Dracula

Dracula!

This is a review of Dracula, by Bram Stoker. First things first: by today’s standards, this is not a scary book. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means it’s written in the form of letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries. Do you find reading letters frightening? I don’t know if the Victorians found this book to be scary. I think it more likely they found it shocking or even titillating. 

Nowadays Dracula is an indelible part of pop culture, bad movies and breakfast cereals and all. The original novel is valuable both as a historical and cultural document, giving us insight into the Victorian thought process. A friend of mine insists that Dracula illustrates how xenophobic the English were, terrified of foreigners stealing their women.  It’s an interesting argument, but Bram Stoker was Irish and not English, so I’m not sure I buy it.

Who cares about all that shit, how’s the book? Is it worth reading? Well…I don’t think Dracula is very good. I recently reread the novel, and it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, which a) doesn’t mean much, and b) doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book. I don’t finish most of the books I start, yet I’ve read Dracula four or five times. Take that for what it’s worth.

The plot: Jonathan Harker, realtor wannabe, travels to Transylvania to meet his boss’ newest client. Harker writes about train times and spicy paprika chicken in his diary. Thrilling stuff. The book perks up during Harker’s carriage ride to Castle Dracula, which involves sinister blue lights, wolves, and a mysterious coachmen. Upon reaching his destination, Harker is greeted by Dracula himself, who is getting ready to invade – er, I mean relocate to England. 

Technically, Dracula is a Voivode rather than a Count, but whatever. Harker soon has other things to worry about, like survival. Staying alive isn’t easy in Castle Dracula. Dracula enters and leaves by scaling the walls like a lizard. He has three ravenous wives, who want to drink his blood. Even worse, they’re voluptuous. And there’s always the hungry wolves, lurking outside.

One of the more interesting things about this book is the fact that Dracula doesn’t kill Harker. He leaves him alive in his castle while he travels to London. True, Dracula’s wives will finish Harker off, but there’s always the risk that he will get away and spill the beans. Which is what happens. Why not make sure? While never overtly stated, I believe it’s because Harker is Dracula’s guest, and killing him would violate the rules of hospitality. Dracula is a supernatural entity, and thus must abide by a number of rules. Leaving Harker alive means Dracula is following the letter of the law.

Dracula charters a boat to transport him and his fifty earth-filled coffins filled to England. He kills everyone on the ship, which sails into Whitby with the dead captain tied to the wheel. It is never revealed why the Count chose Whitby. Why not London or Liverpool? Anyway, Dracula wastes no time seducing Lucy Westenra. Lucy’s best friend, Mina, is Jonathan Harker’s fiancĂ©e. Coincidence? Part of the Count’s evil plan? Bad plotting?

Whatever the reason, soon poor Lucy is in her grave. This despite the efforts of her three suitors, Dr. Jack Seward, Lord Arthur Godalming, and Quincey Morris, who hails from the great country of Texas. Further reinforcements arrive when Dr. Seward consults his old tutor, Abraham Van Helsing, about Lucy’s bizarre anemia. Van Helsing doesn’t have a great command of the English language, and his solutions involve crosses and garlic flowers. Instead of confining Van Helsing in his sanitorium, Dr. Seward and company agree to a number of blood transfusions. Since people didn’t know about different blood types back then, it’s possible those transfusions helped kill Lucy.

Lucy rises from the grave, begins preying on children, and is dubbed the Bloofer Lady by the press. The sequences with her are the creepiest parts of the book. Somehow Van Helsing convinces the others to pound a stake through Lucy’s heart and then chop off her head. Meanwhile, a weakened Harker makes it back to England, only to lose it when he sees the Count strolling through London. One thing leads to the other, and the Harkers are united with Van Helsing & his crew.

Blah blah blah that’s a lot of plot, and I haven’t even mentioned Renfield the Fly Eating Lunatic. Is the book any good? Yes, and no. The plot is the weakest part of this novel. Dracula’s plan to conquer England is so bad that Stoker dedicates a half-chapter to Van Helsing talking about Dracula’s child-brain. Exhibit A: Dracula has spent several months in England and only made one vampire. Van Helsing and company find forty nine of his fifty earth-filled coffins in a single day. These are not the actions of a master tactician.

The book’s characters fare better. The standout humans are Van Helsing and Renfield the Fly Eating Lunatic, both of whom are crazy. And then we have Dracula. We never get to understand what makes him tick, which is part of what makes him interesting. His entrance to England, floating into harbor in a corpse ship, are the actions of a Voivode. His exit, wherein he scrambles for pocket change and spends weeks hiding in a boat, are the actions of a scared man. The apparent contradiction is never explained. Perhaps he’s acting according to an unstated set of rules that are never explained to us?

Parts of this book reek of a bizarre sickly sweet sentimentality, but much of Dracula was quite shocking to the Victorians. The novel brushes against sexual mores and taboos (A WOMAN’S BOUDOIR, INVADED!), and I think that’s what shocked people. In the end, Dracula dies and we have a happy ending, but sometimes it seems like we’ve brushed up against something we don’t quite understand, and I don’t know what it is, and maybe that’s why I keep coming back to this book.