Eighty years of bloodsucking

Hans Persson
In this essay I will take a closer look at two vampires in literature, both of whom have good chances of staying known for a long time, though for different reasons. The first one is Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's Dracula and he is, I think, known to most persons. The other one is called Kurt Barlow and is the principal ''bad guy'' in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. I am going to compare these two to see what similarities and differences they have and also take up a few other points about the books like, for instance, the impact the writer's time has on what he writes.

Count Dracula as a literary character hardly needs any introduction since he has long ago entered the popular consciousness and become an archetype of our modern time. Almost any person knows (or at least thinks he knows) who Dracula is and can give a passable description of him and his habits and abilities. Part of this notoriety has, of course, been gained gradually over time by the simple fact that the novel Dracula has been available for almost a hundred years. What I think is even more important for Dracula's entrance into popular consciousness is the multitude of films more or less loosely based on the novel, ranging from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Nosferatu of 1922 to Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula released in 1992. Through this seemingly endless stream of films, often of dubious quality, the Dracula character has entered modern myth. Even if nothing else in the films stems from Bram Stoker's work, the appearance and general abilities of Dracula are often present in the films.

Barlow, on the other hand, is a little-known character even among many readers of horror fiction. I do not think that there are many persons who know who he is without having read 'Salem's Lot, i.e. the situation is the inverse of that of Dracula where most people have heard of the character but not so many have actually read the book. The reason I chose 'Salem's Lot despite its relative obscurity is that it is written by Stephen King who can probably be called the most successful horror writer in history by now. Because of this, both the books have large chances of staying known. Dracula since most of the modern conception of vampires stems from it, and 'Salem's Lot because of the fame its writer has gained since writing it.

Neither of these reasons were true at the time of writing the books, however. When Stoker wrote his novel the general public had little or no notion of what a vampire was. When King started his novel (his second published), he was living from hand to mouth in a trailer, trying to sell his first.

In Stoker's novel, Dracula is described as ''a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache''. What is more distinguished is his mouth, which ''was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years''. He is ''clad in black from head to foot'', sometimes with ''his cloak spreading out around him like great wings''.

Barlow in 'Salems's Lot is described in similar terms: ''a tall, extremely thin silhouette''. As for his face, his ''cheekbones were high and Slavic, his forehead pale and bony, his dark hair swept straight back'' and ''[h]is teeth curved out over his full lips, white with strong streaks of yellow, like ivory''. We can even assume that he has a similar taste in clothes as Dracula, although he has adapted it to his period somewhat since he is ''all tricked out in a suit, vest and all''.

From these two descriptions, we can see that one might be forgiven if one should happen to mix Dracula and Barlow up when meeting them on the street. The only apparent difference so far is that Dracula has white hair while Barlow's is dark. Their clothes could, of course, be said to be differing, but I personally feel that is only a case of both being formally dressed for their respective times. If Count Dracula had survived to the 1990s, he would have worn a three-piece suit.

The only real difference in their physical appearance that I have been able to find in the texts is in their hands. Dracula's hands are ''rather coarse -- broad, with squat fingers. [...] [T]here were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point''. This might seem a little odd in comparison to the rest of his appearance. Barlow's hands seem more in tune with the rest of his person as they are ''long and sensitive [...] livid fingers [...], like a concert pianist''. The Barlow version, by the way, is the one that is most often seen in contemporary films and art.

One important difference between Dracula and Barlow is the difference in their relation to history and their own ancestry. When he is relating the history of his race, Dracula concludes:

When, after the battle of Mohács we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were amongst their leaders [...] the Szekelys -- and the Dracula as their heart's blood, their brains, and their swords -- can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach.
As Punter observes in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day, ''Dracula is not merely an individual; he is [...] a dynasty, a 'house', the proud descendant and bearer of a long aristocratic tradition''. Even if Dracula as an individual is more long-lived than humans, it is also clear from his retelling of his race's history that he considers himself to be the end-point of a long line of ancestors. Dracula's identification with his ancestors can be seen as a step toward immortality, even if it is not the real thing. This concept of identification of the present with the past may have a background in reality as Punter argues:
[I]f one looks again at the old legends themselves, what emerges as very obvious is that they were partly invented to explain the problem of the connexion between aristocracy and immortality. To the peasantry of central Europe, it may well have seemed that the feudal lord was immortal: the actual inhabitant of the castle upon the mountain might change, but that might not even be known. What would have been known was that there was always a lord; that by some possibly miraculous means life and title persisted, at the expense, of course, of peasant blood, in the literal sense of blood shed in battle and in cruelty.
It is never really revealed in the text whether the ancient line of Draculas that the Count speaks of is also a line of vampires or if it is a line of normal but outstanding humans where the present Count has been infected with the vampire taint in some other way. Since we are shown later in the story how the Count transforms Mina Harker into a vampire by forcing her to drink of his blood in a perverted sort of communion (as he has done previously with Lucy Westenra), the possibility of the Count having himself been an ordinary human who has been transformed into a vampire in a similar manner at some point in his life cannot be ruled out.

When it comes to Barlow, the situation is different. He also, at one point, tells the story of his life. Here, however, we find no reference whatsoever to any ancestors. Barlow seems to consider himself one of a kind and has done so for a long time. ''I was old when [the Catholic Church] was young, when its members hid in the catacombs of Rome.'' We get the impression that Barlow moves through history, constantly moving from country to country to be where the current mood suits him best.

One of the most powerful elements in Dracula, especially for Victorian readers, is the strong sexual undercurrent that can be seen in almost all the scenes where a vampire confronts a human. When the novel was written, the general atmosphere in society was prudish and it took very little of a sexual undertone for readers to feel a sense of combined fascination and horror. When King wrote his novel almost 80 years later, the sexual revolution had passed and general feelings about sex were quite different. King comments in Danse Macabre:

When I wrote my own vampire novel, 'Salem's Lot, I decided to largely jettison the sexual angle, feeling that in a society where homosexuality, group sex, [and] oral sex [...] have become matters of public discussion, [...] the sexual engine that powered much of Stoker's book might have run out of gas.
Thus, when Barlow gets hold of the protagonist's girl friend, he does turn her into a vampire, but the act as such happens off-stage and is quickly passed by. In Dracula, the corresponding sequence is rather long and dramatic, culminating with the scene where Mina kneels on her bed and drinks blood from a wound Dracula has opened on his chest. When one of Stoker's vampires drinks blood from its victim it is a sexual experience, while -- as Winter writes in Stephen King: The Art of Darkness -- ''Barlow instills a mixture of terror and desire, yet the desire is not one of sexual surrender but of submersion of identity''. George Stade also makes a very interesting point in his introduction to Dracula:
Stoker was a prude, who favored censorship. ''A close analysis,'' he wrote, ''will show that the only emotions which in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses, and when we have realized this we have put a finger on the actual point of danger.'' [...] In spite of the disparity between this prudery and the prurience of Dracula, Stoker was not a hypocrite. He simply did not know his own mind.

Both Dracula and Barlow have an aversion to various religious paraphernalia. There is, however, a subtle difference in the way this manifests itself. Dracula cannot bring himself to touch a crucifix. King's vampires, on the other hand, are not repelled simply by the crucifix but by the faith of the person presenting it. At one point in the story the protagonist holds off a vampire with a cross made from two tongue depressors held together with tape. Later, a Catholic priest with doubts about his faith cannot hold Barlow back even with a blessed crucifix but sees it taken from his hand and broken to pieces. This, I think, is also something that has to do with the period the books are written in. In Stoker's day, people commonly believed in souls and so, the crucifix in Stoker's story has an inherent power even when it just hangs on the wall over Jonathan Harker's bed. When King wrote his version of the story, a pragmatic view of the universe was much more common and so, it is the way the crucifix is presented that determines the effect of the action, not the act of presenting the crucifix in itself. On its own, it is just another inanimate object.

As I have just shown, the two vampires Dracula and Barlow might seem very similar at first glance, but they are in fact distinctly different. In appearance they are very alike, but there are more subtle differences. Dracula takes great pride in his long string of ancestors and even identifies himself with them. Barlow never mentions any ancestors at all, but gives the impression of being a separate, singular entity as opposed to Dracula who is only one member of a race. Another distinction is that while Dracula can be stopped with a crucifix, it requires strong faith to be able to keep Barlow at bay.


King, Stephen. 1975. 'Salem's Lot. New English Library, 1977.

King, Stephen. 1981. Danse Macabre. Futura, 1982.

Punter, David. 1980. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Longman, 1980.

Stade, George. 1981. ''Introduction'' in Dracula. Bantam Books, 1981

Stoker, Bram. 1897. Dracula. Bantam Books, 1981.

Winter, Douglas E. 1986. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. Signet, 1986.

LSFF:s hemsida