“Dracula’s Guest” was provocative almost as soon as it was released in 1914, and it has remained highly controversial since then – increasing in intrigue until roughly the 1970s when a sort of consensus was arrived at by scholars. The primary reason for this debate is the question of what its relationship was to the 1897 novel. There are a variety of ways in which it has been interpreted: 1. As a deleted first chapter which could be read as canonical; 2. As a revised or rejected first draft; 3. As a prequel intended to be read as a prequel; 4. As an entirely different story – same Count, different “Jonathan Harker.” In his estimable “New Annotated Dracula,” Leslie S. Klinger describes the general cause for so much disharmony:
And so what may we make of ["Dracula's Guest"]? Without the name "Dracula" appearing in the title and [Dracula's] message [sent to the narrator], there would be very little to connect this traveler's tale with [the novel Dracula]. The style is completely different; the narrator shares few characteristics with Jonathan Harker; and the action somehow fails to connect the story set forth in [Dracula]. However, there are numerous references in the [Dracula] Manuscript to some version of the tale eventually published as "Dracula's Guest." Most likely, a different draft — one that identified the narrator as Harker — was included in ... an early version of [the Dracula manuscript]. It may be that Stoker's publisher requested that the book be shortened, or the publisher (or Stoker) may have felt that the "stylistic" aspects of the narrative were more important than its veracity. For whatever reason, the material was excised, and only later did Stoker return to the material and work it into its published form.
In his personal research, Klinger divined that there were references to the “Dracula’s Guest” episode in early versions of the text (an allusion to Harker’s throat being sore from the wolf’s tongue, and strange pagination among other clues), so perhaps we can lay the matter to rest. In my personal opinion, I feel that the story works best when it is read with a degree of ambiguity: could it be the way that Harker’s story began? Absolutely. Could it be Stoker craving a little more adventure with the Count and deciding to retcon his novel? Why not. Could it be a story about the unfortunate predecessor of Harker – the one who just didn’t work out for the Count? And could – oh boy – that predecessor possibly be Renfield as some have suggested? Go for it! “Dracula’s Guest” remains popular because it gives us that added story, that additional taste, that vague encounter with the infamous bloodsucker. It’s a chance to reacquaint ourselves with an old friend, and while we never get as close as we do in the novel, it is still a chilling reunion.
An unnamed Englishman, frequently identified as Harker, is travelling through the European continent en route to Castle Dracula in Transylvania. Throughout his travels he keeps a journal where he records his impressions, and it is through this medium that we follow his story. It is Walpurgis Night, and as dusk falls across the German countryside, he decides to explore the surroundings in defiance of his hotelier's advice to stay inside at night. A carriage drives him to a ghost town on the environs of Munich and hurriedly drives away (it's driver fanatically nervous about being out past sunset on Walpurgis Night), and the Englishman notices a tall, skeletal stranger watching him in the distance -- a stranger who frightens the coachman's horses as he tears off towards Munich.
Wandering curiously through a valley dominated by funereal yews and cypresses, he realizes that he has hiked his way into a neglected cemetery. Snow begins to fall -- at first lightly but increasing in volume and violence as the minutes pass -- and soon a wild blizzard forces him to seek shelter in the nearest tomb. A massive, intimidating mausoleum impaled through the roof with an iron stake, he notes the Russian inscription which identifies its occupant as Countess Dolingen ("who Sought and Found Death") and contains a sinister quote from G. A. Bruger's Gothic poem "Lenore": "For the dead travel fast..."
As the storm increases in power, he accidentally knocks open the massive bronze doors and -- amid the flickering lightning -- is terrified by the sight of a supple, beautiful woman sleeping on the bier -- her skin pale and lips scarlet. Before he can react to the sight, a spear of lightning connects to the iron stake on the roof, destroying the tomb (and the woman inside, whose screams horrify the Englishman), and knocking him out cold...
As he slowly comes back to consciousness, he begins to sense something heavy on his chest and a rough but warm feeling on his throat. Looking up, his blood is curdled by the sight of a gigantic wolf laying on top of him and lapping at his throat. Apparently the wolf is attempting to keep him warm and alive amidst the snow, but its fiery eyes and unnatural size fill him with horror and loathing. Suddenly he hears the ruckus of a squadron of cavalry as they clatter down the hill with rifles and torches, scaring the wolf off and dismounting to find whether the Englishman is dead or alive. They are surprised to find him breathing and remark that the strange wolf ("a wolf yet not a wolf") had saved him from hypothermia.
The horsemen explore the ruins of the tomb and find it splattered in blood, but after a thorough search, they determine that the Englishman is uninjured (although his neck, which the wolf had been licking, is aching with a strange pain). They restore him to his hotel, where the nervous hotelier is glad to find him alive: he sent the horsemen out to find his guest after receiving a strange telegram from Count Dracula, warning him to be sure to keep an eye on the Englishman and to beware of "the dangers of snow and wolves and night...
The lasting legacy of “Dracula’s Guest” is in its fleeting contact with a mythic character – a brush, a glance, a shade. Had Stoker thrown back the door to have the Count burst in on us in full regalia – eyes burning, face radiating power – we would have been mesmerized by the potency of the scene, but it would a forgettable selling out – a fun story with no real tension or allure. “Dracula’s Guest” retains its fascination precisely because we know that the Count – whose face we can see, whose voice we can hear, whose presence we can sense – is lurking around every corner.
We get three distinct brushes with him, but none are particularly complete (no eye contact is made, his voice is never heard, his figure is never saturated in moonlight): firstly, we see him so far away that only his height and cadaverous thinness are distinguishable – in fact we are not certain that it is him, although it seems very likely; secondly, we either encounter him in werewolf form, or a vulpine mercenary when Harker is guarded by the great wolf; thirdly, we read his message (admit it: you read it in your head with a sensual, velvet Romanian accent) to Harker. These fleeting encounters are so much more satisfying and alluring than if we had witnessed him in his full form, stalking amidst the tombs and fog. There is so much to be read between the lines, so much to be speculated about, so much to wonder. Stoker may merely be recycling a first chapter, but regardless of whether this was the natural discretion of exposition or the intentional restraint of a polished prequel, it demonstrates tremendous discipline and commitment to impression over revelation.
The story is also notable for its polite nod to “Dracula’s” source material: J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” The enigmatic Countess Dolingen may have originally had a role as the “fair” bride at Castle Dracula before Stoker removed this chapter, but she is an unmistakable allusion to Carmilla, Countess Karnstein: both are attractive, young vampires who were active (Dolingen as a living person, Carmilla as a vampire) around the dawn of the 19th century, both were Austrian aristocrats operating in the Styrian mountains, and both turned the villages adjacent to their tombs into ghost towns. Stoker seems confused about her backstory and nature (this Austrian countess buried in Bavaria, with a Russian epitaph and an allegiance to a Romanian vampire is very cosmopolitan), but she brings a wonderfully Gothic touch to this story, and offers one of Stoker’s most sincere salutes to Le Fanu, to whom he owed so much.