The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text. Tonight, I take a look at Angela Carter’s Gothic/erotic fairy tale, “The Lady of the House of Love” (first published in 1975; collected in The Bloody Chamber).
What if Dracula’s daughter were a reluctant vampire, bloodthirsty but love-craving?
The eponymous vampiress of Carter’s lush tale is “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler, who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania” (“The Lady of the House of Love” first appeared only three years after Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula mistakenly conflated the historical Wallachian ruler with Stoker’s fictional character). Her “habitual tormented somnambulism, her life or imitation of life” recalls the nocturnal and postmortem ventures of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. But the Countess Nosferatu (as Carter later titles her protagonist), with her unnatural beauty and her entrapment in a rotting, cobwebbed chateau, links most closely with the kept vampire women (the Count’s wife and daughters?) at Castle Dracula. The very “voluptuousness” with which the Countess feasts echoes Jonathan Harker’s diaristic depiction of the female vampires.
But Carter arguably establishes such a parallel to signal a deviation. When the vampire women speak of love to Dracula, perversion of the notion is easily discerned. Likewise, their sexually-charged advances on Jonathan point to nothing more than a wicked toying with their food. Dracula’s women revel evilly in their vampiric condition, whereas Carter’s Countess bears a “horrible reluctance for the role” of bloodsucking seductress. Harrowing as her dietary needs might be, the Countess is presented as more of a heroine. She’s “haunted” by her own uncanny kin, her “demented and atrocious ancestors” who form portraits of grim circumscription: “The beastly forebears [pictured] on the wall condemned her to a perpetual repetition of their passions.” The Countess genuinely yearns to be human, to be cured “of her disorder, of her soulnessness.” She hopes that love can one day free her from her frightful fate, from “the timeless Gothic eternity” of her vampirism.
Opportunity appears to knock in the person of a young British soldier who wanders into the nearby village and is ushered into the castle by the Countess’s human governess/procurer. Could he be more than the Countess’s next meal, and instead the incarnation of the Lover prophesied by her Tarot cards? The climax of the story is no doubt ambiguous (in no small part because the events on the night of the Countess’s and the soldier’s encounter are never fully related). Perhaps the soldier rescues the Countess by virtue of his gentle attentiveness to her: “in himself, by his presence, he is an exorcism.” The “Sleeping Beauty” (as the Countess repeatedly fashions herself) might at last awaken from her darkly enchanted state. Yet when the soldier arises the next morning, he seems closer to a Professor Van Helsing than a Prince Charming:
Then he padded into the boudoir, his mind busy with plans. We shall take her to Zurich, to a clinic; she will be treated for nervous hysteria. Then to an an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist, to put her teeth into better shape. Any competent manicurist will deal with her claws. We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is; I shall cure her of all these nightmares.
Ultimately, the soldier doesn’t seem to recognize the Countess for who/what she really is, and instead seeks to mold her to his vision of feminine beauty and well-being. His paternalistic plans sound like a fate worse than undeath. The soldier soon discovers, though, that the Countess has since perished (after she deliberately drew the curtains and let the sunlight beam into her boudoir). He has been left with a “souvenir,” a withered rose that serves as a highly symbolic stand-in for the Countess herself. The soldier subsequently rejoins his regiment, and attempts to “resurrect” the rose by placing it in his water-filled “tooth glass.” That evening, he witnesses an amazing revival: “a glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendour.”
At first, this ending might be read negatively: the Countess is (figuratively) reborn only to be reinscribed, to reprise her vampiric existence and resume the cycle of predation she loathes. Liberation, however, could be at hand at last. Stoker’s vampire women are abandoned/imprisoned at Castle Dracula (at least until Van Helsing destroys them), but Countess Nosferatu gets to move beyond her lonely chateau and the “huge, spiked wall” of corpse-fed roses that “incarcerate[d] her in the castle of her inheritance.” If the solider falls short as the lover the Countess envisioned, he nevertheless succeeds in carrying her a long way from her decadent Romanian home. Carter’s story abruptly concludes with the single-sentence paragraph “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.” The line suggests more than the soldier’s march to his likely death in the trenches of World War I. France is also a romantically-renowned country, and thus furnishes promising soil for the transplanted Countess. While Stoker’s narrative is driven by the terror of homeland invasion (by an emigrating king vampire), Carter’s answer to Dracula strikes a much less ominous note as it hints at the founding of a new, truer House of Love in the Western world.