The tale of the vampire has been around for ages. You can trace the current word back to the 18th century, but the traits of the vampire have existed in various cultures from around the world throughout time. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla is one of the first popular portrayals of the vampire. It was preceded by The Vampyre by John Polidori in 1819, which remained popular throughout the century of its publication.
However, they all seem to take a backseat to the legendary Dracula by Bram Stoker. Published in 1897, Stoker’s classic is still the goto wellspring of information for anyone that wants to adapt the myth to the screen or stage. Everything popular that you know about vampires – their weakness to garlic and the crucifix, driving a stake through their heart, the lack of a reflection, the turning of a human to a vampire – comes from Dracula.
Not shockingly, Dracula was met with critical acclaim upon its release in 1897. That acclaim didn’t translate too well into sales, however; Stoker died pennilessly, and his wife had to auction off some effects like notes & outlines. It was after the release of the film Nosferatu, a horror and vampire classic, in 1922, a successful stage production, and Hollywood noticing it that Dracula hit new heights in terms of sales. Since 1931, it has never been out of print.
Something you learn quickly about the novel is that it’s tough to peg down the genre. Vampire literature? Horror fiction? Gothic fiction? Gothic horror? Invasion literature? Something else? You’d be right on all counts. And because of that genre fluidity, there are many different ways to interpret the book as well. Critics have read and offered their thoughts on it for decades through a multitude of lenses. From the Scholarly Criticism section on Wikipedia:
In the last several decades, literary and cultural scholars have offered diverse analyses of Stoker’s novel and the character of Count Dracula. C.F. Bentley reads Dracula as an embodiment of the Freudian id. Carol A. Senf reads the novel as a response to the New Woman archetype, while Christopher Craft sees Dracula as embodying latent homosexuality and sees the text as an example of a ‘characteristic, if hyperbolic instance of Victorian anxiety over the potential fluidity of gender roles’. Stephen D. Arata interprets the events of the novel as anxiety over colonialism and racial mixing, and Talia Schaffer construes the novel as an indictment of Oscar Wilde. Franco Moretti reads Dracula as a figure of monopoly capitalism, though Hollis Robbins suggests that Dracula’s inability to participate in social conventions and to forge business partnerships undermines his power. Richard Noll reads Dracula within the context of 19th century alienism (psychiatry) and asylum medicine. D. Bruno Starrs understands the novel to be a pro-Catholic pamphlet promoting proselytization. Dracula is one of Five Books most recommended books with literary scholars, science writers and novelists citing it as an influential text for topics such as sex in Victorian Literature, best horror books and criminology.
However you read it, one thing is certain: you’ll enjoy it. If you want to do a deep dive, both the Norton Critical Edition and the New Annotated Dracula are great starting points. Meanwhile, 1922s Nosferatu, 2014s Dracula Untold, and the HBO series True Blood are great to sate your audio-visual needs.