There are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes • Dracula, Bram Stoker - Depicting real life • 1855–1900

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

There are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes • Dracula, Bram Stoker
Depicting real life • 1855–1900




Urban Gothic


1852—53 In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, urban fog is used to signify claustrophobia and confusion; it becomes a key symbol of mystery and terror in Urban Gothic fiction.

1886 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, puts a horrific spin on the tedium of middle-class decency.

1890 With its fixation on social degeneration and mortality, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Irish author Oscar Wilde is a classic Urban Gothic novel.


1909 French writer Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera takes the Gothic novel to the heart of Paris. Stage and film adaptations later bring the story to a huge audience.

Stories of the supernatural and the macabre, set within ruins and wild landscapes, characterized the Gothic novel of the late 18th to early 19th centuries. The later Urban Gothic novel turns city settings into places of horror, playing on the anxieties of the time, such as moral degeneration.

Dracula, by the Irish novelist Abraham (Bram) Stoker (1847—1912), takes the reader into the heart of Victorian London, where a vampiric foreign Count threatens middle-class society. Living for the most part undetected, he is free to choose his victims — the novel reveals the horror that comes with urban anonymity.

Horror from the east

Dracula is about east versus west: the Count comes from the east (Transylvania), lands on England’s east coast, and resides in Purfleet, to the east of London. This, for the Victorian reader, would associate him with foreigners, violence, and crime (the horrors of Whitechapel, East London, where Jack the Ripper murdered several women in 1888, would still have been fresh in readers’ minds).

All that is modern — gas lights, science, technology, the police — is no help in the face of this ancient invader from lands of myth and folklore. Count Dracula is depicted as a foreign, dark, animalistic force. Contagion, sexuality, and degeneration, associated with the squalor of urban living, feature too, as the Count threatens to spread his curse of the undead.

"What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of a man?"


See also: Bleak HouseThe Picture of Dorian GrayThe Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe Turn of the Screw