Vampire Lovers at the New York Public Library
As a professional librarian at the main reference desk, I do whatever it takes to respond to a particular question, and I never become judgmental about the quality of that question. That’s Library School 101. I will admit, however, to wondering sometimes where certain questions come from, or what it might mean for the culture at large when a number of people start asking the same question at the same time. For instance, what should I make of the fact that there have been several requests lately--by New Yorkers, no less!-- for books about vampires? Is it because Halloween is coming? Are they folklorists, horror literature fans, or just people who are trying to distract themselves from the terrifying facts of real life, such as the possible results of the upcoming election?
Whatever the case, there is much at the New York Public Library to satisfy the cravings of vampire lovers. There is, first of all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1897 novel, which set the template for all other modern literary, theatrical, and cinematic vampires. The illustrations I’ve included are from a handsome 1985 edition which is notable for the paintings by Greg Hildebrandt. (These examples hardly do them justice; it’s like looking at postcards in the museum gift shop immediately after seeing the actual Monets or Renoirs.) You might reasonably ask if Dracula can hold the interest of anyone over the age of about fourteen. Despite some dramatic clumsiness--and my particular literary pet peeve, incomprehensible dialect, (“And you consate that all these steans be aboon folk that be happed here, snod and snog?” — From Chapter 6, and I don’t have a clue what it’s supposed to mean!) —it is still engrossing reading, no matter how often you’ve seen the story in its other incarnations.
Many scenes and images are hauntingly eerie, in a way that transcends lurid shock effects (although there are a number of those, too). Instead, it seems to operate on that subliminal level where all your urges, fears, and secret hungers lurk. For a Victorian novel, it is startlingly erotic. Jonathan Harker, surrounded by the vampire women, lies prone “in an agony of delightful anticipation.” He watches, not moving, as the
“girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal.”
Within the novel, vampirism is linked with female sexual desire; and for the male characters this is a frightening prospect. They are a dull bunch; and although they all fancy being married to either Lucy or Mina, this surprising new something which has been released in their pure, virginal women can be, to say the least, off-putting. When they encounter Lucy in vampire mode one night, she turns towards her fiancé and becomes demandingly provocative. “Come to me, Arthur,” she coaxes. “Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you.” The men are appalled, finding that Lucy’s typical “sweetness was turned adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.” Their response, of course, is the age-old one we all know of penetrating her heart with a stake, coupled with the less familiar one of severing her head from her body. The novel Dracula provides a feast for gender and sexuality studies.
Did Bram Stoker write anything other than Dracula? The library’s catalog indicates a number of other works, including fanciful titles like The Mystery of the Sea and The Jewel of Seven Stars; but you can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of them because Stoker was apparently never again able to tap into the same strain of skill, mythology, and neurosis which produced his one undisputed classic. Although there were earlier literary vampires, such as John Polidori’s “the Vampyre” and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” Stoker based his aristocratic villain on a historical figure, Vovoide Vlad Tepes, or as he is more commonly known, “Vlad the Impaler,” an unpleasant character who enjoyed activities such as the ones depicted in this 15th-century woodcut. For those interested in such matters, The Dracula Myth by Gabriel Ronay will probably provide more information than you ever wished to know on the subject of the historical Dracula, including the fact that it was not Vlad V (“The Impaler”) but his father, Vlad III, who was the first ruler to be called “Dracul,” a family nickname based on the Dragon figure in the family escutcheon.
To me, however, Dracula the fictitious creation seems much more intriguing and complex than his historical counterpart. It has been over a hundred years since the book first appeared, and Dracula has entered our collective consciousness; cape, fangs, aversion to crosses—is there anyone who couldn’t immediately identify him? And I haven’t yet mentioned the novel’s other remarkable character, Renfield, Dracula’s psychotic toady, who works his way through the food chain from flies to spiders to birds and will do whatever it takes to achieve the immortality of the undead. I’ve known a few Renfields in my own life, one more disturbing than the next. . .
Vampires are a staple of Halloween, and the library’s collection contains more than a few titles in a variety of languages to get you in the mood. What are your plans for Halloween night? Will you be going to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade? Will you be staying home behind locked doors, munching cheap candy and watching your DVD of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? How about cooking up a meal from The Dracula Cookbook, which includes “authentic recipes from the homeland of Count Dracula”? You might even try the “Transylvanian Chicken Stew.” If, like me, you’re a vegetarian, this combination of bacon, chicken, and Hungarian or Polish sausage will be particularly blood-curdling.