In Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire novel Dracula, the eponymous count warns his pursuers, “My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.”
Those who have read the novel or watched one of its countless adaptations will know that the count’s threat was empty. His revenge, and the count himself, were literally cut short. But while Dracula the character was killed, Dracula the book remains immortal, with horror readers and authors of all eras since genuflecting to its example. Ironically, Dracula was far from the first novel to place a vampire in a modern setting, nor even to depict him as a suave, darkly fascinating aristocrat: John Polidori’s The Vampyre predated Stoker’s novel by almost a century.
However, when authors search for a model for their vampires of today, it is not Polidori’s Lord Ruthven that they turn to first. Instead, every modern vampire, from Kurt Barlow of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, to Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, to even Stephanie Meyer’s Edward Cullen in Twilight, make some nod or other to Count Dracula. Indeed, Dracula’s legacy has been spread over more than a century, and time remains on its side.
Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of references to early works of Gothic horror like Dracula and the earlier, but no less influential Frankenstein, the genre both books populated has curiously ended up with a stake through its heart. Today, Gothic Horror writ large is either forgotten, treated as an artifact whose best literary features have been absorbed by other forms of genre fiction, or dismissed as an antiquated and socially regressive fictional universe full of parodical and cliché tropes. The caricature of Gothic horror as being one long string of books whose covers depict nubile women fleeing in sheer nightgowns from dark castles, often set in the gaslight era and with a readership as allergic to sunlight as its various ghoulies and ghosties, has become the dominant accepted image of the genre. Progressive cultural critics, meanwhile, accuse the genre of sins such as denying agency to its female characters, turning them into mere damsels in distress to be rescued by presumptively white, handsome, traditionally masculine men, often from the clutches of racially/ethnically othered villains whose only sin is encouraging unlicensed expressions of sexuality. There are exceptions to this latter point, but mostly, the genre’s detractors believe it to be hokey, Puritanical, sexist, bigoted, and totally impossible to relate to in our modern era. Even Jane Austen’s scathing satirical novel Northanger Abbey was not so dismissive.
I dissent, not merely as the author of a book which has been compared to works of Gothic or neo-Gothic fiction like Dracula and The Exorcist, but also as a lifelong reader of horror whose favorite works and most prominent literary influences spring primarily from the heyday of late-19th and early-20th century Gothic horror fiction that gave rise to so much of what we now think of as modern day horror. While I understand where the idea of Gothic horror as a nightgown-clad vehicle for racial and sexual moral panic comes from, I cannot agree with its interpretation of the genre’s corpus. Nor can I agree that Gothic horror is anachronistic or impossible to relate to in our present moment. Quite the opposite: I think that there is no genre of horror fiction that so easily and intuitively speaks to our present day anxieties as the gaslit fantasies of our distant ancestors.
This naturally raises a question of just what I mean when I use the phrase “Gothic horror.” What is the genre all about? The name, “Gothic,” provides some clues here, as it originates from the type of architecture favored by the founder of the genre, Horace Walpole, who conspicuously not only set his novel The Castle of Otranto in a Gothic castle, but also set it in the Gothic era of the middle ages and deliberately based it stylistically on the work of William Shakespeare. Over time, this idea of setting a story of supernatural horror in a crumbling old castle or similarly “Gothic” structure gave the genre its name. True, not every Gothic story takes place in a literal castle: the architecture required has democratized since Walpole, with crumbling manor houses (H.P. Lovecraft’s Exham Priory, Henry James’ Bly Manor and Shirley Jackson’s Hill House), churches (M.R. James’ The Treasure of Abbot Thomas), hotels (Stephen King’s The Shining), and even creepy old apartment buildings (Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby) being accepted now. But the central idea of Gothic horror as being horror that takes place in old, isolated buildings in various states of disrepair, with a long and bloody history to them, surely matters to understanding the genre. In other words, in Gothic horror, the sins of the past are embodied in the very locations where it takes place, and the atomizing, agonizing after-effects of that past are felt as much on the narrative itself as they are on the buildings that are crumbling under the weight of age. In an era where we are never more conscious of the pain inflicted even by distant history, can we really say horror that takes place in settings that emphasize the “sins of the father” are out of place?
So the creepy buildings on the covers of Gothic novels are representative, at least. What about the nightgown clad women? Well, while the actual number of women in nightgowns in Gothic horror is vanishingly small, the idea of the damsel in distress seems at first glance to be a fairly common feature. However, subtleties introduce themselves when you actually look at the women in question. Mina Murray in Dracula, for example, is pretty much the person who makes the difference in the protagonists’ ability to take out the count at all, while the more (for the time) conventionally feminine Lucy Westenra ends up a villainous child-murdering vampire midway through. The unnamed second Mrs. DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca learns to assert herself against her tyrannical housekeeper and cold husband over the course of the novel. Even Emily St. Aubert and her aunt in The Mysteries of Udolpho heroically and tenaciously refuse to give into the depredations of their male persecutors, and Emily escapes not with the aid of her lover Valancourt, but rather thanks to her own resourcefulness and help from the servants, and ends up a property owner at the end of the book while her lover is penniless. And that’s not even touching on the meta fact that many of the early writers of Gothic fiction were themselves women, such as Ann Radcliffe, Eliza Parsons, Eleanor Sleath, and of course, Mary Shelley. The caricature of the helpless screaming girl in the nightgown, it seems, is more “sex sells” marketing than reality. In fact, the heroines of Gothic horror may begin as damsels in distress, but they often end up as masters of their own destiny even moreso than they were when they came in.
However, it is in looking at the villains of Gothic horror where the real resonance of the genre takes hold. Whether it’s Walpole’s castle-owning Manfred, Radcliffe’s faux-Italian nobleman Montoni, Shelley’s wealthy Victor Frankenstein, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, Stoker’s Count Dracula, Lovecraft’s displaced English nobleman Delapore, M.R. James’ Count Magnus De la Gardie, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Colonel Pyncheon, J.S. Le Fanu’s Countess Carmilla Karnstein, Stephen King’s wealthy antiques dealer Kurt Barlow, Wilkie Collins’s Sir Percival Glyde, Anya Seaton’s Patroon Nicholas van Ruyn, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, a consistent pattern emerges: Gothic villains are almost always powerful. Indeed, even shunned characters like Frankenstein’s monster or the Phantom of the Opera make up for their lack of social/financial power with great intellectual or physical might. Seen in this way, the overriding concern of Gothic horror becomes achingly current for the modern day. This is a genre where the horror comes from the immiserating effects of the abuse of power. Including, and this can’t be overstated, its immiserating effects on those who wield power, no less than those who lack it.
And what, in our era of crumbling trust in unaccountable institutions, could be more current than that? True, Manfred in Otranto never bragged of grabbing anyone “by the pussy,” but he did seek to marry his own daughter-in-law for political advantage. No, the Phantom of the Opera might not have had top flight defense attorneys, but his body count made Phil Spector look like a piker. No, Dracula might not have used the casting couch, but his ability to make young women complicit in his sexualized reign of terror was easily a match for Harvey Weinstein. Yes, Dorian Grey covered up his inner ugliness with a hidden portrait rather than an anonymous Twitter account, but his ability to destroy himself with his appetites was no less potent. Indeed, the all-too-human and all-too-corrupted-by-power nature of the Gothic villain makes them the perfect monster for our era, just as the crumbling, tragic Gothic structure is the perfect symbol for the helpless feeling among so many people that the sins of our past are grinding what was once beautiful into an alienated ruin. And who but the empowered, modern, young heroes and heroines of Gothic horror are we looking for as our models for how to escape those crumbling old structures and the wounded old tyrants who cling to them? What is more, in our era of extremism, perhaps the tragedy ubiquitous to so much of Gothic horror can offer a sobering tonic, and a reminder that even the greatest of heroes, like Dracula himself, can be corrupted into monstrous husks of themselves by the lust to abuse power. That they who fight monsters stand only a knife’s edge away from nesting in their own monstrous lairs.
In short, in rediscovering the resonance of Gothic horror for an era where tragedy dominates and yet heroism is still possible with the greatest of effort, perhaps we can remind ourselves that, contra Count Dracula, the revenges of the past can be ended before they begin, and for our imagination’s greatest monsters, time is not on their side: in fact, it is running out.