AWESOME-tober-fest 2011: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Day 4 of Vampire book week. Today, we look at the original vampire novel. The one that began the popularization of the vampire myths. Let’s take a look at Bram Stoker’s original Dracula.
I really enjoy doing AWESOME-tober-fest. It has given me a reason to read and watch books and movies I’ve always wanted to but never really “sucked it up” and made the commitment to do. Two years ago I read Shelley’s Frankenstein and I was surprised at how readable it was. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And based on that success, I was anxious to read Stoker’s Dracula.
Now, to be fair, I tried to read Dracula once already. It was back in the late ’90s when I was going through my “must read classics” phase. I couldn’t get through it. I remember thinking the first third of the book was good, but it completely fell apart after that. However, being older and wiser, I thought I could better appreciate it now. Besides, while not the first vampire novel, it certainly is what made them popular. Plus it influenced the original Universal Dracula with Bela Lugosi which would further the ingraining of vampires into popular culture.
Like I said, Stoker’s 1897 book was not the first vampire story. An essay published in the periodical Ninteenth Century in 1885 called Transylvania Superstitions discussed the mythical creatures. Lord Byron created a vampire story during the same night of ghost story telling that Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Byron wouldn’t finish the story but John Polidori would polish it up and finish it as The Vampyre in 1819. However it was Stoker’s Dracula that popularized the monster. But it wouldn’t be until Universal’s 1931 movie based loosely (and I mean loosely) on the novel that Dracula would receive the popularity it currently achieves.
So, I dug in and started reading Bram Stoker’s “masterpiece” for the second time. Did I like it? In a word…no. In a few more words…hell f**king no f**k you Stoker your book is f**king terrible. I think you get the idea. I didn’t like it. There are lots of problems with the book, but the main problem stems from its structure. It’s written as a series of journal entries and letters. All from different characters in the book and it hops around from voice to voice. This style really makes it tough to follow what’s going on.
The book starts off pretty good. Jonathan Harker arrives at Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help Count Dracula finish up some paperwork pertaining to an estate that he purchased back in England. Dracula plans to move from his current castle to England. We get several chapters of Harker’s journal entries describing the Count, the castle and his slow realization that he’s trapped and will never get out. It actually works pretty well. Harker searches the castle, discovers Dracula’s brides and finds Dracula’s hidden crypt all while going crazy worrying about when the Count is going to kill him. Harker barely escapes the castle with his life.
Next we get the ship, The Demeter, crashing completely empty onto English shores. From here we get a revolving door of journal entries from Harker’s finace Mina, a psych doctor Arthur Holmwood and various newspaper articles. The language is very old fashioned, it’s extremely hard to follow the action and the constant changing of the narrator view point really gives me a headache. And the old fashioned language doesn’t help either. After about chapter 14, it really becomes tough to finish the book and I even bought the Cliff Notes to help.
There are some good parts. Abraham Van Helsing is a great character. The so called “expert” on supernatural things. He is interesting because he does all of this wacky stuff without telling anyone what is going on. He forces Mina’s friend Lucy’s mother to hang hundreds of bundles of garlic all over Lucy’s room but refuses to explain why. And he’s still surprised when Lucy’s mother removes all the garlic thinking the smell is making Lucy sick. When Lucy finally dies (SPOILER!) and gets buried, Van Helsing says they must unearth the body, cut off the head and stuff the mouth full of garlic. That’s a tall order, especially back in the late 1800s. Yet, he keeps begging everyone to trust him implicitly. Damn, Abraham, just tell everyone what is going on. They brought you in for a reason. Van Helsing’s suspect handling of the entire “vampire” situation is called onto the carpet and explored in tomorrow’s book, which is a direct sequel to this book.
Anyway, so, no, I can’t recommend Dracula as a read. I understand it’s significance in pop culture but I just don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s too punishing an experience to slog through. Reading it is like surviving a prison rape. You have to bite down and power through it. And there are really no rewards gained by doing the reading, except being able to say you read it. I suggest just watching the Bela Lugosi movie because that has done more to shape the image of Dracula and vampires in popular culture than Stoker’s book ever has.
It’s interesting, though, to look at Dracula as Stoker envisioned him. He is tall and thin with a mustache. He can transform into mist, a wolf or a bat. He also has limited psychic control over his victims. Plus, it normally takes several feedings for Dracula’s victims to become a vampire themselves. And most interestingly, Dracula isn’t harmed by sunlight. He can walk around like Blade during the day, however, he loses all of his supernatural powers when he does so. Van Helsing says in the book that the most sure way to kill vampires is a wooden stake in the heart, cut off the head, stuff the mouth with garlic and then separate the two. Gruesome, yet awesome at the same time.
So, did Stoker ever write any more Dracula books? Well, technically, no. However, two years after his death, Stoker’s widow published a collection of his short stories, one of which was the previously unpublished Dracula’s Guest. It is widely believed by scholars that this short story was actually the originally planned first chapter for Stoker’s Dracula. However, the short story itself doesn’t have any mention of Dracula and the narrator is presumed to be Jonathan Harker but it’s never explicitly stated as such. I’m guessing this chunk of story was cut from the book for a reason and they probably should have just left it that way. This story, like Dracula, is also not very easy to read.
Also, check out the blog Countdown to Halloween for more Halloween-y, bloggy AWESOMEness.