Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday Book Review: DRACULA (1897) by Bram Stoker

I had honestly thought I'd read this before but just didn't remember doing so. But - turns out I hadn't read it at all. Surprise.

I have a Modern Library Classic trade paperback, an imprint of Random House, with an introduction by novelist Peter Straub (who goes on and on about the sexual aspects of Stoker's story just in case the reader hadn't noticed). I always read Introductions after I've finished the book. Works out better for me that way.

This edition has an excellent explanatory notes section since some of the words, phrases and destinations used by Stoker - familiar then, not so much now - need defining.

My reading of DRACULA also qualifies as an entry in the VICTORIAN CLASSICS READING CHALLENGE.

I'm probably happy I read this now and not when I was younger and more easily impressionable. There are many disturbing images in this novel of good vs. evil which would probably have bothered me then. I'm older now and have lived through some horrific 20th and 21st century turmoil - there's not much that shocks me any more.

Still, after just a few pages into Stoker's masterpiece, I'd slipped away into the 19th century and found myself in the dark and very inhospitable outer reaches of Transylvania, in a dank and gloomy castle perched on a precipice. I'd traveled there with Jonathan Harker who's gullibility and devotion to his lawyerly duties almost bring him to a very nasty end in the first third of the book.

At first glance, Harker is a devoted but not an especially bright chap, nonetheless, you can't help liking him. We get to know him from the pages of his journal in which the early sections of the story are revealed. Later in Stoker's novel, the plot expands with the help of other characters' journals, diaries, newspaper articles and notes. This is a thoroughly clever way of telling the story. Journals have immediacy and Stoker very smartly makes sure we're almost instantly caught up in the story, no matter our initial hesitation.

Harker, in his job as a solicitor, is traveling to Transylvania to visit with a nobleman named Count Dracula. He is on a legal business errand having to do with the Count's recent purchase of an estate in England, details of which must he handled in person.

The deeper Harker travels into the strangely picturesque countryside, the uneasier he becomes as he is met along the way by fewer and fewer people and those he interacts with, once they learn where he's headed, warn him against continuing his journey. And why is it that the sign of the cross is made every time Harker mentions Dracula's name?  Surely these are just the notions of the deeply superstitious, so evident in rural backwaters where myth and legend are handed down as gospel from one generation to the next.

In the dark of gloomy night, on a winding wooded mountain road with nary any habitation in sight, the public coach on which Harker is traveling is met at a crossroads by a private one, driven by a curious looking gentleman sent to take Harker to Dracula's castle. Harker hesitates. The other travelers and the coachman are reluctant to hand him over. They make warning noises and give Harker pregnant looks.

But the wily coachman who's come to pick up Harker will not take no for an answer and Harker is soon on his way up the mountain to Dracula's castle as the public coach speeds away, the coachman urging the frenzied horses on in a fury.

When nearer the castle, Harker's coach is suddenly surrounded by wolves and the coachman stops their approach with a wave of his arms, Harker realizes he's not in Kansas anymore. Things are happening for which he has no explanation.

The dark atmospherics as set up by Bram Stoker, are perfectly on pitch. What gloomy desolation!

On Harker's arrival at the castle, Dracula must first ask him if he wants to enter of his free will (it's the way of the vampire) and when an exhausted and frightened Harker says yes, we want to grab him and drag him back. Dracula appears welcoming and 'normal' - at first - this is much eerier than if he'd begun his approach with fangs and bloodletting.

Though his strange appearance as described in the journal would definitely give anyone pause.

His face was a strong - very strong - aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.

For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed that the backs of his hands s they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine; but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse - broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point.

As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder.....a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal. The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back; and with a grim sort of smile, which showed more than he had yet done his protuberant teeth, sat himself down again on his own side of the fireplace.

Yeah, that would have sent me screaming out one of the windows.

Later when Harker comes to the realization that he is a prisoner in the castle - all exits are either locked or non-existent - he is mystified and helpless to do much about it except sit and go nuts. When Dracula keeps extending Harker's visit, sending notes to Harker's fiance Mina Murray, back in England, telling her Harker will soon return, the young solicitor understands that the Count has some deep, nefarious purpose of his own.

The writing in Harker's journal becomes more and more agitated as he believes he's going mad with fright. And let me tell you, there is much in that dark castle to be scared of, the howling of wolves in the night don't help much either. Nor do the three or four boxes of dirt hidden away in the basement.

At first I thought, oh well, this guy is done for. There doesn't seem to be much he can do to help himself out of this fix. But I didn't count on Harker having ingenuity. And though he is frightened almost out of his skull - he still manages to dig deep and show gumption and courage in the face of what looks like insurmountable odds.

I can say no more except that despite familiarity with the movie versions and such, if the first third of this novel doesn't grab you and keep you reading late into the night (as it did me), then you are not ready for prime time story-telling. And I insist once again in saying that I am NOT a reader of horror or even of monster stories. But I am definitely a reader of well-told tales.

As the desperate Harker continues his dark adventure in Transylvania, trapped in the castle, scribbling in his journal, we have also been shown pages from his fiance, Mina's, journal while she worries about Jonathan and spends time with her friend Lucy Wenstenra. We're also privy to the jottings of a Dr. Seward who - wait for it - runs the local lunatic asylum next door to the estate that Dracula is in the process of purchasing with Harker's help. Seward is also one of three suitors (Lord Godalming and the dashing American  Quincey Morris being the other two) for the hand of the beautiful and doomed Lucy Westenra.

Note: On top of the many duties at the asylum, Seward is dealing with an especially vexing patient named Renfield. The plot thickens.

Count Dracula eventually sets sail for England, traveling below deck in a wooden box full of Transylvanian earth.. The ship arrives on the coast after weeks at sea, in a cloud of mysterious fog - no humans left on board except the dead body of the Captain lashed to the wheel. A huge dog or wolf is seen to leap ashore from the ship and disappear into the night. We learn of the ill-fated ship's travails from a newspaper article and the Captain's journal.

You may be wondering when Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, enters into the mix but you won't have long to wait. He happens to be an old friend of Dr. Seward's and has been called in from the continent, (he lives in Holland) to help with Lucy Westnera's mysterious wasting away disease.

The large bat flapping its wings at the window should have been the first clue.

It is Van Helsing's job in the story to be the bearer of incredible vampire facts AND to be the leader of this small group of believers as they work together, racing against time, to bring an end to Dracula's English sojourn and save Madame Mina from Lucy Westenra's tragic fate.

What a vile creature this vampire is. There's nothing whatsoever attractive about him, nothing to set a teenager's heart pounding. He is a true monster, a plague from hell whose destruction must be complete.

Knowing that, I read through the last third of the book at a gallop, wanting to know what happens next and what happens next and...

DRACULA is perfect for October reading. If you've never read it, even if you've seen the film(s) don't delay, get a copy and settle in on a chilly night with a nice cup of tea by your side.

illustration by the one and only Edward Gorey.


  1. Great review. I felt the chilling atmosphere come flooding back from when I first read this as a teenager. Nobody does vampire/gothic/horror fiction quite like the Victorians. It's my fvourite era for literature

  2. I love this book, though for some reason the format never works for me with any other novel. This is the one and only book I can handle told through journals, diaries, and news clippings.

    The only movies I love are Dracula with Bela Lugosi and the Spanish language version they filmed at the same time, on the same sets, with the same costumes. The Spanish version is actually longer and has some better camera work in it.

  3. Whoa! Sounds too scary for me. On the other hand, it's the time of year for goosebumps.

    Count me as another who reads the Introductions after I've finished a book.

  4. Great review, Yvette. And I agree completely about reading the introductions AFTER reading the book. I recently re-read Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY in a new Penguin Classics edition with a first rate introduction - but it gives away virtually the entire plot, something of a drawback in a mystery, no? Worth reading - AFTER reading the story itself!

  5. That's a very good review of Bram Stoker's DRACULA. I read this cult book in my teens (it could have been an abridged version, I don't know) but whatever I can recall of this trendsetting classic is from the movies (including stupid spoofs), which means I must read this book again. Since I don't remember how I reacted the first time, it ought to be a whole new scary experience the second time.

    Of the movies, including TV, I liked the Gary Oldman version of DRACULA which I saw not long ago (check out the star cast). Of the earlier versions, nothing comes to mind; I draw a blank there.

    You mention the "disturbing images" in this novel and of having lived through some horrific turmoil of the 20th and 21st centuries. Authors like Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson (DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE), and Victor Hugo (Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME) probably did too. Is that why they created these hideous monsters - to reflect the horrors in real life and perhaps in their own lives too? I have often wondered why writers were fascinated by horror as a literary genre in the early days.

    Today we have Hannibal Lecter... then again not much different!

  6. Lucy: Thanks! I think the Victorians had the scoop on horror. I believe it's because Victorian society was so ritualized, so rigid, that anything that upset the applecart couldn't help but be dramatic by implication.

    Just a theory.

  7. Ryan: I have to admit I loved the book even more than I loved the film with Bela.

    I do enjoy reading journal and diary accounts.

    WAR OF THE WORLDS (as put together by Orson Welles) is done in newspaper clipping format, etc. Very enjoyable.

  8. Caftan Woman: I thought I was the only one who read the Intro last. Ha!

    Makes infinitely more sense to me.

    I thought the book would be too scary for me, but I stood up to it. It is SO WELL WRITTEN.

  9. You me and C.W. are in members of the 'Read The Intro Last!' Club. :)

    I think a lot of these intros, especially for classics, assume we've already read the book at some point or, at least, are very familiar with the story.

    I just dive right in, usually.

  10. Prashant: I suppose the moral is: horrifying events have always been with us.

    Yes, you should read this again, especially if what you read the first time was abridged. In truth, this is a book that reads very quickly. Some of the expressions of the times were confusing, but hardly enough to stop the momentum.

    I've always loved the Bela Lugosi version of DRACULA. I think I'll be watching this again soon.

    There was also one with Frank Langella which was extraordinarily creepy. :)

    Don't think I ever saw the Gary Oldham version.

  11. Love Dracula! I want to re-read it once again for Halloween, provided I could finish the mammoth The Shadow of the Wind in time.

  12. wutheringwillow: This was my first time reading it and I wonder now what took me so long to get around to it. It's really not what everyone thinks it is.

    It's really just a damn good story.

  13. Why did I never think about reading the introduction AFTER I read the book itself?! Very wise.

  14. Yvette: I have read Dracula at least five times in the last 6 years alone. I don't know what it is about this story that even though I know what happens in it, I still feel my spine tingling at certain points.

  15. willow: I'm thinking of listening to it on audio one of these days.

    Once we tried listening to it on a long drive at night and had to turn it off. Too eerie. :)

    But I really did enjoy reading it. What a fabulous book!


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