Dracula and Frankenstein go head-to-head at Unbound

Two of the most iconic figures in all of literature – Frankenstein's monster and Dracula – go head-to-head at Unbound; we talk all things Gothic with their respective backers, Dr. Sam George and Marcus Sedgwick

Feature by Heather McDaid | 03 Jul 2018

Frankenstein. Dracula. They’re inarguably two titans of literature, cult figures who have outlived their creators Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker respectively. Published at either end of the 19th century, the duo are gothic icons, and now, in the shadows of Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh International Book Festival plays host to the Gothic debate to end all debates, and you’re invited.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein: The debate

Both Dr. Sam George and Marcus Sedgwick had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for their debate by talking up their side or putting down the other.

Dr. Sam George – Team Frankenstein
"My defence of Frankenstein would be very simple. I would argue it is the greater novel for the following reasons: remarkably, it is the work of a teenager, since it was begun when Mary was only 18; it is a novel written by a teenager, read by teenagers as part of the A-level syllabus. Dracula is unsympathetic since he is denied a voice in the novel, whereas the monster is eloquent and questioning, inspiring our sympathy. He is for many the first sympathetic monster – a very big claim!

"The science has been overplayed – in my opinion, it is a novel about education and parenting (or the lack of); as such it could not be more profound or poignant. It allows for the idea that monsters are made and not created. In doing so it explores the premise that we are born innocent and corrupted by society (naturally good, not innately sinful).

"The monster can be read in many ways. One of the most interesting is to see him as an allegory for the female condition. I would argue that Shelley saw him as such – he is doubly like woman i.e. judged by his appearance and denied an education. He undergoes the kind of haphazard or self-styled education that the majority of women endured at the time. 

"Frankenstein's monster speaks to teenagers and female readers in a way that Dracula doesn’t."

Marcus Sedgwick – Team Dracula
"There’s no question Frankenstein is an absolutely iconic novel, that’s why we’ve chosen it as one of these two books, but it’s less successful narratively. It’s replete with clumsy coincidences. There’s just so many overly convenient chance meetings and encounters of various kinds throughout the book. Narratively I find it, therefore, less enjoyable to a modern reader.

"I know Sam’s going to argue the opposite! I think Dracula stands up better from a non-academic point of view, as the more enjoyable novel.

"There are other things about Frankenstein that worry me. I find there’s dubious snobbishness in the book and I’d argue [it] verges on becoming racist. There certainly is xenophobia in it that’s distasteful.

"Structurally I find it a little bizarre – it’s like a Russian nested doll of a novel and you’ve got four stories sitting inside each other. There’s a thing in writing called the rule of three – we see it in fairytales, that things work in threes. Three works very neatly psychologically, and four feels like it gets too complicated. I feel it would work if that middle story were the central core nugget we get to, but that central story is thematically irrelevant to the rest of the book. So, there’s a few things you could start with!"

The Gothic at large

Sedgwick came to work with George many years ago, following her launch of the world’s first MA in Vampire Literature. Working through the classics, including Dracula, to the present day and Twilight, the course included Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing; George invited him to come and talk about the book, and they’ve worked together since.

As for what draws them to the Gothic, for George is was through folklore and fairytale. “I grew up in Cumbria where there is a tradition of storytelling and superstition,” she explains. “One of my earliest memories is going to the village associated with the Croglin vampire, a little known British myth which predates Stoker!

“When I first started lecturing I was given the courses students seemed to dread – the eighteenth-century novel, early Renaissance literature, and so on. One day when they were struggling to engage with an epic poem, I asked them what they read for pleasure and two of the brightest said vampire fiction. I thought, "Me too… I could do something with this." The rest is legendary.

“You could say I embraced my dark side, my inner goth, and the rest is history!

“Gothic as a genre is profoundly concerned with the past, narrative interruptions of the past into the present. It is also dependent on traces of other stories, familiar images and narrative structures, intertextual allusions, etc. It has a great degree of self-consciousness about its nature and I like that. It is also very liminal – the concept of the threshold appeals to me, intermediate forms; what lies between the known and unknown.” As for Sedgwick, he thinks it’s something “that some people would have down under that dreadful phrase of the ‘guilty pleasure’, which is a notion I disparage anyway. What does that mean apart from some kind of snobbish hierarchy of what we find acceptable?

“The Gothic has always, always, always suffered from this notion that it’s inferior in some way. The adjective gothic originated – whether it was architecture or literature – because it was deemed to be decadent and weak and corrupt. That stigma stuck with Gothic fiction and I’m not sure it’s entirely gone away now. It was there throughout the 20th century, and certainly, at the time of its birth, it got called that because it seemed to be inferior in some way.

“For example, Edgar Allan Poe: he never really within his lifetime was given credit – he’s studied in schools and universities now, but in his lifetime, his work was disparaged. You look at the work of later writers [like] H.P. Lovecraft, it’s the same thing. It takes a very long time for the Gothic to be rehabilitated, and to be taken seriously, and yet throughout all this time, I think it really appeals to people because it’s the perfect combination of the two most present matters in life, namely sex and death. Those two things are almost always neatly combined and not far beneath the surface within Gothic.”

As parting words, Sedgwick has some high hopes for the event. “We’re really looking for people to get involved and bring their opinions as well. I hope that people will maybe see these two books in a way they haven’t seen them before. I hope they’ll have some fun. We’re hoping that Sam and I will kick off the first half and then we’ll open up and have a fairly rambunctious debate about the merits and otherwise of these two books.” The groundwork has been laid. For one night only, Frankenstein takes on Dracula and you are invited to pick a side and fight your case. Will the fight be won? Can it ever be? There’s only one way to find out.

Night of the Literary Living Dead! Edinburgh International Book Festival, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Sun 26 Aug, 9pm