Culling The Classics: Dracula
When I was in high school, young and naive and with barely any literary taste, I gave Dracula a try. I hadn't read many classics at that point (Treasure Island maybe? The Swiss Family Robinson?), but my middle school love of Goosebumps made me think I might be able to make an exception for a vampire book. Look at me, all adult and mature and literary!
I hated it. I don't think I even made it through 100 pages. So great was my disdain that the book sat at the bottom of a trunk in my basement for the better part of a decade.
But it's October, and the ghosts and the ghouls and the God knows what elses are out, and being older, and wiser, and more worldly in my writerly ways than in bygone days, I thought I ought to take another crack at the Count, because I love you all so much.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker (Archibald Constable and Company, 1897)
Widely acclaimed as one the greatest and most influential works of several different genres and types, including gothic, horror, and vampire fiction; Goodreads rating of 3.92; numerous direct stage, film, and television adaptations, with countless works inspired by the book's main villain, Count Dracula himself.
The Spoiler-Free Skinny
It's the late 19th Century. Britain rules everything. Englishmen like young lawyer Jonathan Harker feel like the most powerful, intelligent, and civilized men in the world, and in their cultured wisdom, they look down upon the silly superstitions of those who inhabit lesser regions. As the book opens, Harker is traveling to Eastern Europe to finish up some business with a local noble, Count Dracula, who is trying to buy property in London. The closer Harker gets to Dracula's castle in the Carpathian Mountains, though, the weirder the locals seem to be. They cross themselves frequently, and urge the Englishman to turn back before it's too late. Even the driver who takes Harker to meet the Count's coachman tries to convince the young man not to continue on to the castle. He has a young fiancé to think of, after all. But Harker presses on, and ultimately he reaches the castle and meets the mysterious Count Dracula, a creepy old man with long nails and curious habits. Harker doesn't seem to be in any immediate danger, but he can't help but notice that he's essentially trapped in the castle, unable to move freely or leave the grounds, and the more time he spends with the Count, the more convinced he becomes that the man is no man at all. But will he be able to escape and make his way back to England, or shall he spend the rest of his life—and perhaps even longer—wandering the terrifying Castle Dracula?
You'll Love It
If you read this book alone, at night, in the dark, with little more than a dim bedside lamp or small book light shining on the pages, it will spook the bejesus out of you. Dracula has remained popular for over 100 years because it is a masterful example of how suspenseful a book can be. The tone, pacing, and storytelling are all tailored solely to scare you. The characters are rich and robust, and their descriptions are particularly vivid. We've got nobles, immortals, local peasants, drunken sailors, lunatics, she-devils, and lawyers all thrown together in one diabolical blood stew. Stoker is also excellent at choosing just the right word for a scene. This is Britain in the late 1800s, remember, the Victorian era, when everything was either tea and biscuits or beer and bollocks. There's no in-between here. And most strikingly, in addition to being the most influential and important vampire novel ever, in addition to being a stunning work of horror, an early psychological thriller, Dracula is also at its heart a gothic romance. A dark stranger swoops in to steal away young virgins, and the girls' friends and fiancés can only look on in terror. Every page seems to speak presciently towards women's issues that would crop up in the early 20th century (and sadly still aren't fully resolved to this day). There's enough here to spark several volumes of discourse on rape, romance, slut-shaming, a woman's role in the home, seduction, and every other issue where a misogynist idiot might claim that there are blurred lines. And speaking of "blurred lines," Dracula can turn into a foggy mist! Symbolism!
You'll Loathe It
If you read this book at the beach, at the park, on your lunch break, on a crowded commuter train, or basically at any point during the day, it will bore the bejesus out of you. Just because I was young and naive the first time I failed to finish Dracula doesn't mean that I was stupid to put it down when I did. The book is slow. SOOOOO SLOOOOOOW. It's an epistolary novel—did I forget to mention that? Sorry—so it's all diary entries and newspaper articles and letters to other characters, which means two things: 1) it is expository as all get out; and 2) EVERYTHING IS REPEATED A MILLION TIMES. First Jonathan Harker makes an observation, then we have to read what Mina, his lady friend, thinks about the situation, then their pal Dr. Seward has to throw his two cents in, then their mentor Professor Van Helsing has to clear everything up for us* (*Read: make things as confusing as possible by restating what we already know, but in broken Dutch/German/whatever). For a novel that's around 400 pages, that seemingly has so much going on all the time, not much actually happens. You'll read about the events of one afternoon, an afternoon where characters talk about stuff that already happened, for pages and pages and pages. At one point the whole thing gets super meta and they actually talk about the pages, about how they've compiled all of their separate diaries and letters together, and then they never shut up about it. It's abysmal. And the telegraphing, oy the telegraphing. I've never read such a horribly predictable book in my life. "What do you think about not involving Female Character so that she doesn't get hurt?" "Let's not involve Female Character, or else she'll get hurt." "I think we're all in agreement that we should not involve Female Character so that she doesn't get hurt." "Thank heavens we have all decided not to involve Female Character, or else she may have gotten hurt." "WAIT WHAT OH MY GOD WHILE WE WERE OUT DOING SOMETHING TOTALLY BORING THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN COMPLETELY SAFE FOR ANYONE WE LEFT FEMALE CHARACTER ALONE AND SHE GOT HURT OH NO WHO COULD HAVE POSSIBLY SEEN THAT COMING?!?!?" Barf.
Read It Or Leave It
"So wait, is it good? Is it not good? I can't tell, Brian." Yeah, well, that's kinda how it works. The Things That Happen, the Actual Events of the book are extremely interesting, which is why they've spawned so much imitation in all types of art and media over the last century or so. And the tone is spot on. But it's slow and repetitive and very frequently quite boring, even though it's so precisely gothic. If you've read Frankenstein, the other spooktacular classic of the 1800s, then...well, no, that doesn't actually help, because the two are very, very different. Franky is all psychological and moral, really contemplative stuff, but Dracula deals more directly with very physical fears, many of which you might encounter in your everyday life: bats, rats, abandoned structures, being buried alive, blood loss, rape, infidelity, the death of a loved one, wolves/rabid dogs, traveling to strange/dangerous regions, having a creepy old guy touch your face. The whole thing is tinged with a bit of insanity, but for the most part it's all disturbingly real. Even the spiritual aspects have very tangible representations like crucifixes and communion wafers. "Time out: if they're in London, then they're using Church of England communion wafers. Do those work just as well as the Catholic or Lutheran communion wafers used elsewhere in Europe?" Huh, good question...
Okay, that didn't actually help much. I'll put it this way: if you're looking for an old-timey horror novel, actively seeking something spooky and Victorian to read with a flashlight beneath the covers, then yes, absolutely, Dracula is the perfect vampire gothic romance whatever for the job. However, if you are ANYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD, back away slowly, stake and crucifix raised, wreath of garlic flowers around your neck, and be sure to chant bits of scripture as you go.
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