From the Desk of Randon Billings Noble: Elegy for Dracula

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has been published in the Modern Love column of the New York Times, the Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. The Mid-American Review called her essay collection Be with Me Always (Nebraska, 2019) a “dazzlingly honest debut.” 

Elegy for Dracula:

Dracula. A contradiction wrapped up in a bat’s wing. Evil, charming, deadly, magnetic, brutal, beguiling. The character that Bram Stoker unleashed on the world in 1897 has risen again and again—always in a new form—in stories, in films, in the popular imagination. We think we know him. We don’t.

It was summer. We were in high school. The book Dracula lay dormant on the shelves of my English department storage room, unread by me.

But the boy I met was charming, magnetic, beguiling, from a different town, a different school. He wore dark madras shorts and a black turtleneck and small, round, dark-framed glasses. I was intrigued by this tall thin figure half in black. And he was intrigued by me. I wish I could remember what I was thinking on the train ride that late-summer day when we had our first date. Or the exact feeling behind our perfect kiss under a tree in the park at the center of town. I only remember calling it perfect in my mind and that no other first kiss has quite matched it.

But then—too soon—he left for boarding school. He sent bulky packages full of black-and-white photographs that he had developed in his school darkroom, and I sent scraps of poetry copied from anthologies stolen from my English department’s lounge. We saw each other on his visits home and wrote letters when we were apart. And then late one January night the phone rang. I was a hundred miles away, in bed, wrapped up in plum flannel sheets bleached gray by the moonlight. He had called to tell me he had cut himself. There was blood on the floor, but he had found a bandage. What to say?

For Dracula—all the Draculas—blood is life. But it must constantly be sought. From victims willing or otherwise.

He was sent home.

The next time I saw him was on his sunporch. We sat on the same couch where we had lounged watching movies with his little brother. He was in shorts again, even though it was winter, and a coarsely woven argyle sweater. He would not talk to me, and when I tried to talk to him, he hit himself in the face.

I walked out.

Six months later I left for college. I did not hear from him for over a year.

In November, in a movie theater in Ann Arbor, I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and (being eighteen years old, intense, romantic, incredibly naive) fell unabashedly in love with it. The film takes Dracula’s line from the book—“I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past”—and runs with it all the way back to the Middle Ages. Stoker’s Dracula becomes Vlad the Impaler, who is undone when his beloved wife, Elisabeta, throws herself from a high castle window into the river below. When Dracula learns that she is damned for committing suicide, he renounces the church and becomes a vampire. Four hundred years later Dracula discovers that his lawyer’s fiancée, Mina Murray, looks exactly like his dead wife, Elisabeta, and Dracula comes to England to claim her.

My second year at Michigan my dark one, my D, came to the Midwest. It was easy to feel claimed, to pick up where we had left off, despite our terrible breakup and the silence that followed. He was the smartest and most passionate person I had ever met, and I was nineteen; I could handle whatever he dished out. We prowled Ann Arbor’s cafés and sipped yerba mattes through metal straws. We scrunched up together in my dorm room’s twin bed and read Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Anne Rice. When we fought—and when we loved—we often bit and scratched. Once, in the middle of the night, he went next door to stop a terrible fight we heard through the walls. More often the fight was our own.

The Mina Murray in the film is smart, dark haired, writerly. She has worried about her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, who has been out of touch ever since traveling to Transylvania to visit a client, but then she is distracted. On the street in London she meets a foreign prince, whom we immediately recognize as Dracula. He needs directions, and she takes him where he wants to go. But once there, he pulls her into a side room with such smoothness they appear to be gliding. In this temporary privacy he whispers to her in his own language, a dark mumbling of harsh consonants and round vowels, which she seems to understand. His teeth come out at the sight of her exposed neck, but he stops just at the brink of biting her. Does his “human” nature overpower his monstrous instincts? Or is it a desire for something more than blood that stops him? This Mina is more than just a physical conquest, more than just blood to be claimed; she is the exact image of his long-dead wife. It is fate that brings them back together—gliding, irresistible fate.

At the end of my junior year I left my Ann Arbor apartment in D’s care and spent the summer in New Hampshire. There I met someone like Dracula’s Quincey Morris—not a Texan but an adventurer with a straightforward intention to do good—and his light flirtation was different enough from my dark one’s attractions that I was intrigued. For his own mysterious reasons D refused to write or call me while I was away—what fate was this?—and his silence made it easier to listen to my Quincey’s tales of kayaking the Great Lakes or winter camping on Isle Royale. Soon we were taking long walks in the woods, our pinkie fingers joined, not quite admitting to holding hands. Our last night on Lake Winnipesaukee we shared a cot in the camp’s infirmary. Two days later, back in Ann Arbor, I broke up with D.

In the film Dracula woos Mina. They drink absinthe together, which seems to bring back memories of her previous life as Elisabeta. But then Mina hears that Jonathan has returned. She abandons Dracula, who in turn abandons his human guise and falls into a vampiric rage.

D’s reaction was bad. I spent the night at a friend’s. The next day I returned to my apartment to find that he had moved out but had marked all my book spines with a smear of blood. A few weeks later I moved to a one-room apartment on Church Street.

“My sweet prince,” Mina says with fleeting regret. “Jonathan must never know of us.” She destroys her diary on her way to the convent where she and Jonathan will be married without delay—or confession. The monstrous Dracula takes his revenge by killing Mina’s friend Lucy—and turning her into a vampire. Still, Mina feels tied to him.

I still felt tied to D. Only a year earlier, in my small apartment on South University, D and I had agreed to marry if we were still unmarried by thirty (which then seemed a lifetime away). We planned to meet in New York, in the Water Lilies room at the Museum of Modern Art on a certain date, halfway between my thirtieth birthday and his. I was still bound to him, still waiting for his call.

In the film Jonathan assembles a group of men to hunt Dracula down. He leaves Mina alone, and Dracula seizes the moment. He creeps into her room in the form of mist and then materializes not by Mina’s bed but in it. When she wakes from her sleep, she welcomes him, calling him her “love.” And Dracula loves her too. He insists on explaining who he is—“lifeless, soulless, hated and feared. I am the monster that breathing men would kill; I am Dracula”—but she still loves him. He warns her that “to walk with me you must die to your breathing life and be reborn to mine,” but Mina insists, “I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.” When she starts to drink the blood from his chest, he stops her. “No,” he says, “I cannot let this be . . . I love you too much to condemn you.” But Mina drinks willingly.

When I first saw this movie, at nineteen, the idea of a dark immortality was immensely attractive. It was easy to see how Mina would prefer Dracula to Jonathan. Keanu Reeves portrays Jonathan as a wooden prig, which makes it all the more understandable—desirable even—for Mina to turn away from him.

In the movie Dracula has the seductive powers of a confident man as well as the supernatural powers of an immortal. And his control over Mina is intensified by predestination. Mina appears to be Dracula’s wife reincarnated, and with the help of Dracula’s relentless pursuit, she falls passionately in love with him (again). If I were swept away by Dracula, it wouldn’t be my fault. I would be acting under forces beyond my control. I wouldn’t leave Jonathan Harker—whoever he was in my life at the time. I would be taken from him. I would be fated to answer his call.

D called when I was in graduate school—long after my Quincey and I had parted ways. Once I flew out to a lonely midwestern town to spend a weekend with him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, and in a gesture of irony we went to Hooters. Once, a year later, we met at a New York café, and on a street corner in Soho he picked me up, twirled me around, and kissed me even though we both belonged to someone else. We always called these “moments out of time.” It seemed that in some way we would always be there for each other, that our bond was stronger than that of others, that we could take from each other what we needed—or wanted—regardless of others in our lives. We were each other’s future.

Mina appears to be Dracula’s future as well as his past. When she drinks his blood, her transformation into a vampire begins. Her husband tries to keep her safe, but she is under the influence of forces greater than all of them. The group of men takes Mina with them as they hunt Dracula across Europe to his castle’s very doorstep. There, in a dramatic showdown, he is nearly killed. Mina, still under his spell, drags him inside to safety. And Jonathan, her husband, lets her go.

Then, when I was twenty-nine, I met J.

Within months I knew that he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. D and I had drifted; we hadn’t talked in months, if not years, and I only thought of him after I turned thirty and the day of our meeting approached. But by then I had learned that the Museum of Modern Art had moved to Queens for renovation. And Monet’s Water Lilies were not in Manhattan or in their temporary home: they were packed up and in transit somewhere in between. I took this as more than a sign.

D and I didn’t meet. J proposed during a spring snowstorm in the Bishop’s Garden of the National Cathedral, and I said yes. Later that month I started rereading Dracula.

The Jonathan in the book is very different from the Jonathan in the movie. In the book he is described as “uncommonly clever . . . [and] also a man of great nerve.” His appearance, though, is deceiving. One of the men who helps hunt down Dracula writes, “I was prepared to meet a good specimen of manhood, but hardly the quiet, business-like gentleman who came here today.”

When I first met J, he, too, seemed the right content in the wrong form. Instead of the particular “specimen of manhood” I expected, J is my height, slightly built, more of an artist than a scholar, with green eyes and light-brown hair—not the tall, dark stereotype I thought I was holding out for. Just after we met, I left for a two-month teaching job in New England, and our relationship began with a postcard, then a series of letters.

In the book Mina is not distracted by a foreign prince. She suffers in Jonathan’s long absence. The reader knows—as Mina does not—that Jonathan has been kept a prisoner in Dracula’s castle. With little outlet for her fears, Mina confines them to her diary. Later she compiles all kinds of documents, including this diary and the other characters’ private writing (Jonathan’s account of his time in Dracula’s castle; a doctor’s notes about his patient Lucy; telegrams from the doctor’s mentor, Van Helsing; letters between Mina and Lucy) so that they can read their larger story, instead of being limited to their own particular part of it. These documents play a crucial role in their understanding and ultimate defeat of Dracula. Their words save them all—when they have the right reader. Mina is that reader.

When I read Dracula in the months after my engagement, I was amazed to see how different Stoker’s original story is from Coppola’s movie. Stoker’s Dracula may be charming but only on the surface. Underneath is a reptilian coldness and inhuman cruelty. He is not a romantic but a predator, not a lover but a monster. His motives are only blood, safety, and survival.

In the book Mina becomes Dracula’s greatest victim. With Jonathan asleep beside her, Dracula slips into their bedroom, forcing her to drink his blood. “You,” he says, “their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; . . . and shall be later on my companion and my helper . . . When my brain says ‘Come!’ to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding.” This is not gliding, resistless fate. This is violent, deliberate, dispassionate evil.

And passion, I think, is the key. We think of passion as being romantic or sexual, but its earliest usage refers to the agonies of Christ or a Christian martyr: “senses relating to physical suffering and pain.” The word evolved to include both positive and negative feelings: “any strong, controlling, or overpowering emotion, as desire, hate, fear, etc.,” and this is what Dracula’s victims feel for him. They are all overpowered by him.

Only after the sixteenth century does passion become associated with love, romance, and desire; it becomes the word that we are familiar with. But the third definition of passion may surprise us: “Senses relating to passivity . . . The fact or condition of being acted upon; subjection to external force; esp. . . . passivity (opposed to action).”

Passion and passive share the same root, and it can be easy to confuse them.

I confused them. Time after time I gave up action and responsibility for passionate passivity, gliding, resistless, into what I thought was fate.

In the book, after Dracula has forced Mina to drink his blood and her transformation begins, Jonathan writes in his diary, “To one thing I have made up my mind; if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone.” Would Jonathan yield to Mina’s vampire call? Would he accompany her to the land of the undead? This would go against everything he believes as a man and as a Christian, and yet it looks as if he would. His willingness shows what kind of man Jonathan really is; he is anything but the uptight prude that Keanu Reeves portrays him as. In fact, he is more of a man than Dracula. He would give not only his life for Mina but also his death—the kind of sacrifice that no other character is willing to make.

But I didn’t see any of this until now, now that I have met the man I am going to marry. Before this, Dracula seemed like a dark savior poised to pull me out of whatever bland romance I might be trapped in, and I thought of D in much the same way. Now, though, when I reread the book, I feel Mina’s horror when the men burst into her bedroom and pull her bloody mouth from Dracula’s breast. I feel the tremors that course through her body as she screams, “Unclean, unclean!” and the guilt that sears her conscience when her husband’s hair turns white from shock.

Now, when I watch the movie, I find myself counting the days of Mina and Dracula’s happiness against the years of Dracula’s loneliness. Mina and Dracula spend only two evenings together—one season perhaps—against more than four centuries of his despair. Now I am less intrigued by Dracula’s dark power than I am moved by Jonathan’s secret resolution to go with Mina into the darkness, if she is so called, because they wed for life, for better and worse, in sickness and health, and in this case not even un-death would keep them apart.

In the book he doesn’t have to follow her into darkness. Dracula is defeated, and Mina is freed from his call, restored to both herself and her husband.

The movie has a different ending—and a different legacy. Its chase also ends at Dracula’s castle, where Mina levels a rifle at her own husband. “When my time comes, will you do the same for me?” she asks. In the book Mina wishes to be killed before she fully transforms into a vampire, but the movie’s Mina seems to be asking something different. Faced with the challenge in her voice and the barrel of her gun, Jonathan says no. When one of the men rushes at her with a sword, Jonathan stops him. “No,” he says, “let them go. Our work is finished here; hers has just begun.” Perhaps there is more to this Jonathan than the film gives him credit for, but this is his last line, and there is little to explain it.

Mina and the wounded Dracula retreat to a chapel in his castle, where he dies under the centuries-old painting of his younger self reaching out in a swirl of cape to catch the falling Elisabeta. After centuries apart through death and damnation, they are finally reunited. It reminded me of my plans with D to be buried side by side, to have a tube connect our coffins “to continue our conversation” in the afterlife, and to marry at thirty, to steal whatever “moments out of time” we wanted until then, to keep that call between us. However doomed it was, our love, our passion, was that strong.

When the book’s Mina looks back at those months of trial, I imagine she will feel only gratitude that Dracula was defeated and that she has been restored. But I wonder what the movie’s Mina thinks after Dracula’s death, after the final resolving chords of the soundtrack, after the screen goes black and the credits roll, after she gathers herself and steps outside the castle gates, where her husband, Jonathan, awaits her. What then?

I know that I will marry J. But I also know that I will sometimes be haunted by the fleeting shadow of a figure in black, a glimpse of turtleneck, a drop of blood, the silence that comes before the call, reminders that I have lost something I once cherished, something I can never have again, something I will always carry with me, whether I want it or not.

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