Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill. It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls. Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre. Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.
Dracula is an epistolary novel, which incorporates the emerging technology of the late 19th century as its characters experiment with phonograph recordings and typewriters to tell their story. This sense of the changing modern world is a major theme of the novel, and it is interesting to get a contemporary Victorian reaction to emerging technology. At the heart of the story is Count Dracula, who is made horrific through his intelligence and cunning as much as by his murderous means of eternal life. The novel quickly becomes a race between the five heroes and the Count as he puts into action his schemes to move to a more populated and modern country than his rural Transylvania. Although being a member of what Stoker calls the Un-Dead, the Count’s humanity still lingers, although he remains an unambiguous monster with few redeeming qualities. It is this combination of cold intelligence and monstrosity that has allowed Dracula to linger so vividly in the popular imagination for so long. We never do discover how Count Dracula first became a vampire, but we quickly learn about vampirism and its dangers to a populated city through his attacks on the beautiful and pure-hearted Lucy Westenra.
Those who have seen the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be somewhat surprised to hear me describe Lucy Westenra as pure-hearted. Francis Coppola’s vision of Dracula is astonishingly sexualized (or as I like to say, HBO-ified) compared to the original novel. Although Stoker was a contemporary of Freud’s and it is reasonable to believe that he was familiar with Freud’s psychological work into sexuality, the novel is actually much more interesting for its inspection of the Victorian understanding of the complexities of the psychiatry of criminal minds. At the heart of the novel is the lunatic asylum, where Dr. Seward records his case notes about his patient Renfield, who has been eating flies and spiders and ranting about the ability of blood consumption to lead to everlasting life. The reader, who is already aware of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying stay at Castle Dracula, enjoys the irony of understanding the sanity of the mad man, while Dr. Seward struggles to put his ravings about vampirism into modern medical language. Once the vampiric attacks on Lucy Westenra begin, the tension raises as we understand precisely what is happening to her, but like her doctors, are helpless to interfere. The novel is filled with enjoyable winks to the reader as we watch the heroes go through their journey and try to figure out what we already know. In one of the newspaper excerpts in the novel, Stoker writes:
“There is, however, possibly a serious side to the question, for some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat. The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own. The police of the division have been instructed to keep a sharp look-out for straying children, especially when very young, in and around Hampstead Heath, and for any stray dog which may be about.”
We, of course, understand that there is a vampire on the loose — at this point in the story, we even know who the vampire is, but these small ironies engage us as readers and keep the pages turning.
As in the modern cinematic culture around the Dracula story, Van Helsing quickly steals the show as the brilliant and eccentric foreigner that remains a few steps ahead of his companions. His eccentricity mainly comes out in his forgetfulness that his patients and companions are people with emotional attachment to the events in the story — he becomes so hyperfocused on stamping out the problem of vampirism that he has delightful slips in compassion such as this one:
“Yes and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked! You, whom I have seen with no tremble of hand or heart, do operations of life and death that make the rest shudder. Oh, but I must not forget, my dear friend John, that you loved her; and I have not forgotten it, for it is I that shall operate, and you must only help.”
In Van Helsing, we discover the character that is most like the Count — he is a true adversary in cunning and intelligence. Yet, unlike the Count, Van Helsing does care about those around him. It is his devotion and love for his companions, combined with bravery and kindness, which makes us care about his fight to remove evil from the world.
Perhaps the best part of Stoker’s writing is that all of his characters jump off of the page, often because of their language. Although all dialog is being repeated to us by the characters themselves, we hear Van Helsing’s Dutch roots, Quincey’s American slang, Lord Arthur’s upper-class upbringing and Dr. Seward’s medical training. Epistolary novels can easily become boring as the letter writers report what happened in past tense, but Stoker keeps it fresh by getting his characters’ words on the page. It requires a small suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but brings the novel to life. As an Irish immigrant in London, with extensive experience as a theater manager, Stoker must have had a great delight in dialect. It does a great service to the novel.
Modern horror lovers will no doubt find the lack of gore in Dracula to be quite tame compared to the graphic descriptions of the likes of Stephen King, but I found it charming. The novel is no less suspenseful for all that it lacks a modern insouciance to violence — and reading it late at night gave me more than one fit of anxiety and restless sleep. As with all things to do with the famous Count Dracula…..read at your own risk. But do read it.
- Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: 1897
- Paperback: 488 pages
- ISBN: 0393970124
- Language: English
- Rating: 3 of 5 stars