J.R.R. Tolkien once cautioned his friend, C.S. Lewis, concerning Mr. Lewis’ skill in depicting evil. Anyone familiar with Uncle Screwtape or Perelandra’s Un-man will know what Mr. Tolkien alluded to. There is an uncanny comprehension of evil in these works suggestive of proximity quite contrary to the dark distance of Sauron. It can be dangerous to depict evil. Accuracy might require getting too close to things best kept at bay. A nodding acquaintance with the foe, while certainly safe, may be sufficient. On the other hand, the enemy must be studied if he is to be subdued. Victory will go to the vampire without the intrepidity to throw open his coffin armed with the knowledge of the stake—but a crucifix is also requisite to maintain due distance.
In his strangely immortal classic, Dracula, Bram Stoker strikes a balance between getting too close to the powers of darkness and remaining too aloof. Dracula hammers home that “it is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.” At the same time, it maintains the terrible mystery of the occult: “…there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men’s eyes.” The result is an unexpectedly rich analogy of the spiritual struggle told through a unique epistolary narrative that, like its villain, goes for the jugular.
The occasion for this metaphysical navigation arises, as most adventures do, from a significant collision. The collision in Dracula is significant because it is a collision of epochs. When a young lawyer leaves bustling London behind and arrives at the bleak castle of his client, an ancient Transylvanian count, there is every sense of a man going back to an age where he does not belong. The menace grows increasingly palpable as it becomes apparent that “the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Modern readers are thrown off-balance as well, for the everyday expectations of everyday existence vanish in Dracula. Suddenly superstition edges science while religion supersedes superstition, leaving latter-day men cowering before legendary monsters. The only certainty is blood—and it is a coveted commodity. “The blood is the life.” Relearning such primal fundamentals requires the new age to move backwards—for its own good—from science, to superstition, to religion. When faced with ancient evils, modern man “has to go a long way back before he can even get so far as to begin.” This clash of the natural and the supernatural is a striking testimony of the truth, even if Dracula is a tale of terror. Two invisible worlds coexist with the visible world—one that must be followed when we find it, and one that must be fought when it finds us.
Representing this latter world is the demonically vivified, undead corpse of a fifteenth century boyar. This nosferatu, or vampire, rises from the tomb of ancient history with unnatural powers, deadly patience, and the calculation of a warlord. Though Dracula is the focus of the novel, he remains eerily distant, clinging to the shadows where he belongs. Through mere glimpses of him, however, demonic accuracy is achieved: Dracula is an Antichrist. He cannot attack unless willingly engaged. He baptizes his victims in his blood even as he drinks theirs in a sacrifice that gives eternal “life” in animated death. He unites captive souls to his existence, thriving on the unhallowed. He twists scripture to his purpose, lusts for worship … and fears Christ. Dracula portrays evil authentically, but in such a fantastical mode that it sometimes borders on the farcical—rendering the devil his due by both accounts, for he deserves to be a momentous object of mockery. Dracula reflects this orientation by being intentionally serious and unintentionally silly all at once. It can be hilarious when it is not horrific.
The agents of the visible world threatened by this spawn of Satan comprise a community bound by ties of love and loyalty, contrasting the vampire’s hateful solitude. The party’s leader is Professor Abraham Van Helsing, a doctor, scientist, philosopher, metaphysician … and a Catholic. When the effects of vampirism are detected and medical remedies fail and scientific theories crumble, Van Helsing turns to the alternative. “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all,” he laments, “and if it explain not, than it says there is nothing to explain.” He festoons doors and windows with garlic until the dispensation is procured to wield the ultimate weapon against “the children of the night”—the Host. Armed with this, the Sacred Species Itself, the friends drive the fiend over land and sea, foiling his purpose to infect humanity with everlasting corruption.
Overcoming the trends of their industrial times, the heroes find that tradition and superstition can, together, provide the basis for something far more potent than science—Faith. Faith grants them the strength to grapple with inhuman powers and allows them to proclaim, “we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His Will … through tears and blood; through doubts and fears, and all that makes the difference between God and man.” The men and women of this story suffer bravely under the scourge of an incomprehensible evil so that, in the words of Van Helsing, “the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters … we go out as the old knights of the Cross.” If Dracula captures the essence of the enemy, it also captures the martial attitude of the embattled faithful.
Bram Stoker did research for seven years before writing Dracula, and it shows. The novel is steeped in history, geography, religion, folklore, science, and jargon ranging from the nautical to the legal. Given the vast sum of references woven into its fabric, an annotated version is recommended. For readers disinclined to examine subtexts of necrophilia, homoeroticism, feminism, sadomasochism, or other postmodern concerns, the Ignatius Critical Editions offer a traditional approach, following a classical, Judeo-Christian perspective on Western works.
The Ignatius Critical Editions’ Dracula, edited by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, provides illuminating explanatory and analytical notes that enhance without obtruding upon the reading experience (though there are a handful of inconsistencies in cross-reference paginations). Three essays accompany the text, each providing a scholastic angle. Amanda Guilinger investigates the strong spiritual, if not Catholic, undertones of the work as she unravels the distinction between superstition and religion. Jack Trotter then explores the broad cinematic history of Dracula, and how the original ethos of the story has been gradually lost over time, as Dracula became more and more of a man than a monster. Finally, J. K. Van Dover identifies Professor Van Helsing as a constellation in the detective galaxy, contrasting him systematically to Sherlock Holmes.
This edition of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece is grounded in wisdoms that, though not in vogue, are important to remember because they are eternal. If Dracula teaches us anything, it is that antiquity should never be underestimated.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the first American edition of Dracula, published in 1899.