Dracula surely needs no introduction! Written by Bram Stoker, and published in 1897, this novel was by no means the first vampire novel, but its impact was such that it spawned the modern genre of vampire literature. The iconic eponymous baddie, Count Dracula, looms large in modern media. But is the original novel still a good read today? Does its Gothic horror still have the power to terrify and chill? And will Dracula keep you awake at night, listening for bats flapping at the window?
This topic was automatically opened after 29 days.
Until a few years ago, I hadn’t read Dracula since I was a teenager. Then, on a long car trip to Whitby in North Yorkshire, I thought it would be a good idea to listen to an audiobook version, to get into the spirit of our visit to the locale where some of the action is set. The audio production was a good one, and initially I found the story to be genuinely quite tense and chilling – but then, in the second half, there was a really long patch which we found incredibly dull. Dull?! Dracula?! Really?! Perhaps we were just bored with the long journey.
In re-reading the book now, I still feel that some parts would benefit from judicious wielding of an editorial scalpel. But the epistolary/diary structure works really well, I think. Some sections read like a very engaging travelogue. And I enjoy the mixture of folklore, horror, psychiatry and science. It’s an edgier work than I remember, with greater sexual overtones. And, yes, it is genuinely quite scary in places! Wonderfully Gothic, and quite an achievement.
All the best,
Just to be clear, should I have read the book in August or are we reading it in September? It’s not an important point, but I intend to participate as I own a copy of this particular volume (it’s more of a novella isn’t it? or do I read moby dick too frequently?) and was just pulling it from its place of entombment on my shelf. I shall crack the covers over lunch.
I have read it several times before, but an advantage to my current state… I forget much of what has been read in the past! I get to read it again!
It’s good to hear that you’ll be joining in! I find that nowadays I also forget much of what I read in the past, even books I once knew very well, so often re-reading seems like a whole new experience. A bit like a goldfish. But drier.
We’re discussing Dracula now, in September. So you could have read it in August, ready for discussing it immediately the thread opens (i.e. today onward), or you could start reading it in September and catch up with the discussion as the month goes on – it’s your choice. I’m not closing any of these discussion threads, so technically you could talk about the book at any time in the future as well.
I hope you enjoy the read.
All the best,
Hmm… I’ve been thinking “like an earthworm, just not as likable” for my state of being! I think you’re in a better place. I shall endeavor to join you at your level.
I intend to make progress over lunch today. Maybe I’ll have something to contribute by this evening. Or tomorrow. Although some may suggest that “contribute” is an overstatement
That is part of the challenge of reading it today. What would have been a rollercoaster of suspense when released is a slow drip feed of information already deeply embedded into the zeitgeist. And yet… I loved it. How does it still keep me on the edge of my seat while I’m reading?!
This book employs heavily a literary device that usually annoys me immensely - a character who knows the answer early (Van Helsing / that we’re dealing with a vampire), but doesn’t / goes out of his way not to share that with other characters / the reader. But again, Bram makes it work! The conceit here is that if VanH tells the others the truth too soon they wouldn’t believe him - indeed the idea that the characters want to keep a documentary history of their evidence, actions and motives in case they are challenged is a major part of the book’s structure and the reason for its epistolary premise.
I’m also impressed on re-reading how the “sunlight” conceit is deployed here. Most of the descendant vampire books use sunlight primarily as a weakness or a killing device, but here it’s used deliciously as a pacing device, putting a daily clock on the characters and driving the urgency.
All that said, my favourite part of the book by far are the opening chapters of Jonathan Harker’s diary describing the Transylvanian portion. I would guess that many adapters (especially for film) are in the same camp - hungry to see more of the titular Count. Of course, it’s the very mysterious and unseen nature of the evil that is the book’s strength (much like in the movie “Jaws”), and so more kudos to Bram for not taking the easy path, and in his more cautious pacing giving us a stronger tale that (much like the Count himself) has thrived across multiple centuries.
Yes, that struck me in places too. Also, the idea of siring families especially when the Count is mentioned as a possible father of a new world order (which was a theme explored excellently in the modern book, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman), or in the Bloofer Lady’s child victims.
I really enjoyed it. Almost all of the vampire fiction I’ve consumed over the years has been via film instead of on the written page so I really appreciated just how much creepier it’s possible for a book to be than a movie when done right!
Perhaps what I found most interesting was that it took until 2009 for the Stoker estate to produce a Dracula 2 (which I’ve not read).
I gave up. I’m not sure if my mind is distracted by life, or if my tastes have changed, but I could not make it past chapter 2. I’ve tried. I’m just not willing to treat it like a high school paper.
I guess I’m not a fan.
(Folks, sorry about the length of this. It seems like forever that I’ve been plotting and researching and not actually writing, so putting this together was good therapy for me!)
- There are spoilers in this review, so stop here if you plan to read the book.
- I didn’t read the other reviews prior to posting, so my apologies if I’ve repeated and/or stolen anyone else’s thoughts.
- I used the Dracula theme while writing this review in Scrivener. I’m certain this made my commentary more insightful than it would otherwise have been.
I don’t remember exactly when I first read Bram Stoker’s novel, but I would have been preteen. I have two distinct memories from that experience.
The first was that I found Stoker’s vocabulary a bit much. As a result, I had to make constant trips to the dining room to riffle through the large dictionary we kept on the china hutch. When that got tiresome, I relocated the dictionary to the living room couch and sat it next to me while I read.
Constantly looking up words eventually became distracting, so I kept a sheet of paper inserted in the pages of the well-worn library bound hardcover of Dracula. On this dual-role bookmark I’d jot down unknown words, and every few chapters or so, I’d stop reading and look them up. All these years later, I can still picture that lined sheet of 3-hole punched loose leaf paper, folded lengthwise and covered, in my bad handwriting, with columns of words and their corresponding page numbers.
The other thing I recall is being unimpressed with Stoker’s epistolatory technique. I thought it unrealistic, and remember complaining to a friend, “No way is someone going to take the time to make an entry in their diary when they’re out hunting vampires!”
Over the ensuing years I’ve read Dracula again on a couple of occasions, prior to picking it up for this book club reading. The turns of the plot are by now very familiar to me.
That said, this go round I discovered that Stoker still had a few surprises for me. Elements that I hadn’t noticed in prior readings, or that were emphasized more strongly, or were better–or more poorly–executed. (Perhaps I was paying closer attention because I knew I’d be writing this review.)
I’ll begin with the element that surprised me the most: Despite it’s undead antagonist, a chunk of the novel reads less like a tale of horror and more like a police procedural. In Chapter 25, during a speech about Dracula’s “child brain”, Van Helsing alludes to this when he says, “The Count is a criminal and of criminal type.”
The police procedural section starts in Chapter 17 when Jonathan goes around London investigating where all the boxes of dirt have been delivered–it seems he’s a gumshoe at heart–but the forensic sleuthing kicks into a higher gear when Mina meets Van Helsing and the rest of the fearless vampire hunters.
She compiles everything–all the diaries and letters and recordings she’s transcribed, the shipping and house-buying documents from Jonathan, the newspaper clippings she’s been collecting–into a sort of VHBOK: Vampire Hunter Body of Knowledge. From this, she and Jonathan assemble a timeline of events and locations. All that’s missing is a map of England on the wall, decorated with photos of the victims, annotated with clues, and pinned with coffin markers denoting the locations of Dracula’s safe houses. And, by the way, Mina seems to have total recall of every train schedule in England! She’s the prototype of every nerdy tech back at the lab supporting a TV detective.
But then Stoker takes it to another level. From the VHBOK Mina has compiled, the team hatches a plan to track down the count’s lairs and “sterilize” and “sanctify” all but one of the dirt boxes Dracula brought with him from his homeland. Thus they’ll leave him only one place to rest, and when he retreats there, they’ll “confine him to his coffin and destroy him.”
This is a neat trick that Stoker’s pulled off. The police procedural aspect of the novel provides him an opportunity to leverage his characters’ epistolary output. He makes their material pull double-duty by giving it an integral role to play in the story. Very smart. As Van Helsing would have put it, “That big child-brain of his is working.” The characters write their story not just for the reader, but for purposes of solving the case–they compile and rearrange and share it amongst themselves; they study it, they make deductions and plans based on it, and then they take action. “He is clever, oh so clever!”
While most editions seem to be titled “Dracula”–see the original first edition’s cover and title page–there are a few others, including the edition I read, that are titled “Dracula, A Mystery Story”. I’ve no idea why this is so, but the longer title does hint at the more investigative parts of the novel.
I was surprised at how few scenes directly involve the Count. After holding Jonathan captive in his castle at the novel’s start, Dracula hardly makes an appearance. He lurks about in the shadows, at the edges of scenes, rarely in full view. We get a glimpse of a tall thin man, or a dog or bat or mist. Of red eyes glaring from the dark.
This approach might have worked, had I, by the end of the novel, been rewarded with the scene for which I’d so patiently been waiting: the final clash between the vampire hunters and the King Vampire himself.
But it was not to be. The ending–what a dud. In the book’s final battle, Dracula is a complete non-participant. Because the sun has not set, all he can do is lie in his dirt box and give his opponents dirty looks. Dracula’s contributions to the grand finale amount to a few expressions: a look of hate turned to triumph turned to peace. What an anticlimax.
And what a pity. I have no doubt Stoker was capable of better, because the most memorable scenes of Dracula are exquisitely staged and written: the women vampires seducing Jonathan; Dracula crawling down the castle wall like a lizard; Lucy at her tomb holding a moaning child; Dracula in Mina’s bedroom, forcing her to drink his blood; Mina and Van Helsing’s encounter with the vampire women. These left me with sharp, indelible images. These are what come to mind when I think of the novel Dracula.
It makes me wonder: did Stoker somehow box himself into a corner with his vampire rules? Did he write a climax with an impotent Dracula because he felt the hunters would be unable to triumph over the King Vampire once sunset had released his full powers?
I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the story, with Jonathan in Transylvania. These four chapters read like “horror” to me.
But most of my favorite parts of the novel involved Van Helsing. (Although, perhaps a couple of his many long speeches could have used another round of cutting.)
I thought Van Helsing’s “King Laugh” monologue in Chapter 13 was brilliant.
In Chapter 27’s “Memorandum By Abraham Van Helsing”, we are given a rare peek through his perspective, when he and Mina travel across Dracula’s country. As they approach the castle, Van Helsing recognizes signs that Mina is changing.
“She help me and I eat alone; and then we wrap in fur and lie beside the fire, and I tell her to sleep while I watch. But presently I forget all of watching; and when I sudden remember that I watch, I find her lying quiet, but awake, and looking at me with so bright eyes. Once, twice more the same occur, and I get much sleep till before morning. When I wake I try to hypnotize her; but alas! though she shut her eyes obedient, she may not sleep. The sun rise up, and up, and up; and then sleep come to her too late, but so heavy that she will not wake. I have to lift her up and place her sleeping in the carriage when I have harnessed the horses and made all ready. Madam still sleep, and sleep; and she look in her sleep more healthy and more redder than before. And I like it not. And I am afraid, afraid, afraid! – I am afraid of all things – even to think…”
A few paragraphs later, after the sun has set, in the gathered dark of the cold hour, Mina and Van Helsing have their encounter with Dracula’s undead women:
"Presently the horses began to scream, and tore at their tethers till I came to them and quieted them. When they did feel my hands on them, they whinnied low as in joy, and licked at my hands and were quiet for a time. Many times through the night did I come to them, till it arrive to the cold hour when all nature is at lowest, and every time my coming was with quiet of them. In the cold hour the fire began to die, and I was about stepping forth to replenish it, for now the snow came in flying sweeps and with it a chill mist. Even in the dark there was a light of some kind, as there ever is over snow, and it seemed as though the snow flurries and the wreaths of mist took shape as of women with trailing garments. All was in dead, grim silence only that the horses whinnied and cowered, as if in terror of the worst. I began to fear, horrible fears. But then came to me the sense of safety in that ring wherein I stood. I began too, to think that my imaginings were of the night, and the gloom, and the unrest that I have gone through, and all the terrible anxiety. It was as though my memories of all Jonathan’s horrid experience were befooling me. For the snow flakes and the mist began to wheel and circle round, till I could get as though a shadowy glimpse of those women that would have kissed him. And then the horses cowered lower and lower, and moaned in terror as men do in pain. Even the madness of fright was not to them, so that they could break away. I feared for my dear Madam Mina when these weird figures drew near and circled round. I looked at her, but she sat calm, and smiled at me. When I would have stepped to the fire to replenish it, she caught me and held me back, and whispered, like a voice that one hears in a dream, so low it was.
“No! No! Do not go without. Here you are safe!”
I turned to her, and looking in her eyes said, “But you? It is for you that I fear!”
Whereat she laughed, a laugh low and unreal, and said, “Fear for me! Why fear for me? None safer in all the world from them than I am…”
I consider these the finest moments of the novel. Here we have true horror.
I enjoyed Stoker’s little jokes. For instance, the story has thirsty vampires and thirsty working men (Jonathan needs to “encourage” the latter to talk when he is out gathering clues). The purchaser of the Piccadilly house was a “Count de Ville”. And the not so veiled eroticism in the story, as contrasted against the purity of the vampire hunters, was great fun.
I’m not sure whether I’ll ever read Dracula again. While I enjoyed re-experiencing Stoker’s story in its original form, I found it a mixed bag of strong images that will remain with me and a lackluster ending that somewhat betrays the careful writing that came before it. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll decide again that it’s a journey worth taking.
A note about the edition I read:
It begins with an Introduction by Tina Rath. I’d never heard of Ms. Rath, but according to her bio her MA dissertation was “The Vampire in the Theatre”, and her doctoral thesis at London College was “The Vampire in Popular Fiction”. She’s really into vampires.
Her essay is a survey of vampires in general and Dracula in particular, in history, literature, stage, and screen. It also includes some interesting (to me) background on Stoker’s development process for the novel. Considering the scope and subject matter, it was written with a rather light touch. I found it worthwhile and surprisingly entertaining.
The Amazon book sample and “Look Inside” for this edition contain the complete Introduction, so if you’re interested you can read her essay for free from Amazon.
Yes! That section of the book–the battle for Lucy–when Van Helsing is dropping his little clues to a frustrated Seward, I was almost shouting, “Damn it, tell him already!” But then I realized, he won’t believe him. Nobody will, not until they see with their own eyes.