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Book notes: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Every second Counts
⛰ What It's About
In one sense, this needs no introduction: Dracula is a cliche so culturally broad that one might as well try to explain what bread is. But in another sense, the source novel for the Dracula mythos — plus the glut of vampire media that follows — is, I think, something that needs introducing, because adaptations are never faithful to the source material, which is also the case with another example of neo-Victorian Gothic, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror. Part of the reason for the adaptational licence is the mode of storytelling employed by both — they are epistolary novels (though different beasts at that), which makes straight adaptation difficult. The epistolary format is a mainstay of the early novel partly because it blurs the lines mimetically between truth and fiction. Indeed, the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was initially circulated as being authored not by Horace Walpole, but as a translation based on a manuscript written at Naples in 1529.
Unlike much of the early Gothic, and like Stevenson’s aforementioned novella, Dracula eschews medievalism for the present day. The horrors are not rooted in some semi-mythic past, but in the quick of the present. The trope of the invasive and pernicious foreign ‘other’, though, is still much intact, and though I’m relatively ignorant when it comes to the wider critical discourse around Dracula (hence one of the reasons I’ve just read it), I do know that the novel has been discussed widely in terms of the East invading the West. Indeed, one cannot help but wince a little at passages like these:
The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who are more barbarian than the rest, with their big cowboy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. (Location 621)
The novel falls, geographically speaking, into thirds — first, we follow Harker to Transylvania (the best part of the novel, apart from any bit with Renfield in it); then, we return to England for the erotically-framed demise of Lucy Westenra (giving those with a rather evangelical bent, such as Stephanie Meyer, much grist to their allegorical mill); finally, we follow the intrepid band of vampire hunters back to Transylvania for the final showdown.
In short: there’s a vampire, he’s really good at being a vampire, he comes to England, turns a nice lady into a vampire, causes problems, gets chased back to Transylvania and … well, you’ll have to read it.
(N.B. I will spoil the ending later in this post. If this annoys you, a) don’t keep reading and b) remember that the novel was published in 1897. Revealing the ending to Dracula is as much a spoiler as revealing that, actually, Jesus ends up just find after the crucifixion.)
🔍 Why I read it
It’s one of those classics I’d never read. I was supposed to read it at university as part of a 19th century module, but I didn’t because at the time I had not the patience for the big shambling things (there is, though, to this day, a sense that 19th century novels don’t always feel a great urge to get a bloody move on, though I am more patient nowadays). Having become increasingly attracted to the horror genre (in several media), I decided that now was the time to experience one of the formative texts of the genre.
I thought the epistolary format was going to annoy me, but it didn’t — well, not that much. Reading it purely as entertainment rather to analyse it in any particular manner, the format allows Stoker to play with perspective, limiting one’s view in the same way that the Kubrickian camera does in The Shining. I liked Seward’s entries in particular; there was a tenderness to his accounts about Renfield, who fascinated me more than any other character. I’d have loved more, actually, from this side of things; there’s the glint of Stoker exploring, as the Gothic can do so well, the liminal space between sanity and insanity:
You deal with the madmen. All men are mad in some way or the other; and inasmuch as you deal discreetly with your madmen, so deal with God’s madmen, too – the rest of the world. You tell not your madmen what you do nor why you do it; you tell them not what you think.
Instead, Stoker seems to want to spend a good deal of the novel moralising in rather aesthetic terms:
She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there; the pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth – which it made one shudder to see – the whole carnal and unspiritual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.
How do you know if someone’s bad? Well, they look it. Moreover, when women go bad, they go sexy. Lucy isn’t sexy until she’s a vampire; once she’s a vampire, she’s too sexy to live and it’s up to the men to gallantly saw her head off and stuff it with garlic, presumably all the while chastely hiding their semis. The brides of Dracula are pretty sexy, too, but sexy is bad, so Dracula tells them off and Harker runs away from them.
Mina Harker (née Murray) isn’t sexy; she’s sensible. Van Helsing, purveyor of incredibly annoying dialogue, calls her ‘that dear sweet Madam Mina’ because that’s what she is — a good, wholesome English muffin, wholegrain, with just enough fibre to keep you regular. She’s smarter than the men, but she isn’t allowed to do any of the cool stuff with them because she’s a lady, so she spends a lot of time being a glorified secretary, until Dracula tries to make her sexy, too. But she’s so sensible that she doesn’t become sexy, just tired, until Van Helsing realises that he can hypnotise her and use her to play that game with two tin cans and string, but with added vampires. Even here she’s pretty neutered. It’s a shame, because she seems really nice. You’d have to be to marry Jonathan, a man so rigidly sensible he makes Keir Starmer look like G G Allin.
If this all seems critical, it both is and isn’t. What this emphatically isn’t is a critical analysis, or an evaluation of Dracula’s place within the ‘canon’, &c. It’s just some observations about a book I mostly read before going to sleep. Did I enjoy it? Yes, mostly — though Stoker doesn’t write women or foreigners that well. There’s not a whole lot of Dracula in it — but that works, because horror’s always best when you’re imagining the monster, and it’s especially good when D is a bat, twatting himself against Lucy’s window in Whitby. The ending is anticlimatic though; Dracula is defeated without even being conscious, which doesn’t seem very fair. From the buttoned-up Victorian perspective, I imagine it’s better to to be safe than sorry: you wouldn’t want him make any more women sexy. The very idea.