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The Vampiric Sublime

October 7, 2009

Quillebeuf, at the Mouth of Seine 1833

I don’t know about you guys but I kind of dug Chapter VII’s newspaper clippings, particularly the opening section describing Dracula’s storm. It’s fun because it allows Stoker to indulge in some literally purple prose-painting without having to take full responsibility for it, since he’s filtering it through the voice of the newspaper man. I’m thinking of this sentence in particular:

Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward way was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset-colour–flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold; with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlines as colossal silhouettes.

Stoker’s doing some characteristically late-Romantic style word-painting here, something that he self-consciously highlights in the very next sentence:

The experience was not lost on the painters, and doubtless some of the sketches of the ‘Prelude to the Great Storm’ will grace the R.A. and R.I. walls in May next.

A little later in the paragraph, Stoker strengthens the painting analogy by having the newsman quote a line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in describing Dracula’s ghost ship:

As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

The Norton editors have footnoted a few lines conjecturing that Stoker is evoking the storm paintings of J.M.W. Turner (see above for an example). I think this is a sound interpretation because one of Turner’s main concerns was the portrayal of the sublime.  ‘Sublime’ is one of those annoyingly slippery categories that’s difficult to pin down, but maybe for our purposes here I’ll define it as something at once immense, terrifying, and beautiful. Particularly something in the natural world, like a mountain or a storm. I get a good taste of the sublime when I’m hiking in the Adirondacks. You can probably catch a whiff of it just about anywhere out West where there’s a broad vista in a relatively uninhabited area.

Stoker, channeling his inner J.M.W. Turner, paints us a picture of Dracula’s arrival as a sublime event, at once terrifying and beautiful. Take this passage:

Some of the scenes thus revealed were of immeasurable grandeur and of absorbing interest — the sea, running mountains high, threw skywards with each wave mighty masses of white foam, which the tempest seemed to snatch at and whirl away into space; here and there a fishing-boat, with a rag of sail, running madly for shelter before the blast; now and again the white wings of a storm-tossed seabird.

Stoker’s practically describing Turner’s painting Snow-Storm–Steamboat Off a Harbor’s Mouth c. 1842:


Terror mixed with beauty and awe — couldn’t we characterize our emotional response to the character of Dracula, and to vampires in general, in a similar fashion? I think the sublime, as a category, causes an emotional response in the viewer/reader that’s very similar to the way we experience books in the Gothic/horror genres. Joseph Addison remarked that the sublime “fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror” — isn’t this exactly what we’re after when we read a scary book or watch a scary movie?

It’s probably also worth mentioning that Johnathan Harker describes the Carpathians in the language of the sublime as well. It’ll be interesting to see if the sublime makes appearances elsewhere in the book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    October 7, 2009 2:33 pm

    Excellent – you’ve written much more eloquently about what I was trying to get at in my post over at Infinite Zombies. I haven’t figured all of the technicalities about linking between posts but here’s the link:
    The idea of the Sublime was very important at the time and I think Stoker is using it to great effect in placing Dracula within such settings.

  2. October 9, 2009 2:13 pm

    I love intertextuality, and seeing Dracula compared to the works of Turner has definitely made my day. It’s interesting, because this is the visual style (though by no means an exact Turner reference) I was getting in my head as I read the storm scenes. We can only hope for more of these, since they’re so evocative and Stoker does them justice.

  3. October 9, 2009 2:57 pm

    //waves hi from Dracula Elsewhere roundup

    This is a fantastic post — I really love the contrast between the paintings and Stoker’s descriptions. The rest of your blog is great, too — I’m really sorry I missed the IJ discussion (I have my own addiction Issues, myself).


  1. Sublime Spectation « Infinite Zombies
  2. Infinite Summer: Dracula » Blog Archive » Roundup

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