Rape and Blood and Dracula

What was it about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that inspired the folks at Quirk Publishing to think, “This would be so much better with zombies?” Given that the mash-up spawned imitators and graphic novels and prequels and sequels, it obviously struck a public nerve. I think it is because the Quirk folks hit on the same idea as Bram Stoker in 1897. These British bastards need to suffer a good bit of terror.

Jane Austen’s England is contained within a glass menagerie. The worst thing that happens to the landed gentry of those Masterpiece Theater type of novels is either a loss of inheritance, or one’s never coming into possession of a husband. While Tolstoy’s heroes were fending off a French invasion, and Hugo’s les miserables were mounting revolts in the streets of Paris, the domestic literature of the British Empire passed through the 19th century with an ethereal yawn.  

Even England’s most ardent social reformer novelists, Elizabeth Gaskall and Charles Dickens, can’t hope to approach the same passion as their continental competition. Oliver Twist was poor, sure, but did he ever reach the level of desperation of Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov?

“Good God!” Raskolnikov cried, “can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open… that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, break the lock, steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood… with the axe…. Good God, can it be?”

If 19th century Brit Lit is the Western Canon’s security blanket, that practice blew up dramatically with Dracula. This novel sparks the dawn of a new era of British fiction: the Invasion Novel. Dracula is the Zombie in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Dracula is a nation’s collective terror that something very un-English is coming across the Channel to destroy them. 

The terror of invasion came upon England in a literary torrent at the turn of the 20th century. There was German invasion (Childer’s The Riddle in the Sands, 1903, and Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915). Alien invasion (Wells’ War of the Worlds, 1898) and Communist invasion (Conrad’s The Secret Agent, 1907). But perhaps most terrifying was a confluence of all these things into one: the supernatural foreigner, the Monster from the East. Dracula, the vampire invader. 

What makes Dracula more frightening than anarchists or aliens with heat rays? In a word, rape. Reading Dracula, it struck me that his victims are all children and virgin girls. The manner that he attacks is  intimate. He comes at them in the bedroom as a sensuous mist, and pressing his mouth to the neck, he draws  blood. Blood, metaphorically, is identity as a liquid. By taking in the most intimate part of his victims, Dracula – the foreign parasite – is violating the essence of the innocent. There is no assault more violent and personal than that.

Sexuality and rape fantasies have always been a strong undercurrent of vampire literature, even before Dracula (a novel that inspired Stoker, Carmilla, concerned a lesbian vampire). But the sex in vampire books faded in the mid-20th century with novels like I am Legend and ‘Salem’s Lot. The vampire of those books is a sexless zombie. He is more like a vector of disease than an incubus.  It was Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire that  brought bodice-ripping back to the genre. Now it seems we can’t remember a time without it. What is Twilight, after all, but one big sex fantasy?

But it all began with Dracula

This image of the Count as rapist is clearest in perhaps the novel’s most disturbing scene, as Mina describes how Dracula not only drew blood from her, but forced her to drink his own: 

“With that he pulled open his shirt, and with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he took my hands in one of his, holding them tight, and with the other seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some to the… Oh, my God! My God! What have I done? What have I done to deserve such a fate, I who have tried to walk in meekness and righteousness all my days. God pity me! Look down on a poor soul in worse than mortal peril. And in mercy pity those to whom she is dear!” Then she began to rub her lips as though to cleanse them from pollution.

Mina, who could have easily fit in to a Jane Austen novel a few decades earlier, is in for a much worse fate than Elizabeth Bennett could have ever imagined. Only the Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could appreciate the England of Bram Stoker.

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