Sunday, October 31, 2010
Monsterthon: The Bookshelf: Dracula by Bram Stoker
I’ve made two unsuccessful attempts at reading DRACULA before. Both times I seem to recall enjoying it, but some other assignment or event compelled me to put it aside for long enough that I figured I probably ought to start all over again. This Halloween season I resolved that I would finally make it all the way through this classic of horror literature, and so I can complete Monsterthon by paying tribute to one of monsterdom’s elder statesmen.
The story, told entirely in correspondence and diary entries, begins with Johnathan Harker, a London real estate clerk, heading to Transylvania to finalize some sale documents with the mysterious Count Dracula, who is planning to buy the Carfax estate in England. As days pass, Johnathan works out that the Count is keeping him a prisoner, and that he is more than just an elderly aristocrat. He manages to escape, but in the time it takes him to get back to England, Dracula has already arrived on a ship whose crew were wiped out under mysterious circumstances. The Count sets his sights on Lucy Westenra, a friend of Johnathan’s fiancee Mina, and begins luring her out sleepwalking and feeding on her blood. Lucy’s betrothed Lord Arthur Goldamring, as well as asylum director Dr. Seward and Mina herself, notice a change in Lucy’s condition, and Seward summons his friend Professor Van Helsing, an elderly gentleman with some knowledge of things beyond the realm of known science. Van Helsing is too late to save Lucy from dying, but helps her friends to release her from the curse of vampirism that follows; afterwards, knowing Count Dracula’s intentions, they must protect Mina from becoming another of his brides.
An interesting thing about this book is that Dracula himself is barely in it. He gets a lot of “page time” during the early scenes in Transylvania, but in England he becomes mostly an external force, working through visions and animal guises, as well as through his slave Renfield, a fly-eating madman. Part of the reason for this is that the heroes are careful to avoid directly confronting the Count, who at night is basically too powerful for mortals to face and live. He is powerless during the day (though not actually burned by sunlight as would become the standard), but makes sure to appear rarely during such times. Though Bram Stoker famously based the character in part on Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler), the references are more direct in the book than in any adaptation I’ve seen, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s film- Van Helsing hypothesizes that Dracula was once a great leader who for whatever reason made a pact with dark magical forces and was turned into a prince of the undead. The physical description of the Count is very much like that of Vlad, and the explicity aristocratic background blurs and offsets some of the anti-Semitic origins of much vampire lore. The Count’s air of nobility makes him a fascinating character even though we rarely see him.
Perhaps the other thing that stood out to me when reading this book was how nice everyone is to each other; the heroes at times seem like embodiments of Christian virtue, ever patient in times of stress, ever faithful in the face of Satanic evil, and always seeking to treat each other well. This fits the style of much contemporary literature, and of course these are mostly affluent-or-better people raised to conduct themselves in a certain way, but as we’re reading their own thoughts in diary form, they come across as just plain decent folk. It can feel, at times, a little too cosy or twee; in particular Van Helsing’s broken English and folksy manner can be a little much over 300+ pages. That said, it does come off as sincere, and it creates a strong contrast between the elemental conflict of good and evil that is the book’s story. I don’t doubt this is what helped it resonate with audiences at the time and beyond; we’re not just scared of the monster but genuinely engaged with the protagonists, and this adds power later on when the story goes into a truly epic climactic pursuit.
Even though I was going through it the third time around, there’s definitely a wonderful touching sadness to Lucy’s fate, and while I’m not sure whether readers at the time were expecting her to live or die, most of us have been spoiled by film adaptations in the meantime. She’s as sympathetic a character as Mina, and doesn’t really deserve her fate- despite the much-talked-about undertones of Victorian sexuality in the book, there’s no sense that she’s being punished for any particular sin, just an innocent who wandered out onto the wrong moor.
There’s a lot of preparation and anticipation in the book, which makes it move slowly at times. This is primarily an artifact of the Victorian style of literature, though if H.G. Wells was largely able to cut through the crap Stoker doesn’t have much of an excuse. But there is tension, and emotion, and some genuine eeriness in the best passages. It’s easy to see how the book made the impact it did, and crystallized our perception of the vampire in popular culture. Not quite a masterpiece, but still a great page-turner.
P.S. If anyone knows who the above image is by, I'll be sure to credit it. I can't quite read the signature at this resolution.