Thursday, 16 August 2012

'Dracula' by Bram Stoker (1897)

Synopsis: the young solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent by his employer to a remote castle in Transylvania, in order to arrange a London house sale for its inhabitant Count Dracula. On his way to the castle, Harker is unsettled by the region's foreboding landscape and the cryptic and mysterious warnings that he keeps receiving from the Transylvanian natives. When Harker eventually does arrive at Dracula's castle he's initially charmed by the gracious manners of his host and his mind is put to rest. But as the days go by, Harker becomes uneasy all over again because of Dracula's odd behaviour. He then realises that he's being effectively kept prisoner at the castle. As he witnesses increasingly horrific events there, Harker begins to suspect that Dracula may not even be human at all. He barely escapes from the castle with his life. The action then shifts to England, with Harker's
fiancĂ©e Mina becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of communication from Harker. Mina is also worried about her best friend Lucy's mysterious illness. She and her friends try to help Lucy and are assisted by the mysterious Dutch professor Abraham Van Helsing.

Despite what some people believe Dracula wasn't actually the first vampire novel ever to be written. In 1819 John Polidori wrote a vampire novel called, erm, The Vampyre. Polidori was a friend and personal physician to Lord Byron and the vampire of the book, Lord Ruthven, is believed by many to have been directly inspired by Byron. Then in 1872 Sheridan Le Fanu - Bram Stoker's friend and fellow Irishman - wrote the lesbian vampire novel Carmilla. Stoker's book Dracula didn't come along until 1897. However, Dracula is by quite some distance the most famous and influential out of all of the vampire books that came before and after it. It's one of the most adapted and parodied books of all time. The most famous adaptations are probably the silent film Nosferatu, the Universal and Hammer Horror movies, and the Francis Ford Coppola film. Dracula is the book that laid down the vampire rules. Wooden stakes through the heart, the fear of crosses, the inability to be seen in mirrors, sleeping in coffins, the term "The Un-Dead"... they all come from Stoker's novel. Every single vampire novel and screen version that has come along since owes this book some kind of debt. Having said that, as influential as this book is I think it might still come as quite a shock to some people. Like Van Helsing's character for example... although Hugh Jackman played the character in that disastrous Van Helsing film, he's not attractive or sexy. He's an old man! Also, because of the recent vampire romance novel trend, vampires are often depicted as being sexy, brooding creatures. When they kill someone they feel bad about it. But that's not true of Stoker's novel. Vampires are truly evil monsters in this book and there's nothing particularly sexy about Dracula's character. Another thing that might surprise many is that sunlight isn't fatal to vampires in this book. Sure they're nocturnal but it's never once mentioned that a vampire will explode into a pile of dust if he steps out into the sunlight.

This is actually quite a difficult book for me to review. I first read this book in my last year at Uni for a Gothic Literature class that I was taking. I remembered liking the book so I decided to re-read it fairly recently. However, when I did I realised that this book wasn't as good as I remembered. I guess this is a good argument for re-reading books (or maybe not?) Dracula is a book that has some fairly major flaws. Apart from a few cool moments the second half of the book is actually really boring and... lame. The pacing really drags in the middle section of the book and it's mostly very slow and tedious. The characters don't do anything apart from reading each other's diaries, and weeping over Lucy's death and the horror of it all. This gets old very quickly! It took me weeks to get through this section because I kept getting bored and could only read 5-10 pages at a time. Funnily enough, the closing section of this book suffers because it goes to the other extreme and is too fast-paced and rushed. Considering how powerful Dracula is supposed to be, the protagonists were able to defeat him so easily in the end that it was ridiculous! It was a huge anti-climax! Also, I did get a bit fed up of the male characters going on and on about how wonderful Lucy and Mina are throughout the book. The book has a big bee in its bonnet about the "New Woman" that was emerging in Victorian society, and the male characters' constant referring to the traditional virtues and purity of Mina and Lucy's characters was something that got really annoying after a while.

It's a real shame really because when this book is good it is so, so, so good! Dracula is a well-written book on the whole and Dracula himself is a fascinating character. Even though you never actually learn all that much about him he's still a very interesting character and you can see why he's one of the most iconic and memorable villains ever created. The story is definitely at its best whenever Dracula himself is around - whether he's directly on the page interacting with the other characters or just when the characters are picking up on when his evil presence is lurking around. The book just comes alive whenever Dracula shows up. The menace just drips through the pages. The opening section of the book, when Jonathan Harker is writing his diary entries in Dracula's castle, is actually quite incredible. Stoker creates such an atmosphere of doom and dread and it's all very creepy and mysterious and suspenseful. It's genuinely chilling and eerie... just fantastic stuff. This opening section was the best part of the book for me but there are other great sections as well. The diary entries from the ship's captain which explains how Dracula made his way over to England and what he did to the crew, the cemetery scene with Mina and Lucy, some of Mina and Lucy's dreams, the early chapters with Dr Seward observing his patient Renfield, the scene where the protagonists go exploring in Carfax Abbey, the scene where the male characters discover Dracula in Mina's bedroom.... all of these scenes were really thrilling and fun to read. And if there'd been more scenes like this, more scenes where we had Dracula lurking around and interacting with the other characters then this book would have been absolutely brilliant. The book loses its power when his character isn't around. As it is, the basic plot of the book is brilliant and certain sections of the book are brilliant. But I don't think the book is brilliant on the whole.

For all of the flaws in its second half, the seriously cool stuff in the first half of the book and the occasional flashes of cool stuff in the second half make Dracula definitely worth a read. It's still a much better Gothic-horror classic than Frankenstein. If you're only going to read one vampire novel in your life then it should probably be Dracula although I personally much prefer the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

Rating: 3.5/5

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