Books

Why Hundreds of Thousands of People Are Reading Dracula Together Right Now

The creator of Dracula Daily reveals the story behind the hit newsletter.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula hovering over a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Universal Pictures and PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I keep getting these emails from a guy I’ve never met, who says he got stuck while traveling abroad for work. At first, he seemed to be having a nice time, but lately he’s been describing increasingly weird and disturbing circumstances that make me feel like I should help him out. For once, though, I can rest easy that it’s not a spammer trying to scam me out of some money—it’s Jonathan Harker, protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Advertisement

Dracula Daily is a Substack that emails snippets of the classic horror novel, which takes place over a six-month period, in real time, in the form of the book’s journal entries and letters. The venture is the brainchild of Matt Kirkland, whose previous projects include etching inane tweets into cuneiform tablets and exposing the robotic skeletons lurking beneath your stuffed animals. I spoke to Kirkland about our pal Jonathan, how weird it is that Dracula crawls down walls like a lizard, and the part of the book he’s most excited for readers to experience in email form. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Marissa Martinelli: Why did you do this?

Matt Kirkland: For fun, is the only reason. It was one of those things where, once I had the idea and I realized how little work it would take to pull it off, I thought, Oh, I have to do this. Dracula’s a fun book. Everyone knows about it. Not everybody’s really read it. And reading it in this way, where you get only this day’s event on this day is such a fun way to experience it. Once I realized I could, I knew that I had to.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Why Dracula in particular? There are so many epistolary novels out there.

Well, it was because I was reading Dracula. I’m sure I had read it in college or high school or something, ’cause I have, like, a ratty old paperback I picked up again in 2020. My daughter loves stories and always wants to know what I’m reading, and I often will recount whatever book I’m reading to her.

She kept asking, “What’s happening in Dracula?” And as we talked through it, we realized how close we were to the actual dates the events were happening because I was reading it in the summer. These events happened from May through November. And as we had that conversation, we thought, “Oh, we could slow down a little bit and catch up to the days where the events are actually happening.” And of course that would take a lot of work and planning to remember to get out the book and read it on the right days. I thought, OK, really what you need is like an automated newsletter or something that can just drop you the right text at the right time. And then once I had that idea, I was going to do it sooner or later.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sooner or later turned out to be the next year, in 2021. You tweeted that you had 1,600 subscribers to last year’s newsletter, is that right?

Yeah, around there. I think it was a little higher and then you get a few people that unsubscribe as you go along, but yeah. I was really super excited about that. 1,600 people in some kind of online book club just felt outrageous and super fun. Obviously a little different this year.

How many do you have right now?

We just crossed over 200,000.

Do you know where these subscribers are coming from?

I mean, a little bit. You get a little bit of analytics with Substack of where people are coming from. But the huge surge of chatter is all on Tumblr. There’s a lot of funny stuff on Twitter. I see some Facebook stuff. It just took off like wildfire, and everybody was making funny jokes and memes, and I think that really pushed it into something that felt like an event.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Do you have a sense of what is causing it to take off on Tumblr in particular?

No, I don’t. So much of the posts are about how people are just finding it so funny. We have this dramatic irony of like, “Oh, Jonathan Harker doesn’t know that he’s in Dracula, so he’s not scared enough by going to Dracula’s castle.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Has the growth been pretty steady or was there a particular date where you saw subscribers skyrocket?

There was a steady growth for a couple of weeks before [the first email went out], as people just organically shared it, but there was no Dracula story to respond to yet. People were just saying, “Hey, I’m going to do this, and you should sign up too.” But then once it started, then I think those first couple of days of posts is when that graph really just like hockey-sticked up to the right, you know.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Are you finding that people are reading every entry? Or are people kind of signing up as a gag and not following through?

I get open rates and stuff from Substack, and they’re shockingly high. They’re like 75 percent, much higher than I expected. And I expect that’ll tail off as people get over the thrill of it or people that just signed up out of a sense of FOMO or something. But certainly there’s a lot of people responding to it on social media in a way that makes it clear, that, “Oh, they read this more carefully than I did,” because they found some kind of new angle to make a joke about that I’d never considered.

Advertisement

Do you have any favorite Dracula memes or jokes that you’ve come across?

There were so many so fast at the beginning. I just watched the hashtag and just cried laughing for days. But just from the beginning, all the jokes about Jonathan Harker not being able to handle paprika and his cluelessness of like, “Oh these people are so super superstitious and begging me not to go to Count Dracula’s castle. I should go to Count Dracula’s castle. I should go ask my friend Count Dracula about this.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I really, really love the sort of sitcom comedy that people are noticing about Dracula doing all of his own housekeeping and chores. Every drawing of Dracula in an apron just cracks me up. ’Cause of course I noticed it, and that’s part of the spookiness of the book, of, like, “Oh, not only am I trapped here, but ’m trapped alone with this guy.” But I’d always kind of overlooked the silliness of, like, “Oh yeah, Dracula’s making the bed. Dracula’s cooking dinner every night,” you know.

Yeah. I’m interested in how much you’ve seen and how much you yourself experienced of a disconnect between Dracula in the popular culture and Dracula when you actually encounter the book itself.

Advertisement

I love seeing people respond to it. Where they say like, “Oh, I’m aware of Dracula, but I had never read it.” Just a couple of days ago we got to the part where he crawls down the wall like a lizard. That’s not one of the attributes of vampires that you see a lot. It’s really fun to see people respond to that distinction.

Do you have a favorite segment that you’re looking forward to or that you’ve already sent out?

Advertisement

I really love the captain’s log from the ship that carries Dracula to England. It’s like a little miniature slasher film. The captain of the ship—we just get these short, short, short log entries from him. And he starts off by saying, “Hey, things have been weird. I better start writing down. Here’s what’s been happening.” And he goes back a couple of days.

Advertisement

Then every day you get a paragraph or a couple of sentences. The ship’s crew just starts mysteriously disappearing or showing up dead. And it’s the classic, “Oh, there’s a monster here and it’s taking down the crew one by one.” You can get through that shift log in a page and a half in the book, but instead we’re going to get to spend a week thinking about it because we’re reading it in the time the captain experiences it. I’m excited about that part.

Advertisement

[Read: Bram Stoker’s Ever-Evolving List of Characters for Dracula]

The Substack promises to take readers through the events of Dracula in real time, and it’s true that the book takes place from May to November, but I feel I have to point out that the epilogue actually takes place seven years later. Did you ever consider waiting seven years to send the epilogue?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I did. I did.

And? Why not?

[Laughing] I just—nobody would have the same email address seven years from now. Though I’ve had the same Gmail for 20 years. I guess I should have a better faith in people.

I mean, it’s not too late, right? Who would even know?

Yeah, yeah. We could do it this year. Yeah, instead of having queued up for the next day, just really, really wait seven years. Oh, I like that. I might. OK. I’ll put it on my calendar.

You asked subscribers after last year’s installment if they’d be interested in going through it again. And you wrote in your postmortem, “I suppose I could do this every year, but I don’t suppose people will actually want to read Dracula every year.” What kind of feedback did you get that inspired you to do it again?

Advertisement

Well, I had kind of just sort of closed the book on—pun not intended there—on this as a project after November of 2021. And then this spring, I thought, Oh, this is the time of year when Dracula starts. I found out that people had been steadily subscribing all winter long. I thought, Oh wait, what are these people signing up for if we’re not going to do it again?

Advertisement

I sent out an email and just asked the people that were on the list, “Do you want to do this again? Do you know that you’re still subscribed to this list? Feel free to unsubscribe.” And when people responded, it just was, like, hundreds of people that said, “Yes I’d love to do it again.” And either, like, “My friend told me about it halfway through, and I signed up, and so I just caught the end, and I want to get the whole experience,” or people said, “I just signed up over the winter because my friend told me about it and I was really hoping you were going to do it.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Do you anticipate making this an annual thing?

I don’t know. I mean, with such a great response this year, it sure feels like, Oh yeah, maybe I just do this for a long time. But on the other hand, it might just feel like it’s run its course. So I’ve been telling people, I don’t know, 50/50. We’ll see how it goes.

Have you considered doing it with any other novels?

I am. Yeah. I’m in the market for a book that would work as well. Dracula is so great because it’s got a nice timeframe. Six months is pretty long for people’s attention, and it’s in small enough chunks. Everybody suggests Frankenstein next, because you’ve got diary entries and things, but it’s in big sections. So we’d have to find some other way to break it up. I’m on the lookout for another book to do with it but haven’t found the right one yet.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Somebody wrote in and told me that they are writing the entirety of Moby Dick as notes in their daughter’s lunchbox. They were writing little, “Hey, I love you, have a great day” notes in their daughter’s lunchbox. And the daughter complained these are too short. And so she just said, “OK,” and now she has a paragraph from Moby Dick in her lunch every day. And she has it archived on an Instagram and everything.

Anything you want to add?

I’ve had several people write in and say, “Hey, this is awesome. I just heard about it. I feel like it’s too late to start.” I’ve been trying to tell everybody it’s not too late. We’re only about a week and a half into this. It’s running all the way through November. There’s a lot of story left. You can still join in. It’s easy to catch up and you’ll be along for the ride with everybody else this year.

There’s a gap in the summer where there’s a good two weeks [without an entry]. And last year I added a little note and said, “Hey, your email’s not broken. You’re just not going to hear anything. Good luck. See you on the other side.”

It’ll be a good test for whether subscribers can handle that seven-year epilogue gap.

Exactly.

Advertisement