Leatherdale Reading Guide

Buy at Amazon Leatherdale, Clive. Dracula: The Novel and the Legend: A Study of Bram Stoker's Gothic Masterpiece. Aquarian Press, 1985. ISBN: 9780850303834.

Chapters 1 & 2

Dracula is almost the Gothic novel par excellence and has given rise to arguably the most potent literary myth of the twentieth century. (p. 10) 

Leatherdale views the novel as a complex and many layered work, permitting a multiplicity of readings. This was written while it was still possible to view the popular image of the vampire in the Lugosi/Christopher Lee mode, and before Anne Rice and the later reinventors of the trope.

'The concept of the vampire is founded upon two precepts: the belief in life after death, and the magical power of blood' (p. 13). Leatherdale talks of the notion that the dead also needed blood, as we see in the ancient Etruscan rituals and the gladiatorial games and since they had no source of their own, they must derive it from the living.

'In Asia, Chinese tales spoke of blood-sucking creatures that were green, covered with mould, and which had a propensity to glow in the dark…Africa is similarly rich in the diversity of its vampire species' (p. 17). Leatherdale gives examples and also from the West Indies, in Brazil, Japan and Serbia: vampires' ability to transform into various animals is noted; here, too, are Classical examples, lamias and such; the related ideas of the succubus and incubus appear during the middle ages.

'It is at this point that the European vampire of folklore begins to crystallize. The preceding gallery is composed of phantoms of the spirit world. They manifest an ethereal existence. Two changes are needed for the successful metamorphosis into the true European vampire: first, the acquisition of corporeal structure; second, the development of sexual predilections, as hinted at in the lamia/succubus tradition' (p. 18). His explanation of this important point, is however, and alas, entirely conjectural.

Leatherdale lists various practices amongst the living that lead to close interaction with the dead: cannibalism (or necrophagy) mutilation of corpses (necro-sadism) and copulation with a corpse (necrophilia). 'Absorbing Christ's uncorrupted blood amounts to a regenerative transfusion…[goes on to explain briefly the doctrine of transubstantiation] The Eucharist was not the only means of reinforcing belief in the mystical properties of blood. The cult of the Virgin Mary encouraged charlatans to prescribe uncorrupted virgins' blood as an antidote for every conceivable malady' (p. 24). It occurs to one that the vampire legends are a blasphemous inversion of the ideas at the heart of the Eucharist. Christian churches took up all kinds of pagan beliefs and adapted them for their own purposes, including the vampires; the Malleus Maleficarum.

Leatherdale notes the work of Montague Summers, author of The Vampire, publ. 1929, with various caveats: Leatherdale claims Summers is the source of sources; later ones add little to him; he's good for information, but as a virulent believer in the reality of the things he described he's unreliable; uncritical of his sources.

In pre-mediaeval times, becoming a vampire was largely a misfortune and need not imply moral turpitude: this could happen to if you were stillborn, or drowned, or met your death violently. You could inherit it: i.e. it could be hereditary. If you were cursed by a parent, or if your pregnancy went wrong in certain ways the same thing could happen. If you were hare-lipped, or had a cleft palate, or had an unsightly birthmark, or epilepsy and chorea, if you had red hair or were sexually promiscuous…The mediaeval church added its own ecclesiastical list of charges for which vampirism could be the punishment including murder, theft, black magic, perjury, becoming excommunicated, or committing suicide. The Greek Orthodox church apparently held that if you died excommunicate then your body did not decompose in the grave. This was part of the punishment: you were trapped here, and the devil could re-animate the soul as a kind of demon enabling it to walk as a vampire (p. 27).

The Western, Catholic, church, per contra held that the failure of the body to decompose in the grave was a sign of sanctity. Suicides were buried at crossroads, so that the sign of the cross would be forever over them and impede their wandering; and that with four roads to chose from the restless spirits would not know the right one to take; and also, suicides were sometimes staked in their crossroads graves to further prevent their spirit from wandering and troubling the living (p. 28). List of vampire characteristics drawn from the pre-19th century literature (pp. 30–32). Similar most useful list of traditional precautions, such as burial of suspected vampires face down (p. 33). Leatherdale speculates that a lot of this stuff derived from premature burial. Says Romania, and especially Transylvania was a centre of conflict not only between Islam and Christianity, but between Catholicism and Greek Orthodox forms of Christianity (p. 40). Theological speculation rife in Europe during the 1730s and 1740s about the nature of vampires: ultimately boiling down to the question, 'could a corporeal substance possess astral dimensions?' (p. 41) [and presumably vice versa].

That Britain was not a party to the vampire craze was due not to a lesser capacity for superstition, but to the effects of the Reformation. Part of the catholic explanation of vampirism concerned the doctrine of purgatory. The Protestant challenge denied the existence of purgatory, and therefore insisted that beings returning from the grave could not be the spirits of the departed. In time, Rome would amend its association between the undead and purgatory. But Protestant clerics, needing an alternative explanation for the vampire phenomenon, subsumed it under the category of "witchcraft". Consequently, while central and eastern (Catholic or Orthodox) Europe suffered from vampires, north-western (Protestant) Europe suffered its witches. [McClelland's The Slayer and his Vampires is largely just an expansion of what Leatherdale tells us here.] This results in the different colour of demonology found in different parts of Christendom. Ireland aside, Britain was virtually bereft of indigenous vampire lore. When the eighteenth century vampire invasion arrived, it came not through folklore but through literature.

Chapter 3: The Vampire in Literature

This is largely based on Twitchell [James B. Twitchell, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, 1981] and Frayling. Literary use of vampire lore in 18th century Germany. Leatherdale says Bürger's 'Lenore' with its vivid phrase 'Denn die Todten reiten schnell' (For the dead travel fast) was clearly known to Stoker (p. 46). Brief quotations follow from a range of early Romantic writers, Coleridge, Southey, Stagg, Sir Walter Scott, Shelley, Keats,  and Byron '…as they freely adapted folklore for their own ends.' Romantics were not interested in the undead as such. In their hands, vampires ceased to be "the end", and became the "means" or catalyst. The creatures now depicted bore little resemblance to the foamy-mouthed, walking corpses of Slavonic legend. Then follows an account of Byron and Polidori.

…the exploits of Sir Francis Varney mark him as the principal literary precursor of Count Dracula. Those ingredients in Varney later employed by Bram Stoker include: the maidens' sexual initiation and ambiguous responses; the vampire's roots in central Europe; the quasi-medical-scientific methods of vampire disposal; and the Keystone-Cops-style hunt for the vampire. Varney also includes sleep-walking victims and a villain in black cloak who climbs down castle walls and arrives in Britain aboard a shipwrecked vessel during a tempest. (p. 53)

Chapter 4: The Life and Works of Bram Stoker

Interesting evocation, by Stoker, of the orientalist and explorer, Sir Richard Burton: 'The man riveted my attention. He was dark, and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. I have never seen so iron a countenance…Burton's face seemed to lengthen when he laughed; the upper lip rising instinctively and showing the right canine tooth…As he spoke the upper lip rose and his canine tooth showed its full length like the gleam of a dagger' (quoted on p. 66).

References given; a composite passage cobbled together from Stoker's Reminiscences of Sir Henry Irving. In 1893 Stoker discovers the northern Scottish golfing resort of Cruden Bay, versions of which begin to feature in a number of novels and short stories, including 'The Man from Shorrox's' (1894) in which a traveller shares a bed at an inn with a corpse. 'Crooken Sands' (1894) 'set in a thinly disguised Cruden Bay, tells of a London merchant on holiday who kits himself out in highland regalia and casts eyes on his own image being sucked down under quicksand' (p. 67). Then The Watter's Mou' (1894) and in 1897, Dracula. The latter met mixed reviews: a few of which are quoted here.

Interestingly, Stoker's mother thought very highly of it:

It is splendid, a thousand miles beyond anything you have written before, and I feel certain will place you very high in the writers of the day…No book since Mrs Shelley's "Frankenstein" or indeed any other at all has come near yours in originality, or terror—Poe is nowhere. I have read much but I have never met a book like it at all. In its terrible excitement it should make a widespread reputation and much money for you. (quoted on p. 69)

Irving died in 1905 and thenceforth Stoker had no income save by his pen.

Chapter 5: The Origins of Dracula

The Irish folklore background. 'Irish fairies were presumed to be bloodless, and their abduction of humans intended to remedy that deficiency' (p. 78).

He goes on to show other hints from Irish folklore that may have found their way into Dracula, on the whole, fairly plausibly. Points to links with Charles Maturin's novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) who 'was condemned to everlasting life for signing a pact with the devil which had granted him eternal youth…' (pp. 79–80).

Points to links with Faust, The Flying Dutchman and 'The Demon Lover'. But the greatest single influence on Dracula was Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860). He adds 'the names Harkwright, Marian, and Laura in The Woman in White are easily turned into Harker, Mina and Lucy in Dracula. Similarly, both books featured a grotesque/lunatic' (p. 98).

The principal villain of each work is a Count. Each is endowed with personal magnetism and telepathic powers…Each shares an affinity with the animal world; and is introduced to the reader solely through the impressions of others. Furthermore, both novels witness a young hero embarking on a wild adventure…and both works feature "graveyards, insane asylums, dreary mansions, old chapels, zoological gardens, spectral trysts and moonlike nocturnes." (p. 81)

Apparently Frazer's Golden Bough began to appear in 1890 which 'include[s] a detailed account of the vampire myth' (p. 81).

People invoked the idea of the vampire when discussing the murders of Jack the Ripper in contemporary London. The orientalist Richard Burton was a friend, and probable influence: there is a vampire in the Arabian Nights. The scenes in Highgate Cemetery are probably drawn from Dante Gabriel Rossetti (whom Stoker knew and was a neighbour of): in 1869 Rossetti and his friends had exhumed his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal, to recover a MS of Rossetti's poems he had committed to the tomb with her in 1862; 'The corpse was almost perfectly preserved, and Siddal's golden red hair almost filled the coffin. Stoker was deeply impressed by this episode. He would adapt it for one of his short stories…and certain cemetery scenes in Dracula would be modelled upon it' (p. 82).

Influence of Cruden Bay and so on and so on through a rota of fisher-folk superstitions (pp. 84–85).

He goes on to talk about the working notes for Dracula and gives as a probable starting date 1890, so that the novel was anything but a rush job. He seems also to have been aware of the theatrical possibilities of the tale from the outset (pp. 86–7).