On Thursday, Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture is hosting a conversation on Dracula with Alice Isabella Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Architecture and Director of Graduate Studies at Tufts University. Sullivan, who specializes in Eastern European and Byzantine-Slavic art, will be looking at the way the fifteenth-century historical figure Prince Vlad III (also known as Vlad “the Impaler”) has been transformed over the centuries into Dracula, as well as the fictional character’s endless attraction to storytellers and audiences.
In preparation for that talk, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time. A couple things surprised me. First of all, while most vampire stories today have a strong gay subtext, or are straight up gay love stories, the original story has no such undercurrents. What eroticism is in the text—and there are a couple pretty steamy moments—is always of a straight variety.
Even more surprising, though, is the “cosmic horror” aspect of the story. When characters are given glimpses into the true nature of Count Dracula—particularly the men of the story—it shakes their sense of reality so much that they come close to going insane. That’s not how modern vampire horror stories play out. In those works, the quest really is just to survive and/or triumph over the vampire, in the same way characters might triumph over a slasher, a monster, or the Devil in other horror movies.
As it turns out, Fordham CRC has its own resident expert in cosmic horror, my editor David Goodwin, who will be moderating the Dracula panel. Goodwin is eagerly awaiting the publication of his new book Midnight Rambles: H. P. Lovecraft in Gotham, about the two years the master of cosmic horror spent in New York, and its impact on his writing.
I sat down with Goodwin at a West Village café earlier this month.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jim McDermott: Let’s start by talking about cosmic horror. What would be some of the main principles of that genre?
David Goodwin: There are several central tenets of cosmic horror. First, there’s nothing supernatural. There aren’t ghosts, goblins. The monsters are alien entities, but they are in the physical world, they are not otherworldly.
Second, the stories are set in a realistic landscape. It’s not some fantasy world, some dream world. It’s a world we would recognize. It resembles the world that we know. And Dracula is certainly a realistic world, it’s set in Transylvania and London.
Another tenet of weird fiction is when characters encounter these forces or these entities, it really ruptures their conception of reality, and often they do go insane temporarily. The joke with Lovecraft stories is that you die or go insane. That’s how the story ends for most characters.
JMcD: I was really surprised reading Dracula to come across these moments early on where Jonathan Harker is confronted with strange things like seeing Count Dracula climb out an upper window and then climb down the wall like a bug, and it just about shatters his sanity. In fact, he justifies writing down what’s going on as an attempt to fight off madness. It’s like the whole nature of reality is coming undone for him.
DG: I never thought of Dracula as cosmic horror per se. I thought of it as a traditional Gothic novel, but a modern one, in the sense that it has trains and telegraphs and phonographs, also psychiatry as a science. But there are some earlier interpretations calling it weird fiction, saying it’s more than a Gothic novel.
But the larger structure of weird fiction is also that there are these cosmic forces [at work]. In Lovecraft, they’re often these alien entities that were on Earth, dominated Earth, and disappeared. Now they’re coming back or they’re reawakening. And these creatures are all powerful and malevolent. The way we understand the mechanics of the universe, like biology, chemistry, or physics, may or may not even apply to them.
Their presence shows how infinitesimal mankind is. And it shows that civilization is just this husk that we built to shield us from the knowledge of them. So often what happens in the stories is that the characters who have discovered their presence try to suppress any knowledge of them, in order to maintain civilization.
JMcD: Whoa. I haven’t even read these stories and I’m terrified.
DG: It’s really nihilistic.
Lovecraft would say another aspect of weird fiction is that it’s mood heavy, not action heavy. In most Lovecraft stories there are plots, but characters are secondary, if they’re there at all.
JMcD: That’s interesting. I found Dracula a frustrating read in some ways, because it is so much about mood. For much of the story, there’s just not that much happening: it’s just people slowly processing information and trying to figure out what it means.
DG: That actually does sound like a weird fiction story: people trying to figure out forces beyond their comprehension. You could argue that’s what true fear is, that’s what horror is—something beyond our comprehension. Once you can understand something, you can figure out a way to rationalize it, you can figure out a way to combat it. But if you don’t understand it …
That’s what I thought the power of the first Halloween was. They never explain why Michael Myers is killing people. Once Michael Myers is coming back to kill his sister or his family in the sequels, you can kind of understand what he’s doing. Even though it’s horrific, he’s got motive now.
Real evil in my mind has no true motive. Just violence and death. Chaos.
JMcD: A couple years ago I did an interview with an exorcist for an article about the movie The Exorcist. And I asked him how that exorcism compared with ones he’d been a part of. And he said the movie was not scary enough. He said when you are actually with someone possessed, there’s a foreignness to them, a radical otherness that is just very frightening. I did not sleep that night.
Would you say from your research that New York is important in Lovecraft’s thinking through his ideas about cosmic horror? Was New York his own personal glimpse into the meaninglessness of life (ha ha ha)?
DG: I think him coming to New York and living in New York is critical to him becoming the writer we know. Most of the stories we read, the “canonical” Lovecraft, are written after or during his New York period.
When he was in New York, he outlined “The Call of Cthulhu,” which is his most iconic story and the foundational story for his take on cosmic horror. He also began his research on a literary study called “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which he researched largely at the New York Public Library. In that essay, he defines cosmic fiction and weird fiction.
So I think he was intellectually teasing out his literary vision both consciously and unconsciously while he was in New York City.
He only wrote five stories in New York. One, “The Horror at Red Hook,” is rightly criticized as his most overtly racist story. Some of the terms used, the way immigrants are portrayed is pretty ugly, pretty bilious. But you do see hints in the story of what he was teasing out in his imagination. A police detective learns of a cult operating in Brooklyn along the waterfront; there’s honeycomb tunnels through neighborhoods where there are these child kidnappings. There’s some kind of black arts happening.
And he comes to learn this is a global entity; it’s not just in New York. That’s also in much of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos: people who encounter the Mythos realize this network of dark knowledge is quite ancient and it spans the globe.
JMcD: You mention the racism in Lovecraft’s work, the fear or denigration of people he sees as different. Would you say the aliens that become so central to his take on horror are the most extreme embodiment of the same fear of the other?
DG: I don’t think so. Cthulhu [and these creatures]—he’d sometimes call them the Elder Things, the Old Ones—they went beyond our human understanding of “the other.” I think what they displayed is his nihilistic view of life in the universe. These entities demonstrate that mankind’s time on this earth in relation to the wider universe is just a moment, a flash, and then it will be forgotten. All our accomplishments, all our beliefs will be just wiped out.
JMcD: Would you say there was something about his experience in New York that fed or crystallized that vision of reality?
DG: I think the scale of New York in a way paralleled the scale of the universe for him. When he first came to New York for a visit in 1922, the terms he uses to describe New York are the same terms he uses to describe the alien cities that the explorers find in his novella “At the Mountains of Madness.”
At this point, he really saw New York as a dream city. He mentions seeing the New York skyline lit up at night, and he’s so excited about it. But he also describes it as this gigantic landscape that’s almost fashioned by otherworldly creatures. It’s this dwarfing experience that presages the alien geographies from “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”
When he first came back to New York in 1924, he was filled with this expectation that his real life was beginning, he was going to become a writer, he was married to this beautiful woman. Then things fell apart. His wife owned a hat shop, but she lost it. They ran out of money. He couldn’t find any work. She had a nervous breakdown. By the end of the year, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to take a job in a department store, and he moved into a rooming house in Brooklyn Heights.
It was a dramatic turn of events in a short amount of time. And he began to sour on New York. That’s when you really see his anti-immigrant language begin to ramp up, his reactions to seeing Black New Yorkers in public spaces or Jewish Americans on the subways. Pick your group.
And this dread of the city begins to swell. The city seems almost this overwhelming force that’s suffocating him.
While he’s still in New York, he also becomes more and more dedicated to seeking out old spaces that embody the eighteenth-century world that tethers him, that connects into the world he understands. He was obsessed with eighteenth-century architecture, he thought [that time] was the apex of the English-speaking world.
I think that connects to his larger sense that the world that we built up for ourselves is a shell that something has come to crush. While he’s in New York, he’s trying to recreate the shell for himself from the eighteenth-century world. He goes all the way out to King Manor in Jamaica, Queens, he goes out to Staten Island, he goes to Newburgh, New York, he goes anywhere he thinks there’s a relic that can somehow for a moment allow him to escape back into that sheltered world.
JMcD: For as nihilistic as he was, when confronted with his own shattering, like his characters—or Jonathan Harker in Dracula—Lovecraft tried to find some way to push back the night and build back up what he now knows is the real fiction. Wow.
DG: And when he left New York City in 1926 and moved back to Providence, within months there’s this creative explosion.
For more fascinating conversation about Dracula and horror, come to the CRC conversation between David Goodwin and Alice Isabella Sullivan this Thursday, October 26, 2023, at 6pm at McNally Amphitheatre, 140 W. 62nd St. at Fordham Lincoln Center.