There’s a lot to say about vampires: their raw and deadly charisma, their powers wrested from the darkness, their sexuality, their connection to humanity’s dark half. Every generation takes their stab (haha) at our perennial shadow-selves. If you wanted to do a research paper on vampires, you couldn’t swing a bat (haha) without finding plenty of ink already spilled on the subject. They continuously draw us in even as they creep us out. They are walking metaphors for hunger, loss, power, lust, immortality, blood.
But I’m not interested in those right now. Today I’m going to talk about another, tragically-overlooked side of this creature of the night:
You see, Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel “Dracula” isn’t just a straight-up horror novel, starring a whole bunch of Victorian Brits freaking out about the Other. It’s also an epistolary novel: it’s told entirely as a series of diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters, and fancy wax-cylinder audio recordings (cutting-edge tech at the time!). Much of the underlying horror of the threat of Dracula is that he resists being coherently pinned down to the page. Many of the protagonists’ logs start with “This makes no sense, let me get my thoughts in order…” and devolve into “I have no idea what is going on and that terrifies me.” Creating a record of one’s experiences was supposed to be a way to put one’s problems in an easy box, where it could be safely examined and prodded, until one could understand it and then come up with a clean, rational solution. And Dracula kept leaking out of that box, like so much evening mist slipping through a crack in the door.
The modern equivalent would be a story put together from a series of blog posts, tweets, status updates, hyperlinks. Heck—why not steps measured with a FitBit, or browser histories? I’d love to get a good look at Jonathan Harker’s Google search history. And did anyone else notice how there’s no record of that AirBnB listing that he selected? How is he going to leave that 1-star review? “Castle drafty and mazelike, wifi spotty at best, and unseemly women kept assaulting me in my bed. Breakfast was decent.”
Epistolary stories—broadly defined as stories formed out of diary entries or letters—create narratives that are both raw and unreliable. Raw, in the sense that they feel like they’re coming at us straight from the source. Unreliable in that it calls our attention to the fact that we are only seeing pieces of a story, told from limited perspectives. We’re given pieces of a puzzle we have to put together on our own—or in some cases, guess at what lurks in the gaps between them.
These may be the reasons epistolary novels are most commonly seen in romances and in horror. Both genres focus on the strong emotional reactions of protagonists who often cannot see the larger picture until the climax, when they are facing down the monster or the love interest (or, in some cases, the monster love interest).
Of course, you can have lots of fun putting together a collage story in all sorts of genres. One of my favorite fantasy short stories inter-splices the main narrative with fictional auction records. Or this charming and hilarious piece of Batman fan-fiction, a story with surprising emotional heft told entirely through a series of Excel spreadsheets. One of my own stories, Why I’m Asking for an Extension on my Paper, takes the form of one side of a phone conversation between a college student and her professor. We never hear exactly what the professor is saying. We can only guess at their responses, the face they’re making, the tone of voice. For all we know, it could be Dracula on the other end of the line.
And maybe that’s what’s fun about both Halloween and epistolary stories: playing with and playing in the gaps, spending good quality time with what we don’t know.