Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Dracula's Gothic Ship

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Dracula's Gothic Ship

Article excerpt

The narrative of Dracula (1897) is extensively informed by Bram Stoker's research into travel, science, literature, and folklore.1 However, one feature of the novel that has never been examined in any detail is its gothic ship, the Demeter, which transports the vampire to Whitby. The Demeter is a capstone to a long tradition of nautical and maritime gothicity in literature and legend. Gothic representations of storms, shipwrecks, and traumatic journeys were shaped and inspired by the natural power of the sea and its weather, and by the reports and experiences of those who braved the dangers of ocean travel and witnessed its sublime marvels, or stood watching on the shore. The ships of Victorian fiction, more specifically, also belong to a maritime context that was distinct to the nineteenth century and that would soon change irrevocably as the Age of Sail finally drew to a close in the early 1900s.2 The Demeter can be fruitfully examined against these backdrops, and against the construction and concerns of the narrative as a whole. Doing so helps to make visible the way that gothic literature is, like Stoker's research and writing practices, produced not autonomously but in conversation with other social and cultural activities, discourses, and representations.

The Demeter, like the Count himself, exists in an in-between state - undead, unreal, unnatural, Other. In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of fertility and the harvest, who rescued her daughter Persephone from abduction to the underworld by Hades, and so the name alone of Dracula's ship suggests slippage between worlds. But there is much more than this to the Demeter's significance in the novel. The ship and what happens aboard her foreshadow many elements of the rest of the story, working to develop thematic and symbolic concerns connected with the vampire at a point at which Dracula himself is still occluded by the narrative; that a vampire might exist has not yet occurred to or been admitted by the characters in Britain. Readers, however, who have figured out the story's premise or know it already, are in a position to interpret the gothic metaphorics of the Demeter's story, which rely for their effect on a pre-existing web of signification associated with the sea, ships, storms, wrecks, and phantoms. The Demeter is also entangled in contemporary concerns about empire, law, gender, and science that underlie Dracula, and has a key role in the narrative's development. In this article, I argue that attending to the role of the ship in Dracula reveals a rewarding and hitherto neglected layer to the gothic strata from which this most famous of texts is compiled - while attending to the role of the ship in this novel in particular highlights a rich but little-told literary history of the gothic at sea and its place and roles in nineteenth-century culture more broadly.

That Stoker was fascinated with seascapes is apparent in other works, such as The Watter's Mou (1894).3 His interest in the maritime is also evident in his research notes for Dracula, which, as editors Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller point out, 'contain more material on Whitby than on any other topic'.4 Stoker collected information on coastal weather, nautical terminology, ship-wrecks, and local legends, from exploring Whitby, the Coast Guard and its documents, talking to locals, and from books such as A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby (1876). A great deal of the detail and descriptions from these notes is visible in Dracula. 'Had Stoker not spent his summer vacation in Whitby in 1890', Eighteen-Bisang and Miller conclude, 'the book we know as Dracula would have taken a different form'.5 Although the novel's action spends more time in London and Transylvania, the location of Whitby has a significant part to play, and the prominence of its maritime culture in Stoker's notes suggest that the Demeter and her arrival merit further attention in the context of this culture than they have thus far received. …

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