Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897).
It’s hard to read Dracula today as if you had never heard of everything that it influenced, which is a whole lot. Bram Stoken didn’t invent vampires, those exist in most cultures in one form or the other, but he did invent a way of looking at them.
What you might not know is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It requires a bit of reconstruction from the reader and despite being the eponymous character, Dracula is hardly in it. It starts with Jonathan Harker, a new English solicitor, going to visit Count Dracula in his castle in Transylvania, to assist him in buying property in London and move there. Very soon Jonathan learns that Dracula is up to no good.
I had been wondering why the terrifying Count Dracula had been deformed into charming lovers and tragic heroes such as Lestat the Vampire and Edward Cullen. Reading and analysing this novel as the origin of everything with my fellow students and Prof. Rabkin in a Coursera course I’m taking has convinced me that the book, and vampire lore drinking from it, is overflowing with sexual symbolism, and demonic symbolism, because we all know that those two are not mutually exclusive, even more so they usually go together.
Vampires visit you at night and represent an inversion of the acceptable suitor that visits you during the day. Fangs can be thought of as phallic symbols and blood as other bodily fluids, by metonymy. The transformation of Lucy from lovely maiden to wanton wretch leaves no place to doubt. Vampirism bears numerous similarities with sexual transmitted diseases. At the same time, Dracula transforms into bats, which can be thought of anti-doves and drinks the blood of other people forcibly, which makes him also an inversion of Christ, who offered his blood willingly in the Last Supper. All of it is already there if you know where to look.
For modern audiences, the book is probably going to be too slow. And it’s hard to be surprised by it if you are already familiar with vampire lore, the same lore this helped establish. But I have to admit that the middle part, when Lucy is being bitten and finally transforms, does a very good job of maintaining suspense, even if you already know what’s going to happen. Also all the reconstructing you have to do to follow the story is refreshing and estimulating.
What can I say? It’s a classic, and as such it requires a smal effort to read. But if you’re interested in vampires, Gothic horror or horror in general, you have to read it.