After reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - a modern day re-telling of the Dracula legend, I just had to follow it with the Bram Stoker original. It's been awhile since I read a classic piece of literature (back in January, I delved into Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami), and it wasn't until about 50 pages in that I was able to adjust to the 19th century vernacular. While it took me longer to finish (about a week), it was well worth the extra effort to become immersed in a Gothic masterpiece.
Before delving into the pages, my perception was tainted by the Dracula caricature distributed by Hollywood, most notably the immortal 1931 Bella Lugosi performance of a wild-eyed, cape-wearing villain lurking in the shadows. I didn't know much about Stoker's actual storyline, and I was surprised at how fleetingly the count appears in the novel. Even though his motivations dictate the majority of the action, Dracula plays more of a supporting role letting a host of other characters take the lead.
It's funny, but in both The Historian and this earlier rendition, Dracula comes across as cartoonish. For Stoker's 1897 audience, the limited development can be attributed to the fact that the subject of vampires was considered quite shocking for the time period. Yet as one of the main contributors to the horror genre canon, the writing style is nevertheless quaint and antiquated for 21st century sensibilities. Much of the dialogue comes across as affected with overly exaggerated emotion. It's like watching a silent movie filled with fluttering eyelashes and arched eyebrows with melodramatic lines such as, "On your living soul I charge you that you do not die - nay, nor think of death - till this great evil be past."
I was not steeped in vampire lore and only recognized the name Van Helsing from the 2004 movie starring Hugh Jackman. Needless to say, the vampire hunter of Stoker's creation is an elderly Dutch physician who speaks in stilted English and proceeds against his foe more through trial and error than any definitive knowledge. He employs the superstitions he encounters in his research to combat Dracula - garlic, a crucifix, even wafers of the Holy Eucharist. He comes across partly as a comedic figure who is bumbling through his investigation, but in the end through happenstance or luck ends up on the right track.
Interestingly, Dracula is written in letter/journal format much like the technique used in The Historian. The main characters each lend a hand to advance the narrative. Jonathan Harker, an English clerk, begins the tale as a prisoner in Dracula's Transylvanian castle. Mina Murray, his fiancee, begins to the see the connection between Jonathan's tale of captivity and her friend Lucy Westenra's strange behavior. Leading Lucy's three suitors to be drawn into the mix - her betrothed, Arthur Holmwood, a titled nobleman; Dr. Seward, the caretaker of an insane asylum and Quincey Morris, a plain-speaking, adventure-loving American. After Lucy's tragic "death," they all band together under Van Helsing's leadership to put an end, once and for all, to the undead entity named Dracula.
Stoker excels in setting a scene. He is a master at creating atmosphere. It feels as if you are sitting in the horse-drawn carriage with Jonathan Harker as he ascends the Carpathian Mountains to the very heart of Dracula's lair. You can feel the mist in your face. You can hear the wolves howling in the distance. You can see the terror in the eyes of his fellow passengers. The aura of foreboding is palpable. Another captivating scene is the arrival of Dracula's ship at the English port of Whitby. A horrific storm heralds the vessel's appearance on the horizon. Battling the wind and waves, it runs aground of its own accord without a crew. The body of the dead captain is tied to the wheel, a crucifix in his lifeless hands. Horror writing doesn't get much better than this.
Overall, a thrilling journey back to the Victorian beginning of popular culture's vampire obsession.
Dracula by Bram Stoker is available for $3.50 at Amazon.com
Review copy purchased at Anthology Used & New Books.
Congratulations to our winner: Alison Fees!
Review featured on Examiner.com's Book Corner home page