I finally did it! I picked up this big old classic and read all the way through it and it was both more fun and more boring than expected. But all things considered, I’m happy I finally read this and it will certainly give me a new perspective on any vampire books or movies I read/watch in the future.
by Bram Stoker
Published: Penguin Classics, 1879
eBook: 454 pages
My rating: 6/10
Opening line: 3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8.35 P.M. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late.
Within the pages of this book can be found one of the most terrifying creatures in all of literature.
This classic of horror writing is composed of diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings that piece together the depraved story of the ultimate predator. A young lawyer on an assignment finds himself imprisoned in a Transylvanian castle by his mysterious host. Back at home his fiancée and friends are menaced by a malevolent force which seems intent on imposing suffering and destruction. Can the devil really have arrived on England’s shores? And what is it that he hungers for so desperately?
Whether you’ve read Dracula or not, there are certain things we all know about it, simply from picking up bits of knowledge from popular culture, works inspired by this book, or vampire movies. Everyone knows Dracula is a vampire who turns into a bat, who sucks the blood out of (preferably) young women, who sleeps in a coffin and is repelled by garlic. We also know how to kill a vampire – stake through the heart, cut off the head… seven seasons of Buffy give you pretty creative ideas on how to get the job done. So why even pick up this book, when I already knew the gist, the big reveal, and at least suspected the ending? Well… going back to the beginning is interesting, if nothing else. And while Dracula was certainly not the first story about vampires, it is the most famous one.
The book is told entirely thorugh journal entires, letters, telegrams and the occasional newspaper clipping. We start with Jonathan Harker’s journal as he travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who wishes to purchase a mansion in London. Things are fairly odd right from the start. On his journey to the castle, Harker meets several locals, all of whom seem terrified when they learn where he is travelling. They cross themselves, hand him a crucifix to carry with him, and mutter prayers under their breath.
Once Jonathan arrives at the castle, things only get stranger and stranger. Starting with the Count, an older gentleman with a white moustache – something that surprised me, as I’ve always imagined Dracula somewhat younger and definitely not with grey hair – plus the lack of servants, and the fact that many doors, including the main gate, are locked…
I read through this first part pretty quickly because it was nice and creepy, it had interesting bits of information about Dracula that I hadn’t expected (not just his looks) and because Jonathan Harker’s journal was simply exciting to read. But then we cut to Jonathan’s fiancée Mina Murray in London and her exchange of letters with her best friend Lucy. While I also quite enjoyed their letter writing and discussions of how wonderful it is to be engaged, I kept wondering what was happening with Jonathan in the meantime. As strange and unusual things start happening with Mina and Lucy as well, I was quickly distracted again.
Plus, the narrative adds Dr. Seward’s diary entries. The doctor himself is connected via Lucy (having been one of her suitors) but his work is much more interesting than his love life, if you ask me. He works at an “insane asylum” where he tracks the behaviour of Renfield, probably his most interesting patient. Even if there hadn’t been a connection the the main story (and for a long time, it feels like there isn’t), I really liked these parts and how Dr. Seward tries to help Renfield with science and (mostly) kindness.
You may guess that at least one more major character will add his accounts to this tale and that is, of course, Dr. Van Helsing. And here’s where I was a bit disappointed, if rather by the writing of his character than his character himself. Van Helsing is a very smart man who believes in science and goes about his business with method and brains. He figures out pretty early what’s going on, or at least suspects it, yet decides not to tell anyone because reasons, I guess. Other than that, the way his accent was written bothered me. Van Helsing is Dutch, so it felt fine to write his dialogue with a grammar mistake here or there, but the way he spoke didn’t feal in the least related to Dutch, nor was it consistent. He’d say things like “he like what he see” but in the next sentence he’d be perfectly capable of adding that “s” for third person singular… His tenses were all over the place, his syntax switched about happily, and it made him quite hard to read. To me, it had the effect of making him sound stupid, which he decidedly wasn’t. Oh well.
As for the story itself – it has great bones but takes entirely too long for everything. The beginning is the exception, because that slowish build-up with Jonathan visiting Castle Dracula worked quite well. But after that, after we already know something supernatural is going on and the Count is EVIL, there’s no more need to beat around the bush so much. More than that, anything that happens, happens so slowly. When Mina’s friend Lucy gets sick – pale, restless, sleeping badly, somehow lacking blood… – we spend sooooo many pages going over her symptoms of every single day. Van Helsing’s treatment of her is repeated several times and unfortunately, every one of those times is described in minute detail. Again, I didn’t dislike what happened or how the characters wrote these events down, I just didn’t need to read it in quite so much detail so many times over.
Around the middle of the book, Van Helsing finally reveals to his companions what it is they are fighting against. The stakes have grown higher and higher until then, so the newly formed group of friends makes a plan. We watch them make the plan, then execute the plan, then hear them tell about the plan and its execution to someone else. When I say “the plan” it sounds like this is about one great scheme, but it’s really a series of mini-plans and if you read about each of them before, during, and after the event, it takes a lot of tension out of it. I actually found myself hoping something would go wrong during the plan execution just so I could get interested again. Otherwise, I’d already know everything because I had read the entire plan before…
There is at least one wrench thrown into the cogs of Van Helsing’s great scheme to rid the world of Dracula but I can’t say that it was enough to create any real excitement in me at all.
This being a book of its time, I also didn’t expect women to play a major role in it and was surprised that both Lucy and Mina felt like real, fleshed out people. They are kept in the dark a lot, treated like helpless little flowers who should leave the real brain work to the men, but Mina especially saves the day several times by being smart and proactive. Look, she’s not exactly an example of a great female character but I had expected really, really bad things and was happy to find out that Bram Stoker gave his female characters some proper good qualities, even if they are also used as the convenient victims who make the men pick up their courage and fight the big baddie.
Overall, I don’t regret reading this book, even though its pacing was not great. It had nice and creepy parts, there were several things about Dracula that I hadn’t known beforehand, and I like epistolary novels in general. And while it makes me want to read some of the works that were inspired by it directly (like The Historian), I don’t think I’ll reread Dracula ever again. There’s no denying that it is a classic of horror literature and it does mention my home town right in the first line, so it’s got that going for it. 🙂
MY RATING: 6/10 – Good