What is a monster? Why has a fictional character like Dracula stayed in our minds through the centuries? In this piece for Guernica, Alexander Chee asks us to revisit and sit long and hard with Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic while also considering the modern real-life evils of our world. Chee also makes connections between the story and Stoker’s potentially queer love triangle with Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, the latter a possible inspiration for the Count himself. The essay is the foreword to a new edition of the novel, published by Restless Books.
During the tumultuous months of the Trump presidency, during the Covid-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprising, the feeling that our fictional sense of evil was not sufficient to match the evil in our world repeated as I watched some of the popular entertainments meant to help me stay inside my home, safe from the virus and out of the overburdened hospitals. As Covid reshaped the world’s economies and democracies, and the spectacle of, first, the Trump administration having competence forced upon it and, second, the playing out of the Biden administration, I kept thinking, “The scale of this evil is set too low.”
Pop culture has tried to improve upon the monster of Dracula, with not entirely satisfying results. Thanos, the popular Marvel villain, for example, while technically more powerful than Dracula, is boring in his omnipotence. How am I supposed to fear an ecoterrorist — a popular villain in movies, but never seen otherwise — when Trump undid air safety regulations around particulates that now kill 10,000 people a year — likely more now, with Covid — and it doesn’t even rank among the things for which we might prosecute him? How do I get myself worked up over a single murderer, of any kind, as thousands die every night due to governmental terror or neglect in countries all over the world? Trump and Bolsonaro’s destruction of Latin America’s healthcare system, done in the name of fighting Cuban Communism, while Covid spread — while they themselves had Covid — is closer to the scale of the horror I speak of, the horror we must write about.