Published by Penguin Books on April 29th 2003
A true masterwork of storytelling, Dracula has transcended generation, language, and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written -- and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition. Pocket Books Enriched Classics present the great works of world literature enhanced for the contemporary reader. This edition of Dracula was prepared by Joseph Valente, Professor of English at the University of Illinois and the author of Dracula's Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood, who provides insight into the racial connotations of this enduring masterpiece.
The 1800s bore the genre of gothic literature, a form of science/occult fiction that challenged and frightened readers across the century. These books have remained with me for the last 25 years of my reading life, in particular my favourites including Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Robert L Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and finally (somewhat later) Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.
These books always thrilled and fascinated me – they provided complicated views of the world we inhabit and disrupt our comforts, particularly ‘Frankenstein’, more than most I have engaged with. Having recently re-read these books, and thinking of their layers of meaning, I was left wondering about the souls of these creatures, often damned to perdition by the writers who created them.
As a Muslim I find this idea interesting, as if these ‘creatures’ are indeed monsters destined to hell, then to what extent is their damnation linked to their DNA? These questions are not limited to the abstract, for this period of ‘enlightened’ thinking tells us much about the way in which the West constructed threats to their society and ways of life, often rooted in the racist ideas of phrenology – ideas that have more recently re-emerged in the statements and writings of popular commentators such as Charles Murray, the author of ‘The Bell Curve’.
Out of the four books I have chosen to understand, perhaps the least complicated is Bram Stoker’s work. His character, Dracula, was a creature that in its very existence was a manifestation of evil, not just in animal terms, but also in eternal ones. While Dracula is the arch-vampire, he is able to ‘make’ others through a process of feeding until their death, resulting in a post-humous reconstitution as a lesser vampire.
Bram Stoker first introduces us to the idea of a human being changing status to the damned through becoming a victim to Dracula’s feeding. Lucy Westenra, the best friend to one of the protagonists Mina Harker, is presented as inexplicably becoming unwell. Despite the best efforts of her husband, a doctor friend and others, they are not able to stop her death. With the intervention of Professor Van Helsing, Lucy’s family and friends are able to save her soul by killing her in vampire form, thereby changing her status back to that of a human prior to her full demise. As Van Helsing explains to her husband as they finally complete the deed:
“And now, my child, you may kiss her. Kiss her dead lips if you will, as she would have you to, if for her to choose. For she is not a grinning devil now—not any more a foul Thing for all eternity. No longer she is the Devil’s Un-Dead. She is God’s true dead, whose soul is with Him!”
Later Mina Harker become subject to the illness and journey towards transformation leads to her realisation that even while conscious of her identity, she is damned beyond any redemption unless they can kill the father vampire, Dracula:
“As he placed the Wafer on Mina’s forehead, it had seared it—had burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal. My poor darling’s brain told her the significance of the fact as quickly as her nerves received the pain of it: and the two so overwhelmed her that her overwrought nature had its voice in that dreadful scream. But the words to her thought came quickly; the echo of the scream had not ceased to ring on the air when there came the reaction, and she sank on her knees on the floor in an agony of abasement. Pulling her beautiful hair over her face, as the leper of old his mantle, she wailed out:— ‘Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgment Day.’”
For Bram Stoker, the notion of agency for the vampires was completely based on their physiology, rather than any choice they had in the matter. Mina Harker recognises that her physical state has changed, so she is now longer entirely human, understanding that she is damned by virtue of what she has become. This is a theme that is picked up in later depictions of vampires such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where two key characters Angel and Spike, are only able to become ‘good’ vampires by gaining souls or being altered in some way. Even with the comic and film series ‘Blade’, physiologically, Blade is different from other vampires, which is why is capable of retaining some value of being human, and therefore not be subject to eternal damnation.
As a Muslim, the idea that a person who is ‘aaqil (has the ability to reason) be subject to damnation due to their biology is problematic. Islamic law separates those who are accountable for their deeds between the mukallaf and the ghayr mukallaf – those who are legally responsible for their actions and those who are not. In the case of the ghayr mukallaf, Islamic law contends that the ‘pen is lifted’ or in other words the law does not apply to the one asleep, pre-pubescent or has mental health issues beyond their ability to reason – perhaps (for the purposes of this discussion) we could add the one bitten by a vampire. Islam doesn’t recognise the criminality of the one who is not in control.
Within the gothic world, the idea of evil and physiology are linked almost inextricably. In ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, the character of Jekyll is provided a sense of immunity from the crimes of Hyde, as they are physically different in appearance to one another, despite being the same person. There is a sense of forgiveness attached to Dr Jekyll, because physically his character could be separated from the repugnant side of his alter-ego:
“Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him. ‘There must be something else,’ said the perplexed gentleman. ‘There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last, I think; for O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.’”
Physical appearance and abhorrence are closely linked within range of literature. Gaston Leroux’s Phantom hides his scarred face behind a mask, full of the knowledge that he cannot escape his physical deformity. Shelley’s ‘being’ hides himself from the world, for a long period seeking to be comforted by watching the world of others from a self-imposed solitary confinement, knowing that the world will continue to judge him for his physical appearance. Perhaps these two books are rarities in the canon, as they provide a degree of explanation or understanding of how these ‘monsters’ are nurtured. The Phantom narrowly escapes being killed in Persia are being betrayed, and the ‘being’ is abandoned by Frankenstein. In both cases, however, the writers still acknowledge the link between physical appearance and horror – the spectacle is in the grotesque.
With gothic literature having emerged in the 1800s, it was impacted by ideas around phrenology that became popular during that century. These ideas suggested that the size of the human brain impacted on certain pre-dispositions – which is how the West developed the idea that those outside of a western Europe had smaller brains, giving a higher propensity for criminality. These ideas are referenced by Stoker through Van Helsing, who is set up as the perfect scholar, with multiple degrees across disciplines, so his ‘science’ goes without question. At one point in the novel, Van Helsing explains to Mina Harker the difference in brain sizes between humans and Dracula:
“The Count is a criminal and of criminal type. Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him, and qua criminal he is of imperfectly formed mind. Thus, in a difficulty he has to seek resource in habit.”
References to Cesare Lombroso is the clearest example of Stoker equating Dracula’s biology to criminality. Lombroso’s ‘Criminal Man’ set the standard for equating race-thinking with crime in 1876, allowing for Stoker to regurgitate that thinking into his fictional world. Race-science is not just benign though, as expressed above, the horror portrayed in the 19th century was very much based on the superficial, on the idea of monsters physically reflecting the evil of what was within.
While the above discussion might largely be seen in the abstract, in reality this thinking pervades the creation of ‘monsters’ today, where in response to the threats that exist there is a reliance on profiling based on factors that are superficial and racialised. In the context of the UK government’s pre-criminal programme, Prevent, there is a very real sense that the ‘factors’ of ‘radicalisation’ that are based on a pseudo-science, are in fact based around similar racialised logics. The academic Dr Katy Sian identified in Lombroso’s writing the same insistence that those of a ‘criminal mind’ must be kept out of education, in order to stop the infection of their criminality, this thinking very much pervades Prevent:
“By reading Prevent in comparison to Lombroso’s studies in criminology, it is possible to place Prevent where it belongs—in a history of racial science. What we see in Prevent is the persistence of positivist ideas used to aimlessly classify and categorise particular individuals and groups in the pursuit of countering extremism.
In the same way that the race-thinking behind Lombroso’s criminal types ultimately failed, those trying to get to the root cause of extremism through Islamophobic, positivist frameworks, are also destined to fail, because perhaps the answer to this puzzle is that there is no ‘essence’ to be found. These approaches are guilty of reproducing and reinforcing biological, scientific, and cultural forms of racism, while, at the same time, dismissing and failing to identify the contingent and political nature of the process. In its current form, Prevent can only offer us an ever-lengthening index of key features on how to spot an extremist (and not much more). It might therefore be more useful to instead dismantle these typologies since there is no radical ‘gene’ to be discovered and eliminated. Such a lens limits us to seeing crime, deviance, and political violence as merely a pathology to be eradicated…”
While Prevent might be one manifestation of the re-emergence of this discredited phrenological science, it has found a popular reawakening through a steady drop of intimations towards its validity through popular figures such as Sam Harris:
“People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.”
Humans can at times be monsters, the history of the world is a witness to this truism. However, what the line of thinking from Lombroso to Harris tells us, is that a certain narrative is predisposed to finding monsters, even before they exist. What is also clear, is that criminal justice has always preferred to prosecute on the basis of such prejudices, rather than understand the circumstances that might lead a section of society to be disproportionally criminalised.
What we learn from the souls of gothic monsters of the nineteenth century, is that they were damned, largely based on their appearance and the insistence that the superficial reflects the inner soul. As a Muslim, this type of idea must be rejected in its entirety and cannot be permitted to take root in any system of justice. Exercises in profiling and preventive criminology are based in the theory that human beings can be known by virtue of categories that are assigned to them, and that they cannot be more complicated and nuanced in their experiences and influences. As Shelley teaches us, sometimes the monsters that exist, are the ones we nurture through our own behaviour, and so perhaps by holding a mirror to ourselves, we may find the answer to lasting security.1