Academic studies of Bram Stoker’s extraordinary vampire novel Dracula (1897) are today like so much landfill. Modernists and postmodernists, Freudians and post-Freudians, and feminists and post-feminists have all contributed thick layers of now obsolete material. If you are unfamiliar with what academia has done to Dracula, or else with what Dracula has done to academia, then imagine a seagull swooping down onto this landfill site. Up it comes again with a single, random item in its beak, a passage from Sharon Kostopoulos’ 2010 paper on “Dracula and the Feminine”:
In spite of the overwhelming consensus that Stoker’s principle aim was to reinforce traditional female roles, in a bid to highlight the fears surrounding the increasingly influential New Woman, it is my belief that there is a subtler, but just as powerful, underlying message that Stoker has woven into the text. It is almost indisputable that the novel acts as a regulation to the changing role of woman at that time, yet it would be negligent to consider a gothic novel like Dracula as a straightforward production of normative femininity, given that the gothic is fundamentally a transgressive genre. Instead, operating simultaneously, Stoker offers a point of resistance, where all the various temptations, attractions, threats, prohibitions… [cont.]
The culture in which this sentence was written is inevitably handicapped when it comes to answering a good, stout, commonsensical question such as whether most of Stoker’s book had resulted from him having been bitten by fleas. I should state immediately that there is no recorded evidence that any flea had had any input into the dreaming up of Count Dracula. At the same time, that one might have done is a theory so gaping that I think it highly remiss of academia not to have anywhere entertained it.
Running through Victorian popular fiction about the supernatural is the motif of home invasion. For the majority of these stories’ readers, the most familiar example of such an occurrence would have been outbreaks of vermin. It is not so great a mental stretch from the doings of verminous animals – with their unexpected patterings and bumpings, their disturbances and little thefts – to visitations by the supernatural.
Ghosts are often mice with the right acoustics. Indeed, the more realistic a ghost is, the more that it will resemble mice. Poltergeists, for example, are usually so eerie because they are so meaningless, with their investigators helplessly cataloguing the sterile evidence of their seemingly arbitrary “activity.” In the end, poltergeists plague unlucky households in ways that are weirdly synonymous with infestations by mindless rodents.
The kinship between vermin and ghosts is beautifully conveyed in a story that is told by Andrew Clarke, the historian of Borley Rectory. After attributing one of the apparently ghostly happenings at this site to mice noisily eating walnuts, and recalling similar accounts of spookiness there that had turned out to be a lot nearer to scampering, Clarke considers the “famous haunting” at the Old Rectory at Chale on the Isle of Wight:
Rev Sinclair and his wife arrived at the rectory to hear stories of ‘the driving into the yard at midnight of a carriage and pair, which was said to have been heard, but not seen, on many occasions.’ The were amazed to hear jingling as of harness, creaks, clangings, grinding and jarring sounds and a ‘rather stagey horses-hooves noise’ of a somewhat ‘coconutty’ quality. They were also perplexed by ‘unseen hands’ knocking objects off shelves, stealthy footsteps on landings, ‘cold spots’. After laying down rat poison, all phenomena ceased.
Stoker knew how to put a rat to good use. His short stories “The Judge’s House” (1891) and “The Burial of the Rats” (1896) both work with the raw material of a discomforted human’s proximity to vermin. Still, what of fleas? How can the flea’s discreet sips of blood from their target’s ankles be in any way comparable to the vampire’s greedy glugging from the neck?
The similarity occurs to me because last year I had read Dracula at around the same time that I was persecuted by fleas. I had moved into a new room in my flatshare, a spacious garret (yes, I write in a garret) with low ceilings and small windows inset into them. Soon the bites had started. Over the months in which the fleas had dined on me, I had felt helpless and humiliated and often insanely itchy.
The fleas drove me to celibacy, since I became self-conscious about undressing in front of a lover with my legs studded with the greasy red spots. I washed all of my bed linen in endless cycles. My robot hoover raced around in circles like a dervish. I tried a trick that I had seen on YouTube in which you leave a bowl of warm water beside your bed with a light suspended over it. The fleas are meant to leap gaily into the water and drown. This didn’t work – nothing happened and the water remained unspeckled of corpses.
My savour, as with most things in life, was Edinburgh Bargain Stores. One day, I was wandering around its aisles, with my arms characteristically filling with items that it had never previously occurred to me that I might need. It was then that a merry little green bottle jumped out at me and chirped “ahoy!” This was Home Flea Spray (Solvent Free). Back at my garret, I twisted the nozzle and sprayed an exploratory puff, just to test that it worked, and a passing fly promptly fell dead out of the air beside me. The spray was basically an instant cyanide for insects. With this, the extermination commenced. Unseen in their little hidden nooks and crannies, the club of parasites that had feasted on my blood expired, roundly defeated.
So what alikeness exists between this experience of being attacked by fleas and that of falling prey to a vampire?
The crux of comparison is, I think, that I never saw the fleas. John Donne’s “The Flea” is for me flatly realistic because he begins the poem by pointing out a flea to his mistress and she replies by killing it with magnificent ease. Not only did I never see my bedfellows but I could not even really imagine them. They were so crumb-like that they had evaded all visible detection and yet they obviously carried around some fearsome drilling equipment with them. I am a type 1 diabetic but the marks from my injections are tiny and painless when compared to the fleas’ boreholes. These bites indeed resembled the tender, blood-encrusted marks that conspicuously decorate a victim’s neck in a vampire movie.
So I was contending with an unseen adversary that was prowling around my room in the dead of night and it became very easy to attribute spectral human qualities to this invader. If you are trying to anthropomorphise a tiny dog, by pretending that it has a personality, feelings etc., then the dog’s obviously inhuman behaviour will present a difficult barrier for you to overcome. With something that is invisible, however, your mind is at liberty to fantasise without contradiction. I imagined the fleas rejoicing over their victories and monitoring me from their hidey-holes and, whenever I did this, they would be cackling with the glee of a malevolent being such as Count Dracula. The air in my garret became thick with paranoia.
There is also a vivid intimacy about being drunk, in the less cheerful sense of the term, or about being surrounded by miniature creatures that are animated and powered, like wind-up toys, by your own life-essence. You feel uncharacteristically passive for a human being, as if you have been reduced to merely a blank resource like a seam of coal. As with the vampire’s spell, fleas paralyse their victims whilst they are at work.
Of course, unlike with a vampire the fleas didn’t kill me. Instead, it was in their interests for me to keep breathing, and to continue manufacturing fresh blood for them, until the end of all of our days. These fleas had doubtless designed a better system than the vampire, who can only multiply his own species by killing the very people who he is dependent upon.
The word “flea” can be found nowhere in Dracula. When the monster scales the exterior of his castle, the process is likened to how “a lizard moves along a wall” rather than to the scuttling of an insect. Stoker’s jealous refusal to credit the world’s most famous blood-drinking parasite with even existing is a silence that eventually becomes deafening. But I can see why Stoker would wish to de-flea Count Dracula – the little beasts have associations with dirtiness and annoyance that would do nothing to enhance the Count’s Gothic grandeur. Equally, their ability to jump astonishing distances had been already snapped up by a rival Victorian demon, Spring-heeled Jack. Despite this, I would suggest that best way to connect with Stoker’s novel, and to immerse yourself in its psychological world, is to play host to a visiting party of fleas.
[Previously on Tychy: “Short Story Review: The Bram Stoker Bedside Companion” and “Book Review: Dracul.”]