When I read the first Chapter of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein today (which was a delightful experience filled with melody and profound thought) it occurred to me, yet again, that I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula earlier this summer and never wrote about it. Sigh. Such negligence seems remiss for a horror blogger, I told myself. This is especially true because I don’t write about many classic horror novels. As a self-professed lover of literature (or, a so-called lit nerd), many of the novels I commit myself to aren’t horror novels (because one must engage in some soul-warming optimism to counter the darkness), so I focus on scary short-stories (and of course, movies) for this blog. And to me, there is much merit in this approach; it is, after all, easier to critique – or analyze, or review – a short story than it is to do the same with a thick, 300-some page novel. (As such, I have immense respect for book bloggers who manage to eloquently sum up hefty volumes in elegant, relatively concise blog posts.) But because I don’t read many horror novels, when I finish a classic novel in the horror pantheon, I have to carpe diem and write about it. So I’ve decided to write about my experience reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and compare it to some cinematic adaptations spawned by the work.
To be honest, one reason I shied away from writing about Dracula is because it didn’t stand out as a remarkable work to me. I know – what is wrong with me? But, so it goes. As I begin reading Frankenstein, I’m already overcome by Shelley’s lyrical prose and insight. I haven’t read Frankenstein in years, and I didn’t appreciate its beauty during my first reading. But one Author’s Note, one Preface, and one Chapter into her work, and I’m enchanted. Stoker is, conversely, an excellent writer, and at times he manages to integrate beauty and horror together like Shelley does (when, for example, describing the town that Lucy and Mina stay in alongside the eerie graveyard and Lucy’s assiduous transformation into a vampire), but his work doesn’t contain the same wisdom and lyricism. Undeniably, it is a very good work of literature, and horror worth consuming, but it is not exceptional. And still, to evaluate two works via comparison is always inherently unfair to one work, although I suppose the process is natural. Which is why it seems apt to take Dracula independently and work through it.
To begin, I enjoyed reading Jonathan Harker’s journal. I was not necessarily riveted, but intrigued, by the account of his stay in Dracula’s castle. Reading the classic re-telling of this myth after watching three movies about it (the Bram Stoker’s Dracula made in 1992, the 1930’s telling which I write about here, and the 1922 Nosferatu which I write about here) was a simultaneously counterintuitive and helpful experience. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 cinematic depiction of the book, which bears Bram Stoker’s name, is the Dracula film that represents the book most closely. Thus, as I read about Harker’s sojourn to the castle of Count Dracula, his captivity, and his narrow escape, I had a handy framework for the story at my disposal, but also a pre-conceived image of the events. I pictured the pallid, aged, sinister Dracula of Coppola’s movie, with his white skin and long, snow-white braid (along with an awkward, uncomfortably alert bouffant), and when I pictured Jon Harker I saw none other than the face of a young Keanu Reeves, who plays him in the movie. Still, there are classic, bone-chilling moments in this section of the book that aren’t depicted in Coppola’s film, like when Harker sees the Count crawling up the side of a building. One can just picture the semi-emaciated old man slinking over the castle wall like a lizard – a purposeful, hunting lizard at that. To me, it was an interesting decision on Stoker’s part that he devoted such a small percentage of the book’s bulk to this story arc, which I found the most interesting. That said, it seems a bit hubristic to critique the organizational structure of a renowned author’s work when I can’t even spit out a complete fiction short story.
The rest of the text was only satisfactory for me. Now I have to be careful here, because it’s precarious to evaluate a text without considering its historical context. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was written in 1897, around the tail end of the Victorian Era, a notoriously socially conservative Era where men were seen as valiant and brave and women were meant to be weak, helpless “angels in the house,” who mesmerized everyone with their lovely presences and actually did very little. In this context, Jonathan Harker’s wife, Mina, who is a fabulously independent, intelligent, action-oriented character, is an incredibly progressive depiction of so-called womanhood for Stoker’s time. After Harker’s escape from the castle and Lucy’s death, Mina (who is Lucy’s best friend) essentially joins a group of intrepid men who seek to kill Dracula, and she plays a pivotal role in propelling their efforts. But before this happens, Mina’s friend, Lucy, is bitten by Dracula and falls desperately ill. Three of Lucy’s suitors – one whom she’s chosen to marry – and Van Helsing, the brilliant doctor and group leader, rally around her, doing everything they can (albeit with ultimate futility) to save her.
As a product of its time, I think this section of the book would have satiated hungry readers who wanted a combination of high chivalry and romance, but I found it a bit boring and contrived from a 21st century perspective. The weak, helpless damsel in distress must be saved by a group of men who are wooing her for her charm and beauty, and her life depends on their strength and intelligence. I suppose, counter to Mina’s progressive depiction, it seemed like a stereotypical depiction of womanhood. I understand that these patterns are par for course in Victorian Era literature, but I think reading the progression of Lucy’s illness and the attempt of four men to save her – three of whom are admirers – became mundane to me after a while.
And still, elements of that story line are interesting. Stoker does an excellent job of vividly depicting the illness that sets in after one has been bitten by a vampire. In doing so, he takes vague, amorphous vampire lore and refines its details to create a vivid story. I was not really bored while reading Lucy’s story line, and was moving through the text at a reasonable pace. However, in my opinion, the book loses some intrigue as one reads. And here, after Lucy’s death, is where every Hollywood movie stops following Bram Stoker (the ones who haven’t stopped following already) and create a new ending, or at least significantly edit the ending to make it more movie-theater palatable.
Finally, Lucy’s three suitors, along with Van Helsing, Jon Harker, and his wife, Mina join together to defeat Dracula. They must, for Mina has been bitten now, and only defeating him soon will save her. Mina, one will note, is practically venerated by the men, and especially by Van Helsing, for her intellect more than her beauty, an element of the story that I particularly appreciated. Still, the rest of the plot consists of this group tracking the ship that Dracula’s coffin is on so they can be in the correct spot when the ship lands, open the coffin, and drive a stake through his heart. We read multiple missives about where the ship is, and we read Mina and Dr. Seward’s journals (Seward is one of Lucy’s suitors) about the process of following the ship and traveling to the port. Perhaps I’m not erudite enough, but I just found this chunk of the book tedious. In fact, it sat on a table for long periods of time, and I read this section slowly when I read it at all. I generally make reasonable progress getting through literary works (with pointed exceptions), but this one probably took me three weeks, because I found the ending so boring. Which is to say, no wonder why film directors from times past have taken such liberties with the story. Not only would it be boring to depict the process whereby the group actually defeats Dracula; it may, given the nature of the story, be virtually impossible.
I have also left important elements of the story out, namely Renfield, the inmate in Seward’s asylum who’s been enchanted by Dracula, eats insects, and worships his elusive lord. And of course, I didn’t completely spoil the ending, although one might assume the gist of what happens. There is a considerable chance that I could read this text in another 5 years and develop a greater appreciation of it. As it is, it’s a detailed incarnation of the vampire myth and a solid work of literature – but it doesn’t stand out, to me, as a thing of express beauty or ultimate achievement. However, as a lover of literature, someone who likes to read the so-called classics, and as a horror blogger, this was essential reading on my list, and definitely worth the time investment.