Dracula Extrapolated: “The Lady of the House of Love”

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.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is, in and of itself, a landmark of Gothic horror. It is also the most influential work of horror ever written, having inspired countless tales of vampire-themed fiction, not to mention an ever-growing number of film and television adaptations. Today, in honor of the 124th anniversary of the original publication date of Stoker’s novel, I am debuting a new feature here on my Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog. Dracula Extrapolated will explore 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 Stoker’s source text. I begin with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

What If the character Dracula was equated with the historical figure Vlad Tepes and then transformed into a tragic lover?

The opening scene of Coppola’s film intriguingly flashes back four centuries and furnishes an origin story for Count Dracula’s vampirism. While the Christian knight Vlad Dracula is off fighting a war against the Turks, a devious missive is sent to his beloved wife Elisabeta claiming that he has been slain in battle. Distraught over the (false) report, Elisabeta throws herself from the walls of Castle Dracula. Dracula returns home to grieve over her corpse, only to be told by the priests in attendance that as a suicide, Elisabeta is damned in the eyes of the Church and cannot be given a Christian burial. Enraged, Dracula desecrates the chapel, renounces God, and vows to return from his own death “to avenge [his wife’s] with all the powers of darkness.” His rash deeds and words earn him God’s curse, an eternally bloodthirsty existence as the undead.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Coppola’s film perpetuates a great fallacy–that Stoker based his fictional character on a real-life antecedent (scholar Elizabeth Miller devotes a whole chapter of her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense to debunking such myth, convincingly arguing that Stoker only found a name for Dracula in the historical Vlad and knew nothing about the Impaler’s grim proclivities and fearful reputation). Similarly, we can forgive the film’s derivative deployment of the reincarnated-love-interest (Elisabeta ends up reembodied as Mina) plot device whose history traces back to other Universal Monster films (cf. 1932’s The Mummy) and extends through vampire narratives of the 20th Century (the 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows; the 1973 Dan-Curtis-produced TV film Dracula). The question to consider here is: what are the ramifications of the Coppola film’s narrative maneuver?

On the positive side, the film’s prologue not only provides a rationale for Vlad the Impaler’s evil reputation as a scourging warlord, but also motivates the actions of the Dracula character. One of the weaknesses of Stoker’s novel is its resort to credulity-challenging coincidence: how convenient indeed that when traveling from Transylvania (where Jonathan Harker has been left imprisoned), Dracula lands in a spot in England that lets him to sink his teeth into Harker’s friend Lucy and his fiancée Mina (a choice of prey that later allows the book’s write-minded protagonists to compare notes and compose a plan for defeating the vampire). Here in the film there’s at least an understandable explanation for Dracula’s specific path of predation. Lucy serves as little more than a replenishing meal, but Mina’s pursuit by Dracula is a deliberate attempt to reunite with the woman he’s identified as his lost love.

But if the film clarifies Dracula’s motivations, it simultaneously muddles the character’s iconic monstrosity. In its determination to turn Gothic horror into Gothic romance, Coppola’s Dracula (calling it Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely creates one of the most misleading titles of all time) subverts its terrifying first act: the scenes set at Castle Dracula, where Gary Oldman cuts a supremely sinister figure as the Count. After his emigration to, and rejuvenation within, England, Dracula becomes a confusing person for the audience: should viewers actually root for the vampire to get the girl (who was already his bride in a past life)? Should we fear Dracula for his bloodlust, or pity him for being love-starved for so long? Dracula hardly strikes as imposing after Mina breaks off their affair (for the moment, at least) to wed Jonathan: Dracula’s bout of wild, dare I say womanly, weeping (an ugly display of emotion that turns the Count’s countenance grotesquely misshapen) makes me want to channel Tom Hanks and proclaim “There’s no crying in vampiring!”

The love story that film forces also radically alters Mina’s character. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue (versus the more wayward Lucy) and arguably the driving impetus for the Crew of Light’s defeat of Dracula. Here in the film, though, she proves a cold-hearted adulteress (professing her love for Dracula even as he confesses to a fatal feeding on Lucy). Worse, Winona Ryder’s Mina emerges (as she grows more in touch with her Elisabetan nature) as a nearly-treacherous accomplice of the Count, someone whose gun points at her husband Jonathan and the other heroes during the climactic showdown with Dracula. This radical departure from the novel highlights the inexplicable leap the film has taken with its reincarnation plot. Why exactly has Elisabeta resurfaced (several centuries after her suicidal plunge) as a modern English woman? Simply so Coppola could romanticize Stoker’s narrative, it seems.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula features some absolutely stunning visuals: lavish costumes (Lucy’s wedding/burial dress; Dracula’s armor), grand scenery (orange-burnt skies; the mountain-topping castle) and frightful supernatural incident (Dracula’s morphing into a horde of rats). The sublimely Gothic look of the film is fortuitous, because it helps distract viewers from the ridiculousness (don’t get me started on the sappy ending, in which a teary Mina mercifully releases Dracula from his vampiric curse) that results from the attempt to transform Stoker’s revolting and unremittingly evil archvillain into a sympathetic figure.