Dracula by Bram Stoker [A Review]

In over a century since Dracula was published, vampires have never left popular culture. Instead, they are being forever reimagined in new forms and contexts. Dracula is still being read and enjoyed as the source for the fascination but unaccustomed readers may be surprised by what the original contains.

Cover image of Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, has been dispatched to central Europe on the mundane task of procuring a new London residence for a reclusive aristocrat. Young and eager for new experiences, Harker takes in the culture, food, dress, landscape and ethnicities of Buda-Pesth, so very different from his home. He puts down the strange behaviour of the locals, especially when he tells them where he is going, to some local eccentricities and superstitions. One old lady even gives him a crucifix for his protection.

He and his wife, the old lady who had received me, looked at each other in a frightened sort of way. He mumbled out that the money had been sent in a letter, and that was all he knew. When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further. It was so near the time of starting that I had no time to ask anyone else, for it was all very mysterious and not by any means comforting.

Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a very hysterical way.

‘Must you go? Oh! young Herr, must you go?’

Though, as he gets closer to his destination, he can’t help but notice the disquieting environment. Thick dark forests full of howling wolves and strange blue lights. The coachman who meets him has demonic red eyes, sharp teeth and drives a team of powerful black horses. His ultimate destination is a large but crumbling castle set atop steep cliffs on three sides.

All at once the wolves began to howl as though the moonlight had had some peculiar effect on them. The horses jumped about and reared, and looked helplessly round with eyes that rolled in a painful way to see; but the living ring of terror encompassed them on every side, and they had perforce to remain within it. I had called to the coachman to come, for it seemed to me that our only chance was to try to break out through the ring and to aid his approach. I shouted and beat the side of the calèche, hoping by the noise to scare the wolves from that side, so as to give him a chance of reaching the trap. How he came there, I know not, but I heard his voice raised in a tone of imperious command, and looking towards the sound, saw him standing in the roadway. As he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still. Just then a heavy cloud passed across the face of the moon, so that we were again in darkness.

When I could see again the driver was climbing into the calèche, and the wolves had disappeared. This was all so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came upon me, and I was afraid to speak or move. The time seemed interminable as we swept on our way, now in almost complete darkness, for the rolling clouds obscured the moon. We kept on ascending, with occasional periods of quick descent, but in the main always ascending. Suddenly I became conscious of the fact that the driver was in the act of pulling up the horses in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from who’s tall black windows came no ray of light, and who’s broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.

Harker’s host is the old but surprisingly strong Count Dracula. His comfort has been well-considered by the Count who has provided him a room and timely meals, though he himself keeps strange hours and never seems to eat. Dracula converses eagerly with Harker about his learning of the English language, culture and history and his great desire to emigrate. Harker answers Dracula’s many questions and describes the mansion he has procured for Dracula.

But Harker is also becoming disturbed by what he notices about the castle and of Dracula. One morning Dracula startles Harker while he is shaving. Harker never saw Dracula approach; he has no reflection in his mirror. Dracula in turn is startled by the sight of Harker’s blood. For a moment, Harker says, Dracula’s face turned demonic until calmed once he saw the crucifix around Harker’s neck. It is not long after this incident that Harker realises he is trapped in the castle and Dracula has no intention of allowing him to leave.

Meanwhile in England, Harker’s fiancé, Miss Mina Murray, a schoolmistress, has been keeping herself busy learning shorthand and typewriting so that she might be useful to her future husband. Mina receives a letter from her best friend, Lucy Westenra, telling the extraordinary story of how she received three proposals for marriage in one day. The first, from Dr Seward she turned down. The second, from Mr Morris, an American gentleman, she also declined. The third, from Arthur Holmwood, son and heir of Lord Godalming, she accepts.

Disappointed with his rejection, Dr Seward, an administrator of a lunatic asylum, plunges himself into his work. In particular, he is interested in the case of his patient Renfield – a homicidal maniac whose behaviour Seward is carefully observing and recording.

Mina and Lucy take a trip together to Whitby. It is during their stay there that the Demeter, a Russian ship, miraculously sails into the harbour despite being unmanned. The crew are all missing, presumed dead. The captain too is dead, having tied himself to the helm clutching a crucifix. Not long after, Lucy begins sleepwalking. Strange symptoms begin to manifest as Lucy’s condition worsens. Fortunately, she has people who care deeply for her to look after her. One of them is Dr Seward, whose patient Renfield has begun talking about the imminent arrival of his Master.

Thanks to Stoker’s novel, Dracula has become one of the most iconic characters in all popular culture. An archetype of the vampire, the character has been recreated and reimagined countless times in novels of every genre as well as for television, children’s tv, films, and breakfast cereal.

By some counts (pun unintended!) there are more than 200 Dracula films from Nosferatu (1922), one of the great successes of the silent era, to the first of several performances as Dracula by Christopher Lee in The Horror of Dracula (1958) and Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Even as I was writing this review I came across the new trailer for Renfield starring Nicholas Cage as Dracula.

New readers to Dracula might be surprised by a few things. The first is its format. Dracula is composed entirely in the first person via journals, diaries, letters and other recordings made by the main characters and without an omniscient third-person narrator. When the novel opens, with the reader reading from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, you may think that is appropriate enough for that part of the novel but surely unsustainable for the rest. But, cleverly enough, Stoker does sustain it for the whole. This fragmentary style may reflect the way the novel was written – in stolen moments between the jobs and tasks of Stoker’s days.

This style has its merits. For example, reading Harker’s journal makes for a great opening to the novel; making the reader feel they are immediately plunged into a great adventure, sharing the experience with Harker. It generates mystery as, naturally, Harker does not explain what is obvious to himself but unknown to the reader in his own journal. And, as his adventure turns from engaging to troubling to horrific, the reader feels intimate with Harker’s peril.

The second aspect that may surprise new readers is how far removed the Dracula of the novel is from the lascivious lounge lizard we might imagine from pop culture. The Dracula of the novel is far more a Victorian era gentleman vampire, albeit an Eastern European one, who transforms from an eccentric, isolated, old man to a powerful, virile, adversary by the end.

The deviation of the cultural imagination of the Dracula character from the novel can perhaps be explained by how the novel has been interpreted since it was first published. Dracula is one of those novels that has been thoroughly psychoanalysed. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was published just two years after Dracula and psychological theory and Dracula have matured together. In particular, readers have perceived a repressed sexuality in the novel and interpret the novel as being chiefly about unspoken desire. This theory also dominates Maurice Hindle’s Introduction to this Penguin Classics edition.

Though Dracula’s victims are not exclusively female – there is the disappearance of the crew of the Demeter to consider – the ones we are closest to in the novel are. Does the fact that Lucy has several men in her life who care for her, yet they are unable to protect her, speak to a fear of impotence? Is Dracula’s power over the women a sign of his irresistible masculinity? Is the fear of the men that Dracula may turn on them a case of literal homophobia? There is so much in the novel that suggests a theme of the potency of desire yet it is clouded by ambiguity.

Hindle examines these questions from the novel alongside details from Stoker’s life and shares evidence that Stoker was troubled by sex. In particular, Hindle covers Stoker’s relationship with his employer – the actor Henry Irving. Stoker was a great admirer or Irving, worked as his manager and, some have argued, based the character of Dracula somewhat on Irving (there is an ‘Easter Egg’ reference to this part of Stoker’s life in the Coppola film). Stoker himself, though, seems to have been a typically modest and conservative man of the late nineteenth century. So, is the sexual content that so many have understood the novel to contain being expressed unconsciously by the author? Is the lack of a narrator another sign of the fear of Stoker expressing himself explicitly?

Given the period the novel was written in, it should not surprise readers that it contains instances of sexism of the chivalrous kind. Even though it is a woman, Mina, who is arguably the hero of the novel, the men feel they should prevent her from taking too active a part for her own safety. But it is difficult for the modern reader to read any malicious intent from this. If anything, it feels a little comic given the potential interpretation of these men as insecure in their masculinity in the face of Dracula.

‘Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us; after tonight she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined – nay, are we not pledged? – to destroy this monster; but it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer – both in waking, from her nerves, and then sleep, from her dreams. And, besides, she is young woman and not so long married; there may be other things to think of sometime, if not now.’

For this reason the novel has been reinterpreted further in recent decades – for what it has to say about gender roles, empowerment of women and a xenophobic fear of outsiders and invasion.

It could be argued that a fault in the plot of Dracula is that it rests heavily on two coincidences. The first is that Jonathan Harker happens to be separated from Dracula’s first victim in England, Lucy, by just two degrees as she is Jonathan’s fiancé’s best friend. The second is that the asylum where Dr Seward, who is also known to Lucy, works, and where Dracula’s loyal subject, Renfield, is being held, is nearby the mansion Harker has procured for Dracula. That being said, Dracula has evaded defeat for so long, it probably required such good fortune to create an opportunity to corner him. Dracula is the one character whose point of view we don’t get in the novel and, therefore, the question of his motivations are not elucidated to satisfaction.

It is probably for these reasons that film versions of Dracula deviate from the plot of the novel, sometimes significantly. Even Coppola’s film contains considerable additional material to give Dracula motive, despite the film being called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Coppola also takes a heavy hand with the suggested sexual themes of the novel.

Dracula was not an overwhelming success when first published. Stoker certainly could not live off its earnings. Yet, it is now considered a ‘classic’. Partly this is due to how it has been reinterpreted, adapted into repeated big screen success and absorbed by the culture. Being enjoyed by new generations of readers over time is probably the surest definition of what makes a ‘classic’. I think if Stoker had been a modern author he would have certainly attempted a sequel. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, known only to the few characters, without physical evidence or assurance of resolution and can be easily forgotten by them as a bad episode. It leaves the possibility open and Dracula has inspired others to reimagine the character and the tale, most notably Stephen King with ‘Salems Lot and Elizabeth Kostova with The Historian.

Dracula, as an example of horror or gothic fiction, cannot be said to be a pioneer of those genres being first published in 1897. Nor can it be said to be ground-breaking as early science fiction. Frankenstein – a novel to which Dracula is frequently compared – was as early as 1818. Yet, Dracula contains several elements, relevant to the plot, which were cutting-edge at the time – the telegram, the typewriter, shorthand, the phonograph, blood transfusions and the understanding of hypnosis as a real phenomenon. Other ‘classic’s published around this time include the works of HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. Science fiction, altered mental states and the looming threat of great evil were popular motifs of the time.

Dracula therefore inhabits a moment of transition. It emerged just before horror and science fiction would become distinct genres of their own, popularised in the hands of pulp fiction and modernist writers and filmmakers. But it is also near enough to our time to be readable, familiar and not escape the same trend towards popularity.

This was not my first time reading Dracula. It is a book I marked as worthy of one day revisiting. And it was. It is great story, well told, full of horror, suspense and memorable characters. Especially, the enigmatic, eccentric Professor Van Helsing who has enjoyed his own pop-culture following. It is a book that will surprise new readers with its readability, it enjoyability and how much it will challenge your preconceptions.

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