Sunday, January 05, 2020

Was Dracula gay?

The mostly rather splendid adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula just screened by the BBC prompts me to post here this short edited extract from my forthcoming book The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination.

The BBC Dracula excited much comment, some of it affronted and outraged, in its portrayal of the Count as bisexual. I thought it might be useful to explain, then, how and why gay sexuality is a central theme in Dracula.

If you like the sound of this piece, please do feel free to advertise it far and wide. My book, which ranges from Robinson Crusoe to Batman, and which touches on (among other things) zombies, werewolves, superheroes, aliens and UFOs, psychoanalysis, incest and perversion, Judge Dredd, Jane Austen, J. G. Ballard, J. M. Coetzee, and the end of the world, was not deemed terribly interesting (or sciencey enough) by most UK publishers, so forgive me for having to promote it shamelessly from now until publication.


First and foremost, “the vampire is an erotic creation”, according to the Italian writer Ornella Volta: “The vampire can violate all taboos and achieve what is most forbidden.” Those taboos surely include, inter alia, dominance and submission, rape, sadomasochism, bestiality and homoeroticism. Let’s throw in masturbation and incest too: cultural critic Christopher Frayling sees in the voluptuous nightly visitation of a being who leaves the victim in a swoon and depleted of vital fluids the imprint of erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions; while for Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, writing in 1910, the vampire expressed “infantile incestuous wishes that have been only imperfectly overcome.”

What makes Dracula so compelling and potent is that its sexual work is done largely unconsciously. If Bram Stoker’s great-nephew and biographer Daniel Farson is to be believed (which is by no means always the case), the author “was unaware of the sexuality inherent in Dracula”. Which is why gothic scholar David Skal is right to suggest that we can read the book today as “the sexual fever-dream of a middle-class Victorian man, a frightened dialogue between demonism and desire.” He calls Dracula “one of the most obsessional texts of all time, a black hole of the imagination”.

For Frayling, the book “was probably transgressing something – but the critics weren’t quite sure exactly what.” That is probably because the author was not sure either. On the face of things, Stoker was an eminently respectable late Victorian – and we know well enough today not to trust that persona an inch. For what he produced in Dracula was aptly described by English writer and critic Maurice Richardson “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious [sic], oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”. Which means (I am not being entirely glib here) that it had something for everyone.

Stoker was born and raised in Dublin to a Protestant family clinging to the lower rungs of the middle classes. Respectability mattered to him; he had the judgemental morality of the socially precarious, for example proclaiming after a visit to America that the hobos and tramps there should be branded and sent to labour colonies to learn what hard work was. His rather shrill worship of “manliness” and conventional views on gender roles look now like aspects of a determined act of self-deception.

Still, you can’t fault his work ethic. Stoker never seemed to feel that one full-time occupation need preclude others, and so even while he was studying mathematics at Trinity College Dublin he took a job in the civil service, established himself as a theatre critic, and in 1873 accepted the editorship of the Irish Echo, where he was essentially the only member of staff. (Somehow he still got his degree.)

In 1867 he saw a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals starring the actor Henry Irving. Stoker was smitten, and when Irving, by then actor-manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London, returned to Dublin in 1876, Stoker’s reviews of his production of Hamlet were so effusive that the acutely vain actor invited the young critic to dinner, at which he treated Stoker to a rendition of a melodramatic poem. It’s all too easy (given accounts of his acting technique) to imagine Irving reciting it with self-adoring hamminess, but Stoker attested that he was reduced to “a violent fit of hysterics” (at that time a stereotypically womanly response – he’s not talking about laughter). His devotion was sealed. “Soul had looked into soul!” Stoker wrote. “From that hour began a friendship as profound, as close, as lasting as can be between two men.” At the end of 1878 Irving asked him to come to London as his front-of-house manager.

It’s easy to see why Count Dracula is often said to be based on Irving, even though there is not really any compelling reason to think so. For the man truly was a sort of monster (mainly of egotism); he could be charming, but also cruel, haughty and callous. And he drained Stoker dry, treating him like a servant if not indeed a slave, and exploiting his house manager’s blind devotion to make outrageous demands at all times of day and week.

Buy even if we accept that Stoker’s arrogant, domineering Count Dracula was not formulated as an act of surreptitious revenge on Irving, still he seemed to have hoped the actor might play the role on stage. That never looked likely to happen. After an informal reading of Stoker’s stage treatment of the book at the Lyceum shortly after its publication, Irving was reported to have walked out muttering ”Dreadful!”

That Stoker not only bore all these demands and rebuffs but sustained his adoration of Irving regardless seems to speak of more than just hero worship. He had a masochistic infatuation with Irving that persisted until the actor died, a feeling stronger than any he showed for his wife and family. Stoker’s friend, the Manx writer Hall Caine, attested that “I have never seen, nor do I expect to see, such absorption of one man’s life in the life of another.” Stoker’s feeling for Irving, he added, was “the strongest love that man may feel for man.” (There was possibly a homoerotic element too in Stoker’s closeness to Caine. Highly-strung and flamboyant, with a thinning mane and piercing stare, Caine was the “Hommy-Beg” – his Manx nickname – to whom Stoker dedicated Dracula.)

While studying at Trinity in the early 1870s, Stoker became fixated on the American poet Walt Whitman, who is now widely considered to have had homoerotic (if not necessarily homosexual) relationships. Stoker wrote Whitman an impassioned letter, full of ambiguous remarks about his own sexuality: “How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eyes and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul.” In the Whitmanesque poem he wrote in 1874, “Too Easily Won”, he speaks of the anguish of being rejected by another man: “His heart when he was sad & lone/Beat like an echo to mine own/But when he knew I loved him well/His ardour fell.” Stoker met Whitman during an American tour with Irving in 1884, and the two men talked warmly.

Whether all this means we can consider Stoker a repressed homosexual is a complicated question, however. Only in his day were the boundaries of sexuality becoming fixed – indeed, it was then that the word “homosexual” was coined. In the same year Dracula was published, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds argued that same-sex desire was a common state of affairs with a long history, albeit an “inversion” of the norm. Before this medicalization of sexuality, it simply had no role as a label of identity, and distinctions between mutual affection and sexual desire between men were barely scrutinized.

Homosexual preference wasn’t seen as incompatible with heterosexual marriage, for the objectives of the two types of relationship were quite different. What a wife might bring to a man who loved men was almost as much a matter of aesthetic balance as of social respectability. Love wasn’t necessary to balance that equation. Just as Oscar Wilde’s marriage can’t simply be considered a sham for the sake of social conformity, no more can Stoker’s. The comparison could hardly be more apt anyway, for both men (whose families were acquainted in Ireland) courted the same woman: the “Irish beauty” Florence Balcombe. She chose Stoker but got little joy from it; the marriage was said to be devoid of passion, and Bram only ever speaks of ‘love’ and ‘loving’ in the context of his male relationships. Poor Florence was left at home to mind the children while her husband worked long nights at the Lyceum. At the end of her life she hinted at regrets that she hadn’t opted for Wilde after all, in spite of what had befallen him.

But Oscar’s flamboyance seems to have made Bram wary of his acquaintance when the two men lived in London: they remained in uneasy contact, but Stoker never once mentioned Wilde in his letters. He must have watched with horror as Oscar’s public disgrace unfolded in 1895 in the fateful trial against the Earl of Queensberry, provoked by Wilde’s relationship with the earl’s son Lord Alfred Douglas. After Wilde had been convicted, his brother Willie wrote to Stoker saying “poor Oscar was not as bad as people thought him.” It isn’t clear Bram ever replied.

In many ways Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray represents his more metaphorical take on the vampire myth. Here again is the corrupt, Byronic aristocrat (Lord Henry Wooton) who saps the life-force from those around him. Wilde’s book is far superior in literary terms, and provides a more nuanced and imaginative perspective on vampirism. He was also much more in conscious control of his material, especially its homoerotic subtext. And this is precisely why Dorian Gray has entered the modern literary canon but is not a modern myth.


Given what we know of Stoker, we might expect the subliminal eroticism of Dracula to be slanted towards male same-sex relations. In that respect it doesn’t disappoint. Whether or not, as cultural historian Nina Auerbach claims, Dracula “was fed by Wilde’s fall”, the book positively throbs with frantically suppressed homoeroticism. The Count dismisses his predatory “brides” as they prepare to violate Harker with the command “This man belongs to me!” F. W. Murnau, the director of the iconic 1922 film adaptation Nosferatu, was gay himself and seems alert to Stoker’s unconscious subtext when his Dracula figure Graf Orlok licks blood from the finger of his bewildered guest after he cuts himself shaving. (We should be cautious about ascribing explicit intent, however; Murnau used a screenwriter.)

Yet while Dracula has sometimes been presented as a model of queer identity, it hardly seems a positive portrayal. He embodies everything perceived to be “bad” about homosexuality: all that Stoker may have sensed, feared and loathed in himself. Like vampirism, homosexuality was at that time becoming a deplorable “condition” from which one needed to be rescued.

The heroes of the novel do their best to show how. Contrasting with the vile lechery of the Count as he looms over Harker, and the young man’s fascinated disgust as he discovers the vampire’s blood-gorged body in the crypt of his castle, the camaraderie among the band of men who vanquish the vampire models Stoker’s own solution to his predicament. As Auerbach says, the book “abounds in overwrought protestations of friendship among the men, who breathlessly testify to each other’s manhood.” Over them all presides the fatherly, Whitman-like figure of Van Helsing, who assures Arthur Holmwood that “I have grown to love you – yes, my dear boy, to love you.” For all his prejudice and dissembling, one can’t help feel for the anguished Stoker here, seemingly so desperate to neutralize and normalize his feelings.

The homoerotic allure of the vampire had been explored, with far less inhibition and repression, three years before Dracula was published, by the Slavic aristocrat Eric Stenbock. His short story “A True Story of a Vampire” records the recollection by an old woman called Carmela who lives in a castle in Styria – an obvious reference to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s homoerotic vampire novella Carmilla (1872) – of an episode from her youth. A mysterious Hungarian guest called Count Vardalek arrives at the castle and enthralls Carmela’s young brother Gabriel. We can guess well enough from his appearance what the Count has in mind: “He was rather tall with fair wavy hair, rather long, which accentuated a certain effeminacy about his smooth face.”

Gabriel pines when Vardalek, now welcomed into the family home, has to go away on trips to Trieste. “Vardalek always returned looking much older, wan, and weary. Gabriel would rush to meet him, and kiss him on the mouth. Then he gave a slight shiver: and after a little while began to look quite young again.”

But Gabriel, previously so healthy, starts to succumb to a mysterious illness. On his deathbed, “Gabriel stretched out his arms spasmodically, and put them round Vardalek's neck. This was the only movement he had made, for some time. Vardalek bent down and kissed him on the lips.” When the boy dies, the Count leaves, never to be seen by the family again.

A poet as well as an author of fantastical tales, Stenbock was more Wildean than Wilde, and made no bones about it. He conducted many homosexual relationships while studying at Oxford, and he was said to have gone everywhere with a life-sized doll that he called his son. He was said to be eccentric, morbid and perverse – qualities he put to good use in his vampire story.

The gay subtext of Dracula was pursued in The House of the Vampire (1907) by the writer George Sylvester Viereck. A complex and controversial figure, Viereck met with Adolf Hilter in Germany in the 1930s, and was imprisoned in the United States in 1942 because of his Nazi sympathies – specifically for failing to register as a supporter of National Socialism. His book relates the story of Reginald Clarke, a dissipated Henry Wotton figure who draws young men into a web of corruption. He represents a popular character type of the early twentieth century: a psychic vampire, who absorbs the energy and creativity of his victims. “Your vampires suck blood”, cries one of his victims, “but Reginald, if vampire he be, preys upon the soul.” Viereck’s description of Clarke’s fate leaves little doubt that the character was modeled on Wilde himself:

“Many years later, when the vultures of misfortune had swooped down upon him, and his name was no longer mentioned without a sneer, he was still remembered in New York drawing rooms as the man who brought to perfection the art of talking.”

Clarke’s vampirism is portrayed here not as a vile perversion but as the right of a superior being to draw the life force from his inferiors. True to his fascistic leanings, Viereck wrote that “My vampire is the Overman of Nietzsche. He is justified in the pilfering of other men’s brains.” He is a revival of the Byronic vampire, a creature of taste and refinement.

It’s puzzling why gay men like Stenbock, Wilde and Viereck chose to reiterate the widespread association of homosexuality with the desecration of youthful innocence. Yet the theme of corruption being spread via body fluids during illicit, decadent sexualized embraces, would, in Stoker’s time, have resonated with fears about syphilis. Science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss considers Dracula “the great nineteenth-century syphilis novel”, although Oscar Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman argues that this was also the real subject of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The disease announced itself with lesions on the body, much like the bodily symptoms of vampirism for which the characters in Dracula search their skin. It has been suggested that Stoker died from syphilis contracted from a prostitute; this seems unlikely, although that is his fate in Aldiss’s metafictional Dracula Unbound (1991).

Aldiss’s book was published when an entirely new sexually transmitted disease had grown to epidemic proportions: AIDS, as an allegory of which vampire mythology seems unnervingly tailored. There is the infection by blood, the enervated state of the victims, and also the suggestion pushed by homophobic media reports that AIDS is associated with perverse sexual behaviour. As is often the way with modern myths, there was already a new version available to explore the metaphor: Anna Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”, beginning with Interview With a Vampire (1976), and followed by The Vampire Lestat (1985) and The Queen of the Damned (1988). The critical reception and public response was much more positive for the latter two novels than for the first, and perhaps that reflected how society had changed – not just because the strength of the gay rights movement by the early 1980s had created an environment more receptive to the themes, but because the precarious existence of Rice’s vampires seemed to speak to the devastating effects of AIDS in the gay community. “I happened to encounter Interview With a Vampire at the height of the AIDS epidemic”, writes author Audrey Niffenegger,

“…and it seems in retrospect to be a prescient book. Anna Rice could not have known how her creation would resonate with a world in which blood itself was dangerous, in which male homosexuality and death became closely entwined.”

Although Rice was comfortable with such interpretations, she denied having any intention of making her Vampire Chronicles a gay allegory But the homoeroticism is plain to see, and the vampires Louis and Lestat live for years like a gay couple with their young adoptive daughter Claudia. That analogy arguably does gay parents no favours, however, since the prospect of Claudia maturing into an adult woman within the body of a perpetually young girl makes for some of the most disturbing – and, it must be said, mythopoeic – material in Interview With the Vampire. “You’re spoiled because you’re an only child”, Lestat tells her, to which she languidly responds, “I suppose we could people the world with vampires, the three of us.” By daring to voice such things, Rice gives the vampire myth a genuinely contemporary infusion, the horror element for once being far less significant than the capacity to provoke unease.