Dracula by Bram Stoker - review
'Dracula is to vampire novels as A Study in Scarlet is to detective novels: one of the first, greatest and the story which introduced the character for those genres'
Tue 4 Feb ‘14 09.00 GMT
racula isn't a book, not anymore. Dracula is a name, a broad stereotyping of a character which encompasses many different components and interpretations of our favourite Count. Having been a fan of the concept of vampires for some time, earlier this year I was intrigued to return to the beginning of the vampire genre when I first picked up this book.
The novel is a fascinating entity, not least because of the differences from the modern perception of it. For example, there is the fact that the Count himself isn't hurt by sunlight, a concept which was only introduced in the silent film Nosferatu many years later. This fact is indicative of a problem which arises for any modern reader of Stoker's novel, namely, we're modern and so have a lot of pop culture baggage to contend with whenever we try to get drawn into the novel.
Events which would act as gigantic plot twists to the readers of Stoker's era are easily predictable which does diminish from the impact somewhat. However it does lend the whole story a level of dramatic irony which, in a way, adds to the chilling and almost Cassandrian feeling of ignored prophecies and a predetermined fate. What was in the original story a mere subplot with the ignored warnings of the locals dooming Jonathan Harker to his fate becomes, via the fact that we all know the story, a major theme which colours every scene in the book.
The book also features many details and plot points unfamiliar to someone who knows Dracula only from their general pop culture sensitivity, allowing the reader to have the best of both worlds, granting the eerie inevitability of Jonathan Harker's approach to the castle an extra layer of dread while keeping certain plot twists surprises. Or at least, that was my experience upon reading it.
However, to move away from my arguments for why you should read Dracula despite almost certainly already knowing the ending (SPOILER: Dracula loses) and into the actual story, let me give you a quick overview of the beginning of the book.
It begins with Jonathan Harker's journey through Transylvania to Dracula's castle, after being warned by many locals that Dracula is not someone you want to visit after dark. It is in this section that everything I was talking about above really comes into play.
The dramatic build up to the meeting with Dracula is very tense and scary, perhaps more so with the audience already knowing that Jonathan's apparently amiable host is anything but. The entire first part of the book is an exercise in dread, with Jonathan slowly realising that his host is something inhuman and utterly evil. It is brimming with paranoia and a feeling of the unknowable. It's told entirely via diary entries which only adds to that, enabling us to look into Jonathan's slowly cracking psyche as he begins to make connections and associations between the Count and the horrors of the night. The reader becomes part of the story, experiencing that fear and paranoia via the fact that Jonathan's journal is written for himself, placing us in his shoes.
Not a huge amount happens in this first section of the story but it very much feels like things are happening. One common complaint of older books is the fact that they tend not to be as gripping as modern books. That is not a problem with Dracula, the warnings of things in the night begin only a few pages in and the story grabs you and won't let go, making your fear for Jonathan's safety increase with every sentence.
After this beginning section, which takes about sixty pages, giving it enough time to breath, we cut back to Whitby in England and a correspondence between Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray, our two female heroes. It's here that the book begins to flag a bit and the long, if beautiful, passages dealing with everyday Victorian life begin. This section is told entirely in letters meaning that we now get two different perspectives, ridding us of the tense, clammy paranoia of Jonathan's journal. It leaves the reader desperately thinking on Jonathan's fate as we watch his fiancée and her friend discuss the weather. With the love triangle which surrounds Lucy it begins to feel like a romance novel. Then a ship crashes and the story starts in earnest.
I shall not go any further in outlining the plot, most of you probably know the basics of the rest and there are still some things I would wish to leave as surprises for those of you who are not aware of the finer plot details of the novel. I chose this section specifically as it is representative of the story as a whole, it cuts from tense paranoid first person journal sections to lighter sections of conversation via letters or multiple journal entries. The fact that the book is told entirely via these documents adds to a 'found footage' feel with us being privy to the thoughts of many characters and allowed a look at how their minds work. It gives the whole story a sense of foreboding as you wonder how all the papers were collected together, something which is also exploited by many modern horror films (cough, Blair Witch Project, cough).
On a side note, it is curious how many gothic stories use this framing device. Frankenstein begins with letters and James Hogg's Confessions of A Justified Sinner is told in a rather meta-fictional way via another such device, but that is beside the point. Dracula's device of letters really enables you to understand and sympathise with the characters and see their true thoughts as they try to defeat Dracula. The book plays with this format telling the story in telegrams and diary entries printed in newspapers which are then cut out as newspaper clippings as well as straight journal entries.
The main characters are all very well portrayed, each with a separate personality, quirks and role to play in the story. The story itself is heartbreaking, full of the emotion of the characters as they deal with life, death and love, this is beautifully realised. Dracula touches on many themes, savagery, love, religion, technology and xenophobia to name just a few. It leaves you thinking upon it for a long time afterwards and is required reading for any fan of horror or vampires. Dracula is to vampire novels as A Study in Scarlet is to detective novels: one of the first, greatest and the story which introduced the character for those genres. Dracula is THE vampire and the novel is THE vampire novel.