One spring, around Easter, I went to Transylvania, a place I had been dreaming about ever since childhood. I didn't go as a tourist. I went as a reporter, or that's what I told myself. I was there to write about the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in Romania, where Transylvania is located. In reality, I was a pilgrim. Like tens of thousands of others, I had been drawn to the region by a work of fiction.
Transylvania more than lived up to Stoker's depiction: a mountainous country populated by farmers who traveled by horse-drawn wagon, shadowed by ancient castles. People I interviewed told me they still believed in demons, including a version of the vampire. In the midst of that glorious spring, blood-colored Easter eggs peeked out of home-made baskets. Stoker's novel had come alive.
But then, for me, in a way, it always had been. I love Dracula. Written in the form of letters, journal entries, phonograph recordings and newspaper clippings, Dracula always seemed more real than other books. It was like a collection of unearthed evidence, a reporter's dream.
And yet the story told by the documents was impossible, unreal, fantastic. Could there ever be an undead Count who sucked the blood of the living, whose victims then died and rose again?
That's the great tension of the book, the struggle between rational fact and supernatural reality, and for that reason, Dracula has always embodied a central struggle of my life, always poised on the brink of belief. At the age of sixteen, I became a born-again Christian, that is, I began to believe in my own redemption through salvation by Jesus Christ, another man whose life is told in documents, a man who shed his blood for my sins, and came back to life. In a funny sense, Dracula laid the groundwork for my conversion.
In the novel, people die and come back to life, but they return to a universe of darkness and cruelty, to an undead state that is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. It is the flip side of the Easter story, resurrection as damnation.
My faith has waned over the years, but I know I haven't finished with the struggle between the rational and the supernatural, because I go back to Dracula and find myself riveted yet again by the book's exquisite balance between the visible and invisible worlds.
You might say I live by the words of the novel's metaphysician and scientist Abraham Van Helsing, who explains the meaning of the vampire to one of the book's characters in this way: "You are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you. Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are? That some people see things that others cannot? ... There are always mysteries in life."
Spring and its spectacle of natural rebirth recounts that mystery. So does the story of the Resurrection.
It may sound ridiculous, but in its own way the tale of Dracula also gets at the same thing; its sadness, its exultation, its haunting poignancy.
As a reporter, as a novelist, as a person, I ask myself: How can we bear to live in a world that is all fact, in which every answer can be tallied up like a mathematical equation? And at the same time, how can we risk giving ourselves over entirely to the indefinable, the unseen? Caught forever in the space between those questions, I always find the vampire, waiting for me with his riddles.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.