Dracula by Bram Stoker
Published in 1897; 2011 Barnes & Noble edition
Genre: Horror, supernatural
“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.”
One would not suspect such a beginning to the most famous vampire story in the world, but it is the nefarious tendency of the undead to sneak up on their victims that this introduction replicates. Dracula, by Bram Stoker, follows the conquest of London by a melodramatic lord of the undead. After purchasing an estate in England, Count Dracula travels by ship to begin his malicious intent, only to be challenged by friends of the very man who helped him with the financial transaction that put his plan in motion. Told through the correspondence of the brave souls who stand up against this dark malice, Dracula created the template for the vampiric menace and kick-started a golden age for tales about the creature of the night.
Johnathan Harker travels to Transylvania to conduct business with Count Dracula; a mysterious nobleman who has purchased a property in London. As Harker travels further East, he encounters superstitions and old, religious beliefs that reign supreme. There is an unnerving strangeness to the events that happen to Harker, especially when he realizes that he is alone with such a powerful host with no one else around. It eventually becomes clear that Harker is at Dracula’s mercy after a run in with vampire brides that the latter shows complete control over; he promises Harker to the brides when he is no longer of use.
Dracula’s coming to England is heralded by a storm, with portents from nature. He seduces and begins feeding off of Lucy Westenra; the best friend of Mina Murray, who is married to Johnathan, Lucy had three suitors pining for her but ultimately chose Arthur Holmwood. The other two suitors, Dr. John Seward and Quincy Morris, remain amicable and Seward begins to see more odd behavior from one of his patients at the psychiatric ward. Having learned Lucy has taken ill suddenly, Seward sends for one of his former professors, Van Helsing, to help diagnose. After visiting Lucy, Van Helsing has a terrible theory and consults professionals in his field. Van Helsing withholds his suspicions of Lucy’s condition until he is absolutely sure, as he knows that in order to get the others to help, he will have to show them the reality of vampires. When he learns of Johnathan’s experience in Transylvania, he knows that the truth cannot be denied and rallies the hunters to release Lucy. Her death shows the danger posed by vampires who spread the condition and endanger those who loved them; however, love is what gives Arthur the strength to release her. Having destroyed the thing Lucy became, the companions decide to head after the king vampire himself and leave Mina in what they believe to be safety, though this inadvertently opens her up to the Count’s influence and causes further complication.
The beginning of the book sets up Dracula as the malevolent monster, then he is in the background of the other character’s stories. We see hints and references to his activity but, as the characters do no know it is him, they often chalk it up to random acts or coincidence, when it is really his lurking influence. He doesn’t appear directly again until confronted near the end, and finally at the very climax of the book. Much of the book concerns giving evidence of Dracula’s movements and actions with the companions eventually comparing notes in order to launch a campaign to destroy him. Dracula himself is a bit melodramatic; he often shouts at the men trying to kill him, promising grave reparations before running off in search of a place to hole up. He monologues quite a bit, showing his villainy and intentions, but he is soon thwarted by Van Helsing and his companions. Dracula communicates his need to be master of himself with none above; though this seems like simple ambition at first, it foreshadows his campaign to infect London with vampires like himself.
Dracula is written in an epistolary format; this means that it reads as a collection of letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings that adds a sense of realism to the world. Harker’s journal entries show his logical mind and search for reason when beset by the supernatural, which he must eventually give up after seeing the horror of Dracula scaling part of the castle. The letters and journal entries of Harker’s friends and colleagues set up their characters and juxtapose the episodes in Transylvania. It lays the foundation for the norm of English society before Dracula’s arrival upsets the lives of these people. Stoker writes in dialect for some of his characters for journal entries and news stories, which adds a sense of realism, but also makes some of the already wordy reading more tedious. Van Helsing speaks English as a second language, so his speech is often riddled with grammatical errors, which can be a bit of a slog because he has a tendency to wax poetic about the nobility of their quest.
Dracula has had its place cemented in Western pop culture since the book’s publication. This was further entrenched by the horror movie adaptations that, though they twisted the image of the Count somewhat, ensured his place in history. What more needs to be said for the vampire whose story and motifs laid the groundwork for nearly all vampire stories that followed? Dracula remains creepy in its telling of the ever present threat of an unknown force come from afar to spread its unholy influence among God fearing people. Though the monster is on stage, so to speak, only a few times, his presence is always lurking and much of what makes the tale enthralling is seeing our heroes work out what the mysterious malady terrorizing them actually is. Told in classic Victorian style with flourish and aplomb, Dracula was Bram Stoker’s defining work and remains a favorite of horror fanatics to this day.
Verdict: 4 epistolary entries out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of English literature, Gothic fans, people who like vampires, fans of letters, fans of epistolary fiction, and people who want to read the most famous vampire story ever.
Not recommended for: The easily bored, people who assume the book will be like any of the film adaptations or follow-ups, people who hate letters or journal entries, or hemophiliacs.