This year marks the 125th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s horror classic, “Dracula.” Today, the story, and more specifically the character, has sparked hundreds of interpretations; Dracula himself is the second most popular character put in the cinema, just behind Sherlock Holmes. There are the (relatively) faithful adaptations, the stage plays, the parodies, the barely recognizable CGI action shows (I’m looking at you “Dracula Untold”) and the cameos. But few have embraced the queer side of the character, with her LGBTQ+ origins tracing back to the author himself.
Although he was never such a renowned writer during his lifetime as many of his contemporaries, Stoker is today considered a literary titan for his enthralling imagination and now iconic characters. Even a horror titan like Stoker has his own writing debut. Before “Dracula,” the Irish-born author embraced the stories he was most connected to.
Stoker himself was a closeted homosexual who yearned for the affection of his friends, mentors and possible lovers, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman.
His first book, ‘The Primrose Path’, follows an Irishman who moves to London in search of a better job, just as Stoker himself was dragged onto the London stage to work in theatre. His second book, “The Snake’s Pass” becomes more fantastical, centering on the legend of Saint Patrick as he defeats the King of Serpents in Ireland. Although both of these books were quick efforts for the author, they still exuded a quintessentially Stokerian Irish pride and sense of identity with hints of isolation.
Neither are particularly deep reads, and both were produced much faster than his seven-year odyssey to write “Dracula.” But it seems clear to me why it took him so long to finish this fucking thing; it’s brimming with controversy and self-reflection.
Reading “Dracula”…one might be surprised or even confused by how often sex and sexual imagery are discussed.
Stoker himself was a closeted gay man who yearned for the affection of his friends, mentors and possible lovers Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman – men who both sparked controversy for their own portrayals of homosexuality. Most obvious and outrageous of all are not the depictions of death, the supernatural, or the occult, but the candid details surrounding sexuality and sexual orientation.
Reading “Dracula” (something I’ve done no less than half a dozen times over the past year), one might be surprised or even confused at how often sex and sexual imagery are discussed. “Kiss” or “bisous” is used 42 times in the text, “lips” 62 with “voluptuous”, often referring to the vampire’s ruby red lips, appearing 12 times.
Jonathan Harker, when trapped in Dracula’s castle and approached by a trio of vampires, remarks, “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they kiss me with those red lips” with a vampire who laughs and says, “There are kisses for all of us.” Only then does Dracula himself emerge, furious, proclaiming, “This man is mine!”
There are myriad themes here that echo throughout the rest of the book. Domination and submission – played within and against gender stereotypes – polyamory and queer desires. Harker repeatedly notices Dracula’s lips and how they might kiss his neck. And that’s not even the craziest scene! Near the end of the book, Dracula breaks into the Harkers’ room and . . . good . . . I’ll let Stoker describe the scene.
On the bed by the window, Jonathan Harker lay, his face flushed and his breath gasping as if in amazement. Kneeling on the near edge of the bed, facing outward, was the white-clad figure of his wife. Beside her stood a tall, thin man dressed in black. His face turned away from us, but the instant we saw him, we all recognized the Count in every way, even the scar on his forehead. With his left hand, he held both of Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with his arms at full tension; his right hand grabbed her by the back of her neck, forcing her face to his chest. His white nightgown was stained with blood and a thin trickle ran down the man’s bare chest, which his torn robe showed. The attitude of the two looked terribly like that of a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to force it to drink.
I think Leslie S. Klinger in his The New Annotated Dracula summed it up best when he wrote, “What’s going on here? Leonard Wolf in The Essential Dracula writes that this extraordinary scene is “full of implications, almost all of them sexual”. You have “a vengeful cuckold . . . a threesome . . . mutual oral sex . . . [and] Mina’s impregnation.” Clive Leatherdale in “Dracula Unearthed” goes one step further, focusing on the explicit reference to “milk” smeared on Mina’s face to imply a bodily fluid that isn’t exactly blood.
Bram Stoker (1847-1912) Irish writer, best known for his novel Dracula (1897). (Hulton-Deutsch/CORBIS/Corbis collection via Getty Images)
Of course, none of this would have as much impact or relevance without the author’s complex relationship to desire. One of the main written examples of Stoker’s sexual orientation is a long, confessional “love letter” he sent to Walt Whitman, whose famous “Calamus” poems contained explicit homoerotic imagery and musings. Stoker, 24, wrote: “I must thank you for many happy hours as I read your poems with my door locked late at night and read them by the seaside where I could look all around from me and see no more sign of human life than ships at sea: and here I have often woken from a reverie with the book open before me.
Stoker goes on to lament his conservative upbringing and environment, thanking Whitman for his escapism and clarity in prose making “the young man’s heart leap to you across the Atlantic and his soul swell at words or rather thoughts”. Another curious inclusion appears to reverse gender roles as Stoker writes from her own “woman’s eyes” and professes Whitman’s hope of being “his soul’s bride.”
But Stoker’s infatuation with men was not limited to Whitman. There has been speculation about Stoker boss Sir Henry Irving having his own influence in the iconography of “Dracula”.
And then there is Oscar Wilde.
Stoker and Wilde attended university together and the pair would travel to London to pursue the arts. In 1895 Wilde was tried and found guilty of violate sodomy laws, at the height of Stoker’s writing of “Dracula”. It shocked Stoker that his friend and presumably one of his lovers was sentenced to two years in prison, but also terrifying that Wilde’s own fictional writings were used as “evidence” against him at trial. What must Stoker have thought of this when writing his own sexually charged tale? Isn’t this fear a horror in itself?
But I haven’t even mentioned the most Freudian fact of all! Bram Stoker married Florence Balcombe in 1878, after being engaged to another man. . . Oscar Wilde. Of course, there is no lack of complicated relationships depicted in “Dracula,” either.
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To me, you don’t have to look too deeply into Stoker’s own life to see that the horrors of “Dracula” don’t all stem from bloodsucking creatures. They can just as well come from within, from the anxieties, shock and confusion associated with gender, sexual identity and sexual orientation. It’s a welcome change of pace that we’ve seen more recent vampiric works influenced by ‘Dracula’ – like Anne Rice’s latest AMC adaptation”Interview with the Vampire– showcasing its queer origins, but more can be done. While “Interview” seems to show a willingness to portray this oft-forgotten aspect of vampiric creation’s most crucial, we need and should see this from the titular Count himself- same, as depicted not only in the original text itself, but by extrapolating information we know from Bram Stoker’s own life. On this 125th anniversary, I say it’s time for “Dracula” himself to embrace its place in queer horror history.
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