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30 October 2012

Too many literary critics are vampires

Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman
Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman in the film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula

I dislike gothic novels, I won’t go near horror movies, I don’t equate being scared with pleasure, Halloween is a complete turn-off, the vampire cult repels me and I’m inclined to nightmares, so Dracula has always been high on my list of books I never ever want to read. But I tend to say yes to good friends, so I agreed that – sporting my “historian-of-modern-Ireland cap” – I would join a panel on “What lies beneath: Dracula and its legacy?” at the Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin last weekend.

Fearfully, I read the book on my kindle in daylight, but I found it well-written, intelligent, a good read and not that frightening. I then borrowed some relevant literary criticism from the London Library and became very scared indeed.

Now, it’s not that I don’t know that the wilder fringes of academia are populated by the ignorant, mad or just silly: indeed several of my crime novels are savage about the lunacies of humanities departments. But every time I revisit that world it’s the sheer stupidity and tunnel vision that gets me cross.

Our panel was to look at “the conflicting elements in the nature and sexuality of an extremely complex man”, ie Bram Stoker. However, as his sane biographers show, Stoker seems straightforward and a good guy. A loving son, sibling, husband and father, he spent his adult life looking after the business affairs of the great actor Henry Irving and his Lyceum theatre, and in his writing reflected a Protestant Irish interest in gothic fiction. His imagination was stimulated by spending his first seven years as an apparently hopeless invalid and by years imbibing melodrama in his day job. Like many respectable Victorians, he probably died of syphilis.

Published in 1897, Dracula is about the attempt of Count Dracula, a long-time vampire, to emigrate from Transylvania to England – no easy matter when you can’t go out in daytime and have to sleep in boxes of dirt. Along the way, he terrorises and almost renders undead the unfortunate solicitor sent to him to sort out his property transactions, who also just avoids a nasty if slightly erotic end at the teeth of three attractive lady vampires. In England, Dracula does for a gentle maiden, whose friends in the end hunt him down and see him and his lady-friends off with the help of wild roses, garlic, crucifixes, consecrated hosts, knives and stakes.

Now there are interesting questions to be addressed – like why do Protestant writers think Roman Catholic religious paraphernalia so effective in dealing with the supernatural? But critical theorists critics had much bigger plans. The Freudians, post-Freudians and post-modernists got onto him. As Stoker’s biographer, Paul Murray, notes, modern commentators saw in the book “deviant and taboo forms of sexuality, including rape, incest, adultery, oral sex, group sex, sex during menstruation, bestiality, paedophilia, venereal disease and voyeurism, among other things”.

One critic saw it as “a kind of incestuous, necrophilia, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”, and another clown explained that its success was due to its representation of “sex without genitalia, sex without confusion, sex without responsibility, sex without guilt, sex without love – better yet, sex without mention.” It will not surprise you that the author of Another Kind of Love: Male homosexual desire in English discourse 1850-1920 found that it was all about “perverse heterosexual distribution of homosexual desire” and “deflection or transposition of homosexual desire across gender”.

Some of them got away from sex. The book was “a tale of degeneration, the late Victorian discourse about the racial and cultural decline of the British people into atavism, because the vampires sap English blood and convert the English social body into their own kind.” Another saw vampirism as signs of “the implosion of the military and commercial British imperial projects”. And then there’s the Arizona professor’s examination of “Dracula and the Postcolonial Sublime” which is apparently about “the terrorization of territory” but also about the “Other and the Self”.

Poor old Stoker. All he did was set out to write a ripping yarn and make some money, not to end up undead, with his life, his mind and his soul being misrepresented by academics desperate to produce some modish rubbish that might gain them tenure. Truly, writers can pay heavily for success.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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