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Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner





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Artwork: Fallen Angel by Jaleen Grove

Says Who?:
Black Women Authors Respond to the ‘Reality’ of Dracula

Lynette James

Bram Stoker’s Dracula reinvented the ancient myth of the walking dead, and brought it to terrifying, contemporary life for his readers by placing the supernatural in the world around them. This blend of the possible and astounding has continually captured the interest of readers, and encouraged generations of authors to attempt their own vampire stories. However, texts that plausibly blend these elements do not only have significance in terms of entertainment, but can be of extreme interest to scholars. That is because, according to Rosemary Jackson, ‘[f]antasies are never ideologically “innocent” texts’ (p. 122). Their depictions of reality or what is ‘normal’ are important precisely because they are meant to bypass the reader’s conscious awareness, helping to inform what those readers accept and identify with such terms in the future. As the editors of Blood Read point out: ‘Even the stock horror vampire [shifts] as our desires and anxieties adapt to particular cultural/political moments’ (Hollinger and Gordon, p. 5). Not only do the supernatural elements shift meanings and interpretations, audiences always have ‘changing notions of what exactly constitutes “reality”’ (Jackson, p. 4).

These issues come to bear on Stoker’s Dracula when critics consider two more recent works of vampire literature: Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. These novels position black, female, ‘vampire’ Others as subjects and protagonists. Their stories reflect contemporary audiences’ changed perspectives in a number of areas, such as an awareness of/concern for racism, sexism, xenophobia and varying modes of sexual expression. In light of such changes, The Gilda Stories and Fledgling present similar material to Dracula in a way that renders the classic’s presentation of ‘reality’ ridiculous.

There’s been a wealth of material dedicated to the text and author of Dracula, especially its subversive qualities (1). These subversions, however, do not seem to be intended by the author. For example, in his letter to former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, Stoker says that the novel ‘is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to “clense the mind through pity and terror”’ (Miller, p. 274) and ‘there is nothing base in the book and … I hope it is not irreverent’ (p. 274). His purpose is primarily aimed toward what Rosemary Jackson calls a ‘dismissal of transgressive energies’ (p. 118, italics mine), hence Stoker’s straightforward presentation of a mysterious/evil/corrupting outsider who menaces a group of minor nobility and professionals in late Victorian England and who must be destroyed and banished in order to return the world to rightness.

Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, on the other hand, is clearly intended as a subversion of earlier tropes. It concerns itself not with a member of the Caucasian male aristocracy, but in Miriam Jones’s words, ‘a black, working-class lesbian’ (p. 154), who begins life as a slave and works her way through the United States and its marginal communities. In ‘Recasting the Mythology’, Gomez says that she wanted to ‘strip away the dogma that has shaped the vampire figure within the narrow Western, Caucasian expectation’ (pp. 87-88) because her ‘political grounding as a lesbian/feminist makes it impossible for me to perpetuate the traditional mythology’ (p. 90).

Octavia Butler does not seem to have intended Fledgling as an overt political statement. She says she ‘began working on Fledgling … as a reward’, that she ‘needed to do something that was fun’ (Burton-Rose, p. 202) and even ‘I never set out to deal with issues’ in her writing (Keyes, p. 220). However, as a person with the ‘kind of mind that demands I work things out, to see how they would really work if they were real’ (Snider, p. 216), Butler also made significant changes to the classic elements of the vampire and the ‘reality’ such a creature could inhabit. Her story follows an amnesiac named Shori, the first black member of her symbiotic species, who spends the novel being hunted by those who see her creation as a blasphemous mistake.

Even the now-classic Count Dracula represents a re-interpretation of an older story. Stoker made significant changes to the Eastern European revenant, who, according to Deborah Overstreet, ‘could never pass for a live human and would never attempt to’ (p. 3). He joined other Victorian/gothic authors in producing creatures that could ‘usually pass unnoticed in human society’ (Overstreet, p. 3), enabling them to become Nina Auerbach’s ‘hideous invaders of the normal’ (p. 6).

Though Gomez changed what sort of human society her vampire passes through, Gilda retains many of the ‘essential elements’ (Gomez, ‘Recasting the Mythology’, p. 90) by requiring native earth, avoiding water, and using blood exchanges to effect transformation. Octavia Butler negated even these tropes with her symbiotic Ina. ‘They didn’t become vampires because someone bit them; they were born that way’ (Snider, p. 218). Their vulnerability to sunlight and potent bite are given biological and not supernatural explanations, namely medical conditions and chemical processes.

The intentions of each author come to play not only in the creation of their creatures, but how those beings affect what Jackson calls an ‘excursion into disorder … from a base within the natural order’, or how these ‘unreal’ elements are set against the ‘real’ (p. 4). How each vampire represents Nicholas Ruddick’s idea of a ‘departure from “consensus reality”’ (p. 189) comes in direct relation to what each author wants to pass unnoticed by their audiences.

This primarily affects how each author positions the non-human. Consider Count Dracula: the quintessential dangerous outsider, seeking the heart of human relationships in order to corrupt and destroy, to find more victims to add to his bastardized progeny. Stoker’s notes record that he ‘loves creating evil thoughts in others’ (Miller, p. 175). Dracula states in the text itself that he desires that ‘their best beloved’ (Stoker, p. 306). Though Gilda also seeks ‘insider’ status, she does so among her own kind. She transforms humans, but for the goals of ‘creating family, fulfilling desire, maintaining honor, [and] sharing’ (Gomez ,’Recasting the Mythology’, p. 86). Shori’s position as an outsider (to the Ina as well as to humans), on the other hand, is not changeable. Instead, her goal becomes safety for her new family and respite from her enemies.

Intimate contact with difference and the proper response to it are the central focus in all three novels and again reflect a great deal of the author’s ideas of ‘normal’. In terms of sexual and intimate relationships, this gives Stoker the opportunity to delineate quite a few deviations and their consequences. In Dracula, ‘vampirism is Stoker’s metaphor for the insidious destructiveness of all expressions of sexuality unsanctified by marriage’ (Ruddick, pp. 200-201). They are shown as shameful, harmful, weakening for the body and the mind, with serious consequences; the vast majority of participants ultimately do not survive. Lucy’s blood transfusions with multiple men must be secret, do not save her, and later require her donors’ commitment to her death in order to ‘restore’ her honour/sanctity. The brides’ aggressive sexuality harms innocent children in particular. Jonathan and Renfield’s connections to Count Dracula raise the spectre of homosexuality; both men suffer bouts of madness, and Jonathan is saved only after achieving a male-dominated marriage. Mina’s connection to the Count and Lucy’s grisly final death invoke explicit and violent images of rape. Both can be read as retaliation for the women’s earlier desires to be other than traditional brides confined to the proper sphere of womanhood. Mina is saved when she stops taking initiative and lets the men complete the task of destroying the monster (2). As a villain, Dracula cannot create (or afford to have) any intimate friendships; he’s only able to force infection and limited allegiance. Transforming the Brides ‘does nothing to mitigate his solitude: his mindless creations have too little in common with him’ (Auerbach, p. 82), and he relates to them primarily as rivals for blood and territory. When Lucy succumbs, she’s the same, and Mina the Count takes only as a message to other men.

Gilda’s entire story, in contrast, is a chronicle of developing relationships. She has many friendships, with humans as well as vampires, and seeks communities throughout her life. Sorel, Anthony, Aurelia, Bird, Eleanor, Effie and Julius all provide companionship, and also serve as lovers, family and teachers. Gomez sees nothing inherently negative or violent about sexuality, especially for female and same-sex partners. In her novel, there is ‘no predator and no victim’ (Gomez, ‘Recasting the Mythology’, p. 91). Gilda has sex with others who know what she is, with full disclosure and equality of power. Effie does not become her lover until both she and the audience realize the woman is not only aware of Gilda’s nature, but is a much older vampire herself. If these conditions cannot be met, Gilda alters the relationship. Julius is turned a vampire and goes abroad. Aurelia stays human and is left behind. Eleanor’s deceit is exposed, and she too loses Gilda. Since the sexual aspect of sharing blood is no longer negative, it is no longer entirely metaphorical. The sharing often happens in the midst of and after actual sex takes place. ‘This desire was not unlike the need for blood, although she had already had her share’ (Gomez, p. 141). However, Gomez’s idea of ‘normal’ includes the politics of oppression between men and women. This is shown through the man the Girl kills, the man who tries to use her at the brothel, the men on the road, and the pimps in the communities. In this reality, Gilda only survives by embracing ‘deviant’ behaviour: she escapes, she fights back, she works. She is not punished; she survives.

Shori’s relationships tend to be distinct as well as complex. She cannot relate to humans as ‘equals’ the way the other novels would define it because she cannot transform anyone into Ina. That difference in power reflects Butler’s ‘normal’ in that ‘there’s going to be a power dynamic no matter what’ (Burton-Rose, p. 203). Shori does try to limit her coercion of others, and prefers to use logic rather than force to solicit agreement. She limits her use of biting, even with her enemies. Sexual relationships certainly do not elicit punishment. As Iosif says ‘[o]nce you’re with us, there will be no need to hide. And to us there is nothing improper about your relationship’ (Butler, p. 74). This includes same-sex pairings, interracial and intergenerational ones. Sex between Ina and symbionts is simply another necessary and natural part of the intimacy of their bond. Wright (and through him, the reader) is continually shown that his discomfort is ridiculous, irrational fear. He comes to accept the behaviours as consensual, workable and benign. Most importantly, Butler’s ‘normal’ gives Wright, the representative Caucasian male, neither the authority, nor in the end the inclination, to alter the behaviour of everyone around him simply because of the initial offence to his personal standards. That Ina-Ina relations tend toward the heterosexual is presented as merely a function of biology, of breeding, not as any reflection on the meaning of the various human-Ina pairings, and Ina have symbionts of both sexes. Sex in Fledgling is neither hidden nor symbolic: it’s frequent. Though often paired with the taking of blood, it is certainly distinct.

Time and audience have also radically altered the portrayals of relationships between members of various races/ethnicities. Dracula is quite conscious of who ‘belongs’ where in London society at the turn of the 20th century, and what to do with those who do not belong at all. One of Jonathan Harker’s first comments is to name major ethnic groups by territory, and to explain that some foreign women ‘looked pretty, except when you got near them’ (Stoker, pp. 6, 7). Clearly, in Stoker’s ‘reality’, one would know not to ‘get near’, or mix with those other than of western/northern European lineage. Such mixing can lead to Count Dracula’s corrupted lineage of ‘Szekelys … for in our veins flows the blood of many proud races’ (Stoker, p. 33). They are always eager to spread into the stable/good/normal world of the white men at the novel’s centre. The only proper response is total destruction, a ‘cleansing’. This echoed real-world practices of the era. In fact, during the decade of Dracula’s publication, Ida B. Wells in fact toured England trying to spread awareness and outrage about what Hazel Carby calls the ‘relation between political terrorism…and conventional codes of sexuality and morality’ (p. 227). A common type of such violent enforcement was: lynching. It had become a popular method, and was essentially in Vron Ware’s terms, ‘the murder of untried suspects’ in a ‘mass spectacle of ritual torture’ (p. 105). Dracula is a prime example of this ideology at work because the actions of the heroes rest on the ‘plausible justification … [of] the prospect of the sexual assault of a white female by a black male’ (Ware, p. 113). In this case, ‘black’ reads as unwholesome/lesser Other, though the Count is of an Eastern European lineage (also considered ‘monstrous’ by the Victorians), as well as literally of an evil/supernatural one. The threat of corrupted white womanhood is used as justification to kill not only the Count, but the Brides and even Lucy herself by members of the ‘affected’ community of men, without recourse to established legal/law-enforcement bodies.

The Gilda Stories implicitly rejects the necessity of violence toward others as ridiculous, but not its threat. As a member of minority communities, Gilda must be aware at all times of the response she generates among members of the dominant culture. She dresses as a man on the road and tries to limit her public exposure. She says ‘… I met many more beasts on two legs than on four’ (Gomez, p. 67). Even in Sorel’s salons (both in the 1890s and 1980s), she receives a separate layer of notice as both a black person and a woman. Violence is seen as the recourse of the less civilized and more deplorable characters. Fox burns down the shop to keep the young girl Toya from having choices other than unwilling servitude in his territory. The men on the road attack Gilda because she is black, female, and later because she is a vampire, not their idea of what a human being with sovereign rights should be. Samuel continues to try and attack Gilda on behalf of a white woman (Eleanor), even after the justification for such violence has been proved false. When Gilda uses violence, it is portrayed as a last, unwelcome choice, grisly not triumphant. The Lakota, the women in the brothels and on the streets, and the transsexual neighbour in New York all live under the constant menace of violence.

This threat seems to reinforce Octavia Butler’s ‘normal’ in that no ‘human beings can live without some sort of conflict’ (Simon, pp. 190-191). Shori, her family and her allies simply want to be tolerated, to have others ‘let them alone, and to let them live their own lives’ (p. 191). Quite a feat: the Silks kill her mother’s family, her father and her brother’s family, her symbiont Theodora, and attempt to kill the Gordons for having anything to do with her. This violence is of the lynch mob variety. As Shori points out ‘I was burned and shot … Anyone can use fire and guns’ (Butler, p. 83). The Silk’s preferred method is to send ‘tools’ (humans) out with guns and fire on the vague assurance that this violence protects or avenges the innocent. One man says ‘You’re doing medical experiments on people like the Nazis did. [Y]ou’re prostituting women and kids’ (Butler, p. 186). This claim is almost identical to the historical one that all lynched men were ‘rapists and child molesters’ (Ware, p. 112). The actual reason for the Silk family’s extreme reaction is Shori’s difference. Her skin has melanin, and her DNA human components. Her differences make her stronger: she can walk in the sunlight. However, they also demonstrate Ken Gelder’s point that ‘diversity means instability: it invites contestation: identities become confused: one can no longer tell “who was who”’ (pp. 11-12). The final decision of the Ina council reflects this fracture, as they cannot come to a unanimous agreement over whether to support the Silks or Shori, even though several of them point out the ‘human’ problem of ‘racial prejudice’ and violence (Butler, p. 280). In Butler’s text, the Silks use the same professed motivations of Stoker’s heroes (protecting the world from evil/abomination) to justify pursuit and total destruction of all people who tolerate or allow such difference. However, the novel shows this motivation is patently ridiculous and false. The Silks do not want things to change. They do not want to be any more dependent on human beings, who they see as lesser beings. Thus, they invoke deviance to manipulate human mobs, a repetition of the ‘female accusation’ (Ware, p. 123), inciting ‘panic and fear’ in a ‘patriarchal manipulation of race and gender’ to prop up an existing system of power (Carby, pp. 228, 227).

Ultimately, the repositioning of Gomez and Butler’s texts challenge authority as conceived in Bram Stoker’s novel. Stoker uses the journals of doctors, lawyers, and aristocrats (Seward, Van Helsing, Harker, Lord Goldaming), white men of connections, as the necessary legal ‘evidence’ that their pursuit and killing of a foreign man served the greater good of society and the world. Dracula is a figure of evil, not a person, and so rarely speaks in the text, and then only through the second-hand accounts of his destroyers. Lucy loses her right to speak when she succumbs to the corrupting outside influence, and is also destroyed.

However, Jewelle Gomez approached authority from an altered perspective. Her novel is told as a story, claims female and community authority, invoking women’s and ancestral knowledge in scenes like the one between the Girl, Gilda and Bird in firelight, where the Girl recalls her ancestors ‘rewoven into that old circle of dancers’ (Gomez, p. 39). The close third-person narrative takes the opportunity to explain Gilda’s motives and longings in terms sympathetic to the reader.

Butler claims logic as the only objective authority. Shori speaks for herself in the first-person. Her concept of reality finds a black woman authority enough to tell her story, even beginning as an amnesiac who must reconstruct her entire sense of identity and place all over again. Shori continually challenges everyone’s assumptions (even authoritative ‘white’ males like the Silks, the Gordons, her father and brother, Wright) of what is correct, to their faces, without apology. Shori (and Butler) use logic relentlessly, almost as a weapon, give the readers the facts and dare them to come to different conclusions. This allows for no simple ending; Shori’s trial halts immediate violence, but does not secure her rights to full citizenship in the future, and has already failed to protect many people. Shori has also killed, more than once; even the last scene invokes the death of Hugh Tang. However, in Butler’s reality, it would be ridiculous to assume that precludes Shori from being a full person, with all inherent rights.

Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents points out the end result of uncritical acceptance of the ‘norms’ presented in fantasy worlds: ‘ … all too often … we see what we are told that we see’ (Gonzalez, p. 225). Who does that telling then, has important consequences, and as bell hooks points out ‘mass media…[is] a powerful site for critical intervention’ (hooks, p. 218). Bram Stoker’s Dracula, originally intended as a ‘mysterious tragedy’ (Miller, p. 278), tried to achieve its horror because of its eerie plausibility for his readers. According to this reality, ‘troublesome social elements’ like minorities, outspoken women, or alternate modes of sexual expression ‘can be destroyed in the name of exorcising the demonic’, and serve to identify/ally the reader with ‘a middle-class, monogamous and male-dominated culture’ (Jackson, pp. 121-122). Jewelle Gomez has said that the ‘popular front…is where the power is’ (Prisoners of Gravity). She and Octavia Butler developed stories that help, in bell hooks’ words, ‘black women construct [themselves] as subjects in daily life’ by approaching traditional vampire material with an ‘oppositional gaze’ (hooks, p. 217). Black female vampires, subjects of their own stories, involved in communities that break with older ideas of ‘normality’, claim authority and the right to challenge Stoker’s basic premises, creating ‘[s]paces of agency…for black [women], wherein [they] can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back at one another, naming what [they] see…’ (hooks, p. 208).

Such a challenge does not diminish the role of Dracula in vampire scholarship. Carol Senf points out that the novel still holds interest ‘because of what it reveals about the times in which it was written’, ‘because it encourages us to reexamine the views of our own day’, and because of its ‘various literary genres and strategies’ (pp. 10, 14). However, it does alter the stance with which scholars and audiences may now approach the work. Rather than a ‘mysterious tragedy’, contemporary audiences are more likely to see it in Nicholas Ruddick’s terms: ‘ … a conservative backlash’, a call to ‘protect the manly lifeblood of Anglo-Saxondom from contamination’ (Ruddick, pp. 200-201). An influx of other subject positions than ‘manly’ Anglo-Saxons, speaking of and from those experiences, is now possible in contemporary discourse. In other words, Butler’s notion of ‘[t]olerance … forever a work in progress, never complete and … never abandoned’ (Simon, p. 192) is so altering the critical landscape that the narrow definition of ‘normal’ once presented with utter authority in Dracula seems ridiculous.

Works Cited
Auerbach, Nina (1995) Our Vampires, Ourselves (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Butler, Octavia (2005) Fledgling (NYC: Seven Stories Press).

Carby, Hazel Z. (2003) ‘On the Threshold of Woman’s Era: Lynching, Empire and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory’, Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills (NCY: Routledge), pp. 222-240.

Gelder, Ken (1994) Reading the Vampire (London: Routledge).

Gomez, Jewelle (1991) The Gilda Stories (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books).

------------------. (1997) ‘Recasting the Mythology: Writing Vampire Fiction’, Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, eds. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 85-94.

Gonzalez, Juan and Amy Goodman (2010) ‘Science Fiction Writer Octavia Butler on Race, Global Warming, and Religion’, Conversations With Octavia Butler, ed. Consuela Francis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi), pp. 222-225.

Hollinger, Veronica and Joan Gordon, eds. (1997) Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

hooks, bell (2003) ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’, Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills (NYC: Routledge), pp. 201-221.

Jackson, Rosemary (1981) Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (NYC: Methuen).

Jones, Miriam (1997) ‘The Gilda Stories: Revealing the Monsters at the Margins’, Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, eds. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 151-168.

Miller, Elizabeth, ed. (2005) Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Documentary Volume, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol 304 (Detroit: Thomson Gale).

Overstreet, Deborah Wilson (2006) Not Your Mother’s Vampire: Vampires in Young Adult Fiction (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc).

Ruddick, Nicholas (2007) ‘The Fantastic Fiction of the Fin de Siècle’, The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, ed. Gail Marshall (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), pp. 189-206.

Senf, Carol (1998) Dracula: Between Tradition and Modernism (NYC: Twayne Publishers).

Snider, John C. (2010) ‘Interview: Octavia E. Butler’, Conversations with Octavia Butler, ed. Consuela Francis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi), pp. 213-218.

Simon, Scott (2010) ‘Essay on Racism’, Conversations with Octavia Butler, ed. Consuela Francis (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi), pp. 189-192.

Stoker, Bram (1897) Dracula, Introd. and notes, Brooke Allen (2005) (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics).

Ware, Vron (2003) ‘To Make the Facts Known: Racial Terror and the Construction of White Femininity’, Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills (NYC: Routledge), pp. 103-134.

Williamson, Milly (2005) The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction, and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy (London: Wallflower Press).

Prisoners of Gravity: Racism in Literature, dir. Gregg Thurlbeck, 1995, Films for the Humanities.

(1) Including work by Rosemary Jackson, Carol Senf and Nina Auerbach.

(2) See Christopher Craft and Jean Lorrah for more extended discussions.



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