It’s always an interesting experience when you decide to read the classics. They are firmly a product of their time periods: wording and word choice can be difficult to understand, sexism or racism of the aforementioned time periods might show up, and the novels themselves are rarely as exciting as we are now used to. Plus, our expectations are high since these novels have survived the test of time and are regarded as Literature with a capital L. In a way, the classics can have much going against them.
But Bram Stoker’s Dracula published in 1897 is a classic worth reading. It’s first and foremost a good story, but it’s also an interesting relic of vampire lore. Ah vampires, even Abraham Lincoln is off killing them when they aren’t bothering to fall in love with unlikeable high school girls. There’s something to be said for going back to the source, and Dracula kickstarted the popularity of the vampire. It isn’t the first vampire novel, but it’s the most important one.
Dracula is an epistolary novel, one told through letters, notes, diaries, etc. Such framing usually strikes me as a red flag since writing novels in this manner isn’t as efficient as the third-person past perspective and most epistolary novels suffer from their own framing conventions. Pamela— written by Samuel Richardson in 1740—features a young girl who furiously writes to her sister as the dreaded, yet seductive, Mr. B makes sexual advances towards her. It’s all rather silly and doesn’t work. Dracula, on the other hand, holds up. To be sure, there are instances where Stoker has to write around his conventions, but they are few and far between.
The beauty of it is that all of his characters have reasons to keep such detailed notes, what other diary-driven novels fail to do. Two of the characters are doctors and keep detailed records because of their professions, and the other characters keep less detailed records until Count Dracula arrives and begins to cause trouble. Once mysterious things begin to occur, these other characters start keeping more thorough records in hopes of understanding what is happening to them and those around them. As the novel progresses, the characters share their records, giving such detailed accounts even more justification for existing. Bram Stoker makes the epistolary form work, and he uses what few strengths the epistolary form has to his own advantage.
Dracula starts off with Jonathan Harker riding up to see the Count himself. Dracula is looking to buy real estate in England, and Harker is the man to help him. The journey to Dracula’s castle is a great example of gothic horror, and everything is wonderfully creepy. Dracula himself is an unsettling man, and there’s plenty of tension as Jonathan slowly realizes he’s in a dire situation. Despite knowing much about Dracula as a pop-culture icon, the novel still manages to be genuinely creepy at points.
Then the novel moves on to the diaries of Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Mina is growing ever more upset by her husband’s lack of communication from Transylvania, and Lucy is looking to get married. And then a mysterious, vacant ship crashes into port and Lucy finds herself sleepwalking at night and looking anemic.
The other characters in the novel are suitors of Lucy, two of which were turned down. One is a Doctor Seward who works at a mental institution. Seward’s main patient is delightfully frightful in his insanity, eating insects and spiders in hopes of absorbing their life forces. He’s a great character, and it’s a bit of a shame that his full potential is never reached. The other two suitors are a bit less interesting, but they serve their respective parts.
The final character is Doctor Van Helsing. Pop culture has done some interesting things to Van Helsing, turning him into a monster slayer and general action hero. In Dracula, he’s a just a doctor, a well-studied doctor, but still a doctor. He knows quite a bit about paranormal experiences because they interest him, and he acts as an authority, but all of his methods revolve around what would be obvious at the time: kill evil with religious practices. He works so much better as the fatherly doctor who has to make hard decisions over an action hero in cheesy monster movies.
The novel plods along well, but it doesn’t contain the frantic action one now expects in stories involving vampires. This isn’t Salem’s Lot or True Blood. The characters battle Dracula through more passive means instead of wielding wooden stakes and throwing holy water around. Dracula has relocated to England and has purchased houses, and the characters spend their time tracking these houses down and purifying them so Dracula cannot enter. Likewise, the final climax isn’t a great battle with Dracula like one got from the Van Helsing movie.
None of those are slights against the novel though, despite the fact that I did want a bit more in the ways of battle. I’ve been conditioned to want more action by other, more modern forms of vampire media, and Dracula isn’t modern. But given the pacing and quest of the characters, Dracula still works, and the characters are always in some form of danger.
There are two female protagonists in the novel, and they have mostly passive roles. Lucy acts as the tropic virgin dressed in white, but Mina has a bit more authority and power to her. Gender roles have come a long way since this book was written, but Mina still winds up acting as a strong female character; her strength just isn’t in the active variety. All of the male characters come to the conclusion that they need her around as a kind of beacon, and she also winds up organizing all of their journals and notes into a cohesive document which leads to important discoveries. She isn’t a battle-fatigued heroin by any means, but she also isn’t a simple damsel in distress. As a character, I like her.
As vampire lore, this novel is pretty cool. Dracula has a nice assortment of powers and shortcomings that come with undeath, and he’s both a monster and a character looking to survive. He can turn into a bat, control lesser creatures around him—most notably rats and wolves—has considerable strength, sleeps during the day in corrupted earth, has minor control over the weather, can turn into a kind of mist, and has some mental control over those weak of mind and those he bites.
On the reverse, he holds no power during the day, is aversed to garlic, the crucifix, and the Eucharist, cannot cross bodies of water without some kind of permission, and cannot enter buildings without an invitation. He’s quite a powerful foe, but even though he’s by no means a good guy, he also comes off as a bit lonely. In some respects, I feel bad for him. He makes for a good antagonist.
Dracula is a good book. You should read it because it is a good book; you should read it because it started a character that everyone knows. Dracula is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find a free version of it online. A purchased copy will come with footnotes, endnotes, and an introduction, but none of those are needed to enjoy the story. But really, you should read it because it just feels good to pick up a classic and get through it. There’s something to be said about reading a book that has withstood the test of time.