Do women write better horror stories than men? Any conclusion based on a sample of two is hardly scientific, but a comparison of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is very revealing.
I never intended to read Dracula. Then we spent a weekend in a holiday cottage near Whitby, and I happened to find a copy on the bookshelf. The first few chapters were gripping and atmospheric, describing the terrifying few weeks spent by the young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, as a prisoner in the Count’s Transylvanian stronghold. Particularly unexpected and intriguing was the blatant eroticism of the scene where he is approached by three female vampires, having disregarded Dracula’s instruction not to go wandering about (The Doctor would have understood the Count’s frustration very well).
Then the action moves to contemporary England. The word “contemporary” is not used lightly, because if ever a novel abounded in descriptions of the wonders of technology, it is this one. Characters constantly record their journals on phonographs, send telegrams and discuss the latest developments in science and technology. Yet Stoker seems curiously ambivalent, or perhaps just inconsistent, in his views. His famous Dutch vampire hunter, Van Helsing, constantly asserts the importance of maintaining a belief in the apparently irrational, whether it be the existence of vampires or the efficacy of Christian symbolism. The text articulates a deep anxiety that the speed of scientific progress will lead to a pervasive rationalism that will leave us vulnerable against the things that go bump in the night.
Anxiety is the defining feature of Stoker’s narrative. That’s not unreasonable in a book that is, after all, intended to scare us stiff. But the particular anxieties implied in Stoker’s account are clustered around the vexed question of gender politics and sexuality. His world-view is a patriarchal as the Book of Genesis. Women have only one acceptable aspiration – to exist as icons of purity. The world is repeated constantly. They are vessels to be filled or emptied by others – quite literally in the case of the passive Lucy Westera, whose very name embodies Stoker’s racial prejudice. In a frantic and ultimately futile attempt to save her life, she undergoes no fewer than four blood transfusions (all from different men!) in four consecutive days, all without her awareness or consent, and done in the name of their devotion to her. It is significant that, while the blood-letting of a vampire is the underlying cause of Lucy’s malaise, we are told that such a creature can only enter a house by the victim’s invitation. Inviting the vampire into her bedroom is Lucy’s only really autonomous action in the whole narrative, and all her sufferings flow from it.
Female independence was a cause of considerable anxiety in the late 19th century, with its defining feature of the rise of the “New Woman” demanding access to university education and suffrage. Closely linked to this concern was a reductive and conventional understanding of masculinity. In Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur and George, set in the Edwardian era, an innocent Indian man is suspected of murder, partly because he hasn’t learned to play “our great manly games.” It is possibly coincidental that Dracula, with his nocturnal habits, his shameful addiction, sunken eyes and feminine features, superficially resembles Oscar Wilde, but some commentators think otherwise. The vampire can only be defeated by a united fraternity of men, whose virility is frequently and glowingly praised. They lock themselves away in smoke-filled rooms, excluding the clearly intelligent and capable Mina on the grounds that the fairer sex could not bear the horrors that they are discussing.
Blind faith has its dark side – irrational prejudice. Dracula abounds in what we would now call “Isms” – sexism, racism, even class-ism. Stoker’s attempt to produce Cockney or Yorkshire dialect, combined with frequent veiled demands for beer money, make it clear that in his universe the lower classes exist primarily to be patronised by their betters and provide comic relief.
Does Dracula still have the power to terrify? In a well-directed movie, perhaps, but the original is by turns infuriating and hilarious. It says far more about the sexual anxieties of late Victorian males than the habits of the undead. There is no attempt to explain, empathise with or pity the Count. And in this respect, particularly, it differs markedly from Shelly’s Frankenstein, which in my view has lost none of its haunting power.
Shelley, too, had concerns about the growing power of technology. Frankenstein is rooted in the Romantic sensibility, and its reaction to the prospect that mankind might be on the brink of using electricity to reanimate the dead, and create new life. Should humanity have such a power? How could male vanity – such a feature of Stoker’s narrative – be limited by ethics and responsibility?
These issues have, if anything, become more significant rather than less. That is partly why Frankenstein has retained its appeal. But Mary Shelley was also a parent, one who had stoically dragged a growing brood of toddlers around Europe in thrall to her husband’s grand ideas (only one of their five children survived the experience). Frankenstein is filled with this sensibility, with her conviction that humanity owes a debt of moral responsibility to any sentient being it has created. Her Creature does not fit easily into the good/evil binary. He is the innocent victim of his creator’s revulsion and neglect; it is this that looses horror upon the world, and leads to the death of everyone that Frankenstein holds dear.
The Creature is a complex character – we are privy to his aspirations, his anguish and his growing desperation. Much of the story is told from his viewpoint. Through his account of his social isolation, he comes to represent the social and political prejudices that divide us, and that the Shelley’s would have clearly witnessed in their travel around a war-scarred Europe. We can’t condone his behaviour, but we understand why he feels he has no alternative. He is human, and seeks only the connection and acceptance that all human beings are entitled to. Ultimately, we pity him, probably more than we pity his hubristic creator, who spills so much ink bemoaning his own fate and so little on that of his creation.
In Shelley’s moral universe, the monsters are more than simple projections of society’s repressed anxieties. They are like us; in a sense, they are us. They exist on the fringes of society, feared, shunned but ultimately no more evil than those who brought them into being. We make our own monsters, and the way forward is not to band together in vigilante groups intent on their destruction, but by extending a hand of mercy and acknowledgement to the apparently hideous and unknown.
Dracula is a melodrama. Frankenstein, though every bit as much of its time as Stoker’s classic, remains contemporary, haunting and disturbing. It terrifies because we know, in our hearts, that we are capable of creating our own monsters, and sealing our fate as well as theirs by our reluctance to acknowledge the monstrous in ourselves.