Ah, Dracula. Published in 1897 by horror and fantasy writer, reviewer and theater manager, it occupies a space as the most well known vampire story, and also so incredibly copied and adapted that while everyone can agree it’s rather kinky, queer, and horny, the rest of the interpretations, of the author and the text that it’s also the poster child for pin-the-pathology-on-the-pervert. In consequence, Bram Stoker exists as a sort extra protagonist, in which people are forever trying to map why a person could possibly imagine such a chilling little parcel of ominous ambiguities without being moments from ending up in a padded cell next to Renfeild.
How did I come to write this essay?
Silver and I started a thing, several months back, where I read him chapters of various books I like. We both enjoy writing, and a component of this was sharing some of the influences of other authors on me, starting with Tanith Lee’s Drinking Sapphire Wine. The reading out loud part started as pushiness on my side- every time I otherwise tried to share a book I liked with other people, the vagaries of time and human flakiness meant they never read the damn things, often letting a loaned copy languish in their possession indefinitely. Knowing if he found it dreary or irritating I could abort, when I realized the first book I tried to share might similarly sit unexamined, I decided I would just do a chapter out loud and see how it went. And, in following from that, a somewhat indirect route took us to Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula.
Somewhere along the way we discovered audio books from someone who loves you is the most relaxing thing ever. Thus, in this reading (currently ongoing) I have a secondary purpose in that every serious romantic relationship, to this point has revealed I have the power to put my partner into a somnolent nap. Not so with Silver, who rarely naps, despite some pretty chronic insomnia, but for whatever reason, three quarters of the way into a chapter of something and I can get soft sighing snores.
The choice of Dracula follows from another favourite of mine, A Night in the Lonesome October, an obscure book by Roger Zelazny; in which Jack the Ripper’s dog narrates how various characters from gothic horror come together, with their animal companions, to participate in a Lovecraftian rite. That sparked the query, that if Silver were to imagine a story from a character from that pantheon, who would he pick? And this proved to be Harker, the intrepid sort-of-protagonist of Dracula, and, unsurprisingly, subject to some pretty significant femdom themes.
These were further illuminated with a little sexted speculative erotic fanfic of Mr. And Mrs. Harker’s post Vampire defeat, following in the now storied tradition of taking one of the threads of the text and pulling until you have enough length to knit the outcome you want. However, I can’t write porn without plot. We ended up trying to piece together what precisely happened for small bits of logistics in the real narrative, and then, realizing it had been long enough since we both read it, realized it was the perfect candidate for our next read-together.
And rather than getting another paperback copy, since we both already knew we liked it, I splurged for one of those big hardcover, pretty shelf decorator editions publishers release periodically of classics. This one is grey with printed black flowers of a slightly ominous pattern, and contains a lush forward and author biography, and an enormous appendix of context, both an index to help you understand the archaic vocabulary and late Victorian pop culture, and other bits and bobs like the author’s sister’s letter recounting a cholera epidemic that eerily maps into some of the spooky bits of the middle third of the book.
Reading these essays as bookends, its starts with an attempt to paint how rational Bram Stoker was and how this story is a flight of unusual fancy, as well as set the theory that Bram Stoker’s awful boss (and celebrity actor) Henry Irving forms the inspiration for the titular vampire. We then traipse into a sort of commentary cliché of vampires, the psychosexual bits (yes, duh) but eternally mapping them onto some sort of latent fear of female sexuality/woman taming misogyny. To which I say, can’t a person have a complex set of sadomasochistic fantasies WITHOUT diagnosing them as neurotic, traumatized or worse? It is not just that readers seek to map the life and values of the author into their text, it’s that holy fuck, is Dracula a shining example of the personal peculiarities and biases of a century of media critics being projected so intensely onto a work that Marie Curie would be needed to measure the source and intensity of such radiation.
Meta-Dracula, Adaption and History Googles
In examining this work, we have two factors to consider. People have been making their own adaptations of this, willy nilly, since before it was even out of copyright (the famous silent film, Nosferatu, being case in point); and it’s absolutely demonstrable this book is horny and has queer and poly scenes out the wazoo. However, the character of Bram Stoker is also being pushed through an additional filter, the retrospective and highly ahistorical idea that Victorians were (with few exceptions) sexually repressed.
It can be simultaneously true that famous health nut of the era Dr. Kellog was advising people to pour carbolic acid on the clitoris of girls to stamp out masturbation, but also that this was a period of explosion in fetish content, of advocacy of birth control, sexual autonomy and free love, and by significant liberalization of divorce laws. It can also be true that much in modern day, a progressive position can quite lack the internal consistency and be stuffed full of both hypocrisy and nuance – much like a modern feminist might fall short in some measures, Bram Stoker was both a Suffragist and not a fan of porn enough to write an essay against literature that might encourage sin. But, in retrospective of this period, modern people have a skew that remembers Victorian satire about putting covers on piano legs, but not that fetish heels, particularly recreating the 18th century shoe, were a thing.
The same must be said that adaptions of Dracula tended to shove all the horny through their own lense, over more than a century. Much how characters are swapped or consolidated (Harker, Van Helsing, Dr. Steward, Arthur Holmswood and Quincy Morris collapsed or refolded, Mina and Lucy likewise adapted into one, switched in role, renamed, and so on), the dramatic climaxes of violence and agency are edited, rearranged and reframed. The reasons for this are manifold, and audience expectations, pragmatics, censorship of the era or honest interpretation can all play an equal factor in why something is changed.
Adaption often overwrites text in popular memory, which in turn makes talking about just the text sans bias impossible.
A classic example is the tendency to depict Mina as brunette and Lucy as blonde. What if I told you, in text, that the only reference to the hair of both women refer to Mina as having light hair, and describe Lucy’s as “sunny”? Adaptions that feature both characters have reasons to do this, from the incidental of who they cast, or to try to make the characters visually distinct, but also as a modern visual shorthand for our perception of the character of women through their appearance.
Lucy, we generally understand, is flighty and pretty, beloved by many men, while Mina is staid and patient. Critics following the idea of misogyny-in-text tend to point out the Hays Code style need to punish bad women… except. Uh, nothing in text is explicitly that simple, because the morals based censorship of 1897 is not the same attitude to tropes even a few decades later. For another example of gendered virtue bias, if you had to guess, which of the two women mentions she finds fashion boring? The pretty blonde who everyone falls easily in love with, who is more effusively emotional but a bit dim, or the employed-in-a-job patient woman who does endless looking after and managing things and imagines herself a lady reporter? Yup, it’s Lucy who mentions this- and both women discuss their relationship to the ideals of womanhood of the day with nuance.
I will also remind people, at this juncture, I am not claiming there is no misogyny in the text. Victorian lit, as today, frames gender through biases. What I am saying is that we tend to retrospectively add both the modern assumptions about gender and sexuality we do in fiction and that our retrospection in the past, likewise, summons ghosts less of the actual period we bring them than jowly disapproving caricatures manufactured today.
For example, a common critical read is that Dracula, the character, is uniquely an external sexual thing, inflicting his horny corruption on chaste Englishmen and women. This common push/pull gets dragged out in Dracula, both the idea of the wicked foreigner ruining our pure women, and framing anything coded as a sexual assault as a complicated seduction that us prudes only have to retrospectively read as a rape. At its apex, in criticism, we get the old horror movie canard that Lucy was murdered for having sexuality and doesn’t that staking seem like a phallic symbol? Ok, but did Dracula get defeated by penetration too? People trying to advance a feminist argument Lucy’s destruction is a corrective gang rape never seem to bring an agender top/bottom discourse into things.
We can’t have it both ways, the men either fucked Lucy to death and thus fucked Dracula to death, or there’s nothing default phallic about the killing of Lucy.
I also nudge that the famous, much adapted Lucy killing scene tend to emphasize her flash of sexuality during it as an evil femme fatale (the Brides menacing Jonathan were definitely using his attraction to him after all), so it’s an easy assumption to make. The problem there is that being seductive is a pre-Vampire Lucy trait. It could be more accurately argued that “corrupted” Lucy, up until this point eating babies, is reminding the men of her humanity. In passing moral judgments that the text is killing her for being a slut, also be aware that kissing one of her other suitors, in text is a symptom of her emotional sincerity, while in a modern work would be “leading him on”.
Lucy, in text, is not punished for being so giddy and boy crazy she wishes she could marry all three of her suitors (again in text). That’s a feature, not a bug- her attractiveness and charm are weighted as motivating features worthy of praise. If we want to go with blood-as-sex as metaphor, when her three suitors have given her blood transfusions to try to (unsuccessfully in the end) save her life, and explicitly contemplate the feeling this marries them to her, this is a plurality of people who would be rather arguing the person they all fucked was all the more worthy of rescue, never mind the metamour context. And, if I recall correctly, Van Helsing and Mina also donated. Mina and Lucy also have kissed, by this point, the former using it to break Dracula’s hypnotism.
Which, as an aside, if we are going to underline anything here, another known factor of Bram Stoker’s life is that Oscar Wilde was also in love with the woman he married. When Florence Balcombe preferred Bram Stoker, this caused a temporary rift in friendship of a few years. While one might not want to perfectly map parallels, it’s definitely a repeating theme of Dracula to be navigating monogamy versus plural attraction.
When Harker narrates his ordeal with the Brides in his journal, he is likewise most anxious (other than the imminent risk of murder) not that he was attracted to them but that Mina might be hurt he was capable of attraction to others. When he pops up again, having been missing for a while, Mina does cite a fear he’d stopped communicating because he’d found someone else, but inversely, she displays other security to the extent that when Harker first spots Dracula in England she thinks her husband is checking out a pretty girl. Rather than finding that bizarre or offensive, she checks the girl out herself.
Bram Stoker’s “Repressed” Homosexuality, Femdom And Queerness In Text
This one pops up periodically, that the author was probably queer. The psychosexual stuff in text do lend themselves that way, for example when the Brides attempt to devour Harker, Dracula violently defends him, declaring Harker to be his, albeit only until his purpose is seen through. Ditto the cutting himself shaving and almost getting bit part, and the dance of charm-but-also-fear in the early interactions.
Likewise, based the author’s his florid fan mail to Walt Whitman, I hold this perfectly plausible. What I do nudge back on is the equally obnoxious tendency of queer-finding retrospectives to engage in a little bi-erasure. One intrepid essayist goes as far as to suppose that Florence herself was a beard, picked as she disliked men, or more conspiracy theory style, was chosen as a proxy for Wilde, himself.
Since Bram Stoker knew most of the famous gay men of his era and country, and was firmly in a milieu where queerness was much more open than many places elsewhere, I will gently suggest that it’s not fair to presume repression. If he engaged in same gender relationships in the sexual sense, given its illegality, he didn’t put it to record, but if he wanted to bang a dude or dudes, there is also no reason to assume he didn’t.
We believe he is repressed because his alleged queerness was oppressed. One may follow they other, but also we must be careful not to replicate the very expectations we are opposed to into our critique. For example have you noticed that a woman with a rape fantasy is described as uncomfortable with her own sexuality, but a man imagining a sexy femme fatale ravishing him is described as uncomfortable with the sexuality of women?
Which winds my way back to the core thing that drives me to write a 4000+ word essay on a more than a century old book, the media critic habit of assuming that one can’t write about anything dark and spooky without having something wrong with you. This tortured premise gets stretched to the point of such wild speculation that Bram Stoker took 7 years to finish the work because he was grappling with his attraction to men, a fanciful belief that homosexuality apparently… makes you bad at deadlines?
Of course, on the subject of bi erasure, as a contemporary kinky person, one of the threads its easy for me to notice is all the femdom. There’s the overt, starting with the near assault by a trio of lady vampires on Harker, but also including a pretty much not subtext cuckolding scene, where Harker is helplessly mesmerized as Dracula comes upon the couple to assault his wife. But there is also the rather endless riff of male worship of female. Men are helpless before Lucy, but also Mina sails through everything as both a significant framing character of the story and narrator in her own right, but also mentioned from the first chapter that the initial goal of Harker’s diary is to make a travelogue for her. And of all characters, across gender, she’s probably the most stalwart in her agency and resilience.
Make no mistake, this is pre-suffrage England, and she is not particularly inclined to rail against her place as a companion and aide to her husband. But, as most adaptions unfortunately lose, it’s Mina initially rescuing Lucy, it’s Mina’s needs, wants and preferences centred by her husband, and Mina managing, typing records up, and so on that drive much of what happens. We even see here physically resisting Dracula during an attack, something we see literally no other character do. When word comes of her fiancé being found in great ill health in Budapest, it’s Mina, an unmarried woman, who immediately travels without the least reservation for Exter to Hungary, claiming Jonathan on the spot with a marriage. Likewise he surrenders his journal to her at this point as he’s wracked with guilt but also amnesia. It is then a matter of her motivation to solve why he’s had a second nervous breakdown to read the journal and link up with Van Helsing, providing a crucial piece to the group that he husband most definitely did not have the capacity to do.
If the menfolk do all go off to do the violence, Mina’s staying home is prefaced that her idea to be hypnotized to use the blood link to track Dracula is essential to the operation. Inversely, for all Harker is off with the menfolk, kukuri in hand, he’s an ailing, frail shell of very limited use in any prior altercation, defended by crucifix rather than trying to match Dracula with physical strength. While not all strong female characters are femdom, nor weak ones subs, taken as a whole, this is hardly to be read as a meek, passive person but rather an idealization of a woman taking charge of things, not just helpmeet, but amazon.
Did I mention that the book passes the Bechdel test, depicting a warm, intimate relationship between two women who talk about more than just the men in their lives?
Unfortunately, at least as far a remembering this, modern adaptions like to add a forbidden romance element, supposing a sort of love triangle, between boy next door Harker and sexy Dracula. These adaptations suppose being possessed by the latter is a state Mina might want or find alluring, were it not for her sexless obligation to be a Good Girl. This is emphasized by the tendency to turn Mina and Lucy into one character, and amp up that conversion to vampire makes all women horny. While I am not here to yuck anyone’s yum as far as contemporary femsub fantasies of being consort-princess to a powerful monster, neither can I say this is anything book Mina displays.
All that’s to say, I don’t think Bram Stoker was scared of women having agency, sexual or otherwise, just that later adaptions were actually less kind to women and more obsessed with “she secretly wants it though” tropes. We know from notes by the author himself everything of the text was seeded by a vivid dream of the lady vampires attacking him and having an old, powerful man intercede. The author himself, cites the witches in Macbeth for their inspiration. Can we perhaps extend the grace that what he finds titillating doesn’t need to have an inner conflict, and then add an additional lense?
Horny Asexuality and Dracula
Aha, reader, you read this far and I sprung a trap on you, I have my own queer soap box I am about to stand on. You see every reading to date of Dracula and its sexuality tends to emphasize whatever is horny is a metaphor. It means something more, every stake a penis, every voluptuous mouth a hermaphrodite cock-snatch, penetrating as it engulfs. Maybe so, but the queer lense none of the essayists seem to want to bring to bear is the possibility that sexuality in text doesn’t need to be re-simplified into its parts, as if one needed to only do math with the smallest factors a large number could be refined to.
Human sexuality is as much social as it is the mechanical business of heaving and rubbing. It wouldn’t be so easy to extrapolate the vampire into the sexual if it wasn’t. Likewise neither are all these other queer themes and tells, of the author’s life and his text, needing to sit on a hard binary. Just as Bram Stoker doesn’t actually need to blow Oscar Wilde to be queer, neither is he repressing his queerness if he didn’t. The act of writing Dracula can be enough.
I stress that adaptions are perfectly valid to sex things up in different or more exaggerated way than the text did, because there’s nothing wrong with putting your spin on an out-of-copyright work, or indeed fanfiction that deviates from the text so intensely it is practically a new work with old names. However, I do think, at this point I have done a good job of demonstrating how adaptions routinely add things that were not originally intended to be there, which then accidentally replace our understanding of the original.
Does, as one of Bram Stoker’s descendants wrote in a sequel, Mina need to have also been literally raped and impregnated by Dracula? No, absolutely not. It’s no less a sexual assault that the titular vampire was described as doing weird shit with blood after tearing open his own shirt, than if it were his fly gaping. The text, as written, assumes something very modern: Rape is a crime of power more so than anything as simple as mere desire.
Perhaps that’s one of the charms of the book, being about power and sexual abuse. Harker’s plight is made all the worse by a degree of innocence about the patterns of missing stairs (that old horrifying “everyone knows, but also puts it on you to avoid”), while Mina in particular has more agency in intervention because she has a frame of reference that allows her to understand sexual assault. Far from Lucy being punished for her sexy frivolity or Mina being seduced into having some, we see two (idealized) women and an author insert male lead deal, all with predation applied to them in a way that profoundly damages them. And, if you missed the power part of this being most important in text with sex as a tool, off to the side, Renfeild tries to replicate these power hierarchies: spiders to flies, flies to sparrows, sparrows to cats…
If you might read the actions of the suitors, Harker and Van Helsing as male outrage in defence of “their” women, what they are defending is the agency of the women. These women are not “traditional”, inherently passive characters by the standards of their era. What is outraged by Dracula’s attack is Lucy’s choice in only one of the men (or none). She retains her value to all of them even if she is not to be possessed by them, in contrast to Dracula, hoarding his harem of prior victims. This can be contrasted by how the men handle a woman’s agency when they don’t get what they want earlier in the story. We know from Lucy’s account, Steward and Morris want to stay friends, and then also in text, friends with their rival Holmswood because it’s her choice. Likewise, to Harker and indeed the other male characters, Mina is someone to be deferred to in her area of expertise, but to Dracula, Mina to be possessed, controlled as he does the female vampires already introduced as his victims, and punished for thwarting him.
I digress of course, to the other matter of asexuality. Much as other parts of queerness have taken a dreadfully long time to be understood, so also should I speak of asexuality not of sexual repulsion or, in practice, the absence of all libido. This is hard for a lot of folks to grasp, but probably because it’s such a fundamental part of so many folks’ actual wiring that it hides in plain sight: most people don’t just want to rub genitals into orgasm, and if they want sexuality in fiction they generally don’t leave happy if you limit yourself to literally “A person touched the other person with the usual bits of their body one might, until they both achieved orgasm in due course, the end”. To you, the reader, that sentence is satire, because you understand that sex is more than that. Thus, for the erotic most folks want nuance, narrative, even elaborate socioeconomically symbolic foreplay. At minimum, they want characters to have at least traits of a stereotype they can hang context on.
It’s actually pretty rare for someone to have uncomplex sexuality, even the ostensibly allosexual folks.
Because of this, sometimes things are more interesting and arousing if they do not lose the nuance. As a creator, while you can write a squintillion dick go-in-hole scenes, you aren’t just grasping for metaphor and other vocabulary as a matter of self-censorship and euphemism to tidy things, but also to convey a mood and experience that humans often describe as practically metaphysical and transcendent.
Even when anxieties of purity and corruption, or the censorship of the latter influence a work, this becomes an active participant, and any standardized tropes to express euphemism take on the exact property they tried to figleaf. For example, the old film cliché of expressing a couple had sex by cutting to a train entering a tunnel is a pretty intense and on the nose metaphor, if you think about it. And this push/pull of navigating obfuscation may become ultimately more erotic than the thing it is covering, like someone masturbating into a pair of frilly underpants they bought for themselves to do so, or being aroused by them on a mannequin, rather than even requiring an actual woman to possess or wear them.
Thus also Dracula and “monster fucking” in general long ago escaped confinement to metaphor and has occupied space in people’s primary desires. At the point Bram Stoker would be aware of them to use it in his story, they already had transcended both being an obscure, not particularly sexual eastern European bogeyman and an American mass hysteria around tuberculous epidemics, and into a metaphor for predatory sexuality, particularly of the queer kind. We must suppose a professional literary critic with a host of queer friends, and a prior history of writing fantasy adventures understood what he was doing. Not in the sense of “Aha! This vampire is a metaphor for desire!”, but rather that the vampire as trope correctly got across the mood and feeling he wanted to capture.
Maybe Bram Stoker’s original witches dream involved his penis, not his neck. However, the text, with its sinister, unearthly giggling ladies and teasing at Harker’s throat just sounds like a known place humans get horny having kissed, licked and nibbled. And if the language in the scene at no point said “Harker did a cockstand” as porn of the era might, nobody reading the scene needs to know he was aroused. Also, bear in mind the actual porn of the era wasn’t necessarily going to use the word we might. For example, in porn they used the word “paroxysm” as a common term for a female orgasm – even when vulgar and not at all worried about censors, the language trended florid. Thus, I emphasize: I think he wrote about the metaphorical rape monsters not because he dared not talk about other sexuality, but precisely because this was his fantasy.
Yes, he might not have been as sexually open as others are today, and faced a very real risk of persecution. But the counter argument that all this has to be queer self loathing supposes in a queer utopia a person who can screw their own gender openly, without discrimination, can’t write compelling queer horror.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a fanged maw is just as inherently erotic as the thing it symbolizes. And much as trans and same gender attracted folks continue to gently and firmly remind people they don’t need a fracturing seed event to be other than cis or hetero, so also does the buffet of other human stuff that is under the umbrella of the asexual spectrum not require injury to be perverted, or a boost past a hang up to get to some sort of normal sexuality.
Thus, in conclusion, the reader of Dracula might add all the extra sexy bits they want, but they don’t need to. It’s not missing a piece, the horror and dread not evident of a fear of being vanilla, of female sexual choice, or whatever other negative judgment people tend to make of authors of non-normative spooky fiction.