I love old books.
It's not about a smell, or a particular shade of yellow the pages become. I like a musty paperback as much as the next girl, but I will read Persuasion on a tablet or Jane Eyre in a spare browser tab. The dirty secret of old books—the ones you've heard of, the one's you may cringe at the thought of reading—is that they are often dirty too. And if they are skimpy on sex, they are brim-full with melodrama. This is what I can't get enough of: a crazy-ass plot buried beneath the prim patina of age. Madame Bovary: lots of carriage sex. Ulysses: actually mostly farts. Moby-Dick: a "sperm squeezing" scene that is even more masturbatory than you can imagine. Obviously these works are also rich and complicated and subtle, too, but that's no reason not to enjoy their crassness, their buffoonery, their animal charm. (And why deny yourself the bragging rights?)
I recently read a book I've been meaning to devour forever: Dracula.
What all vampire stories are about, ultimately, is sex. Full of nighttime assignations, penetration, the exchange of fluids, visceral desire and latent shame, and the fear of contagion, of contamination, of death—Dracula is no different.
You know this story. You've seen, at least, that snarling image of Bela Lugosi, his paper-white hands curled, talon-like, before him. Let's set aside, for now, that picture: the high collared cape, the patent leather shoes, the w's sliding into v's. In fact, so much of the chilling delight of this book is that no such picture exists in the minds of our protagonists. (It is Victorian England, after all, where dispassionate Western science reigns supreme.) When Jonathan Harker, who has traveled to Transylvania to meet with his employer's client, first sees the Count, his reaction is painfully nonplussed.
The mouth…was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.
Yes, those sharp teeth sticking out of his mouth sure are peculiar, Jonathan. Good luck with that.
Jonathan doesn't quite believe what is happening to him—that the castle in which he stays is empty of servants, that he is trapped and no one can help him, that he is at the mercy of some terrible and unholy creature—until what he witnesses can have no alternative explanations: Dracula clambering across exterior walls a la Spiderman, lying frozen in a damp and earthy sepulchre, and (horror of horrors) making Jonathan's bed when the Count thinks he's in the other room. Dracula takes place in a world heretofore unaware of the vampiric: the novel doesn't have to grapple with its own legacy. Here, this most famous of bloodsuckers can just be.
Bram Stoker revels in the sensual license he is allowed within this supernatural context. When Jonathan wanders into a forbidden wing of Dracula's castle he and decides to take a nap on a couch (great idea), he wakes to find three unnaturally beautiful woman observing him, arguing over who will "go first." He, naturally, pretends be asleep as one of them approaches.
The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
The repetition alone—"lower and lower," "nearer, nearer," "waited, waited"—is enough to make you blush, much less the descriptions of lip-licking or Jonathan's "super sensitive" skin. Harker spends a lot of time in the novel recumbent, whether breathlessly awaiting lady-vampires' advances, recovering from shock-induced brain fever, or, most dramatically, in the bed he shares with his wife, Mina, as Dracula feeds and is fed by her. Jonathan is frozen beside them, "his face flushed and breathing heavily as though in a stupor," when his friends open the bedroom door to see Dracula holding both her hands with one of his own.
The other hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare chest which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
It's shocking: torn clothing, bare chest, blood basically everywhere, and the haunting echoes of both breastfeeding and a child playing with a pet. Mina, her mouth covered in Dracula's blood, her white nightgown splattered with her own, alternately despairs, crying "Unclean! Unclean!", and admits, "I did not want to hinder him," "I was in a half swoon."
For readers hesitant about musty old books, this one is easy to break into. Fast paced, lurid, and also actually pretty scary, Dracula is the first and (I think) best of vampire novels. It's full of problems, as many novels (and especially those written by old white dudes) are, but it's worth it, for the moonlight and the impossibly red lips and all that awful, awful blood.