental Europe (albeit in the form of a single person) was very familiar at the time.
He was preceded in vampiric fiction by Sheridan Le Fanu, whose character Carmilla was a vampire that preyed on young women; and by James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire penny novels. However, perhaps the most obviously influential vampire story that preceded Stoker’s work was the short story, “The Vampyre” by John Polidori. Polidori, perhaps, represents the first successful attempt to move vampires from the realm of folklore and superstition into the realm of fiction. In Polidori’s novella the wicked Lord Ruthven (the vampire) befriends a young Englishmen named Aubrey and proceeds to systematically dismantle the young man’s life eventually killing Aubrey’s lady love and, later, his sister.
However, while Stoker was certainly influenced by these earlier stories, the most direct source for the character of Dracula was Vlad III of Wallachia. Vlad III had two titles by which he was better known, Vlad Dracula (literally Vlad the Son of the Devil), a name inherited from his father, Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Devil) upon whom the name was reportedly bestowed by a secret order of knights known as the Order of the Dragon. His second title was Vlad Tepes (literally Vlad the Impaler) which he earned because of his habit of impaling enemies, malcontents, and generally anyone he didn’t like much on wooden stakes. It has been reported, and shown to be conceivably possible (though not necessarily true), that Vlad discovered a method of fully impaling a person vertically while still keeping the victim alive. Until recently it was believed that these reports must be exaggerations, but two researchers have shown that it is actually possible to fully impale a person without destroying any of the major organs, thus it was possible to keep the person alive for hours, or even days, in this state. The fictional Dracula shares some of his inspiration’s characteristics. Though he is not known to impale his enemies, he often flies into rages and he takes great pride in his warrior heritage, claiming to be descended from Atilla the Hun.
In the novel the vampiric Dracula shows many of the characteristics we commonly associate with vampire stories today, though not all. First of all it should be noted that the fictional Dracula is, apparently, an accomplished sorcerer as well as a vampire and so it is not entirely clear which of his abilities are purely vampiric in origin. However, throughout the book Dracula displays a wide array of supernatural abilities, and several weaknesses. First of all the only sustenance Dracula requires is blood. You may remember from earlier posts that several of the original legends simply noted blood as a required supplement to the creatures normal diet. Now we see that the Dracula’s only food is blood.
Dracula is also described as exceedingly strong, bearing the strength of twenty men. He has the ability to climb effortlessly on walls and roofs. He can only be killed by decapitation, followed by the driving of a wooden stake through his heart. However, it is also suggested that a sacred bullet might suffice to kill him (this is something we will see more of in later posts). You might note that no mention is made of burning the body as well, an act required in a great many vampiric legends. Dracula has powerful hypnotic and/or telepathic abilities over both humans and nocturnal animals. This ability to control others is seen in some, but not all, of the folklore at which we have looked. Further more Dracula has the ability to change his shape at will. The forms he takes in the book are those of a rat, a bat, a wolf, a vapor, and fog. While the connection to nocturnal animals has a strong representation in folklore, especially with the Greek vyrkolakas, the ability to turn into a vapor or fog is unique to Dracula and does not appear in the folklore. Dracula also has the ability to control the weather, summoning a fog or mist to disguise his travels and later summoning a storm during his voyage aboard the Demeter. While there is some precedent for the manipulation of weather in vampiric folklore most of it stems from southeast Asia. While not impossible it is doubtful that this was an influence on Stoker’s writing as the man was not a world traveler. It is also worth noting that, while Dracula displays this ability in the novel, it is one of the few features that has not translated into the modern version of a vampire. While there is some evidence of vampires being accompanied, or perhaps preferring, mist and fog; control over the weather is not a characteristic common to modern vampire fiction.
Unlike modern vampires Dracula is not directly harmed by sunlight, simply weakened by it. In sunlight he can only shift his form at dawn, noon, and dusk, instead of at will and he is weaker than normal. He is repulsed by garlic, crucifixes, and sacramental bread (though not holy ground as some of the medieval folklore suggests). He is also unable to cross water except at high and low tide, he does not cast a reflection in mirrors, and he requires the soil of his homeland to sleep. Lastly, he cannot enter a place unless invited to do so (a quality more recognizable in fae lore than in earlier vampire lore, which suggests that Stoker may have also been influenced by faerie stories. Although this may have been taken from the story “Carmilla” mentioned above in which the vampire must be invited.)
I am sure that, being the intelligent reader that you are, you can see that Bram Stoker’s character Dracula has many influences, actual vampiric folklore being only one of them. While Dracula is very different from many of the oldest vampiric creatures, and fairly different from the medieval creatures, he does show some resemblance. Also, while not all of the modern strengths and weaknesses of vampires are present (for instance, Dracula could not fly and he was not injured by sunlight), there are significant similarities to modern vampires. The influence of Dracula on modern vampire fiction is extreme and this is something that I plan to look at in my next post in this series.
Posted on June 4, 2011, in Books, Characters, Fantasy, Monsters, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged Bram Stoker, Carmilla, Dracula, James Malcom Rymer, John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu, The Vampyre, vampires, Varney the Vampire, Vlad Dracul, Vlad Dracula, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.