Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) 375 p.
Dracula is (as I’m sure you know) a classic work of horror fiction from the 19th century which, while it didn’t invent the concept of the vampire, certainly modernised it and turned it into the contemporary horror trope we’re all so thoroughly sick of today. I must have read an abridged version of it in my youth, because I remembered most of the major plot points. I think it must have been an illustrated version; I distinctly remember the image of Dracula holding Mina Harker’s wrists together with one hand at her bed, and also a vague image of Van Helsing looking heroic at sunset at the novel’s climax (or anticlimax, as I found this time around).
The funny thing about a novel like Dracula is that while it’s a classic today – and is therefore assumed, by people who haven’t read it, to be a great work of literature – Bram Stoker was actually a pop culture writer akin to Arthur Conan Doyle. Which is not to say that his books (or Doyle’s) were bad – merely that they were neither intended to be, nor considered to be, brilliant literature, just an enjoyable way to pass the time.
Dracula begins with English solicitor Jonathan Harker travelling to Transylvania to assist the titular count with his purchase of an estate on the outskirts of London. The first 60 or so pages of the novel, which comprise of Harker’s journal while he is staying at the Count’s castle, are excellent. Stoker develops a deep and foreboding sense of dread as Harker gradually realises that he is a prisoner, becoming more and more desperate as he realises that Dracula knows he knows, and doesn’t seem to care, and eventually intends to kill him. (Mind you, it makes little sense for the plot – if Dracula’s intention is to secure a place for himself amongst London’s “teeming millions,” why arouse suspicion before even moving there by summoning your lawyer’s right-hand man and then killing him?)
After the end of this segment, unfortunately, the focus shifts back to England. There is a brief section comprising a ship captain’s journal and a newspaper report from Whitby detailing the night that Dracula’s vessel comes ashore, all of which is excellent. Following this, however, Dracula enters literary doldrums from which it never recovers. Lucy Westenra, a friend of Harker’s fiancee Mina, is chosen by Dracula as a victim, and her long, weak decline into vampirism is drawn out and tedious. After Lucy, the process is again repeated with Mina. This part of the novel also introduces the insufferable Professor Van Helsing – a verbose, waffling Dutchman who wises up to what’s going on and leads the fight against Dracula, always explaining what’s going on with far more words than necessary, none of which is made any easier by Stoker’s stilted method of expressing Van Helsing’s Dutch accent. See:
“I admit that at the first I was sceptic. Were it not that through long years I have trained myself to keep an open mind, I could not have believed until such time as that fact thunder on my ear. ‘See! See! I prove, I prove.’ Alas! Had I known at first what now I know, nay, had I even guess at him, one so precious life had been spared to so many of us who did love her. But that is gone, and we must so work, that other poor souls perish not, whilst we can save.”
Et cetera. Van Helsing has far more dialogue than any other character in the novel, and his imperfect English is grating to read. And after these boring 200 pages at the centre of the book, it seems to promise to pick up again towards the end as the characters chase Dracula back into Eastern Europe, only to finish on a curiously underwhelming note as two of them kick his coffin out of a wagon and cut his head off while he sleeps. One of them is killed by gypsies in the process, but since he had no character attributes other than “is American,” I can’t say it was one of literature’s more heart-wrenching deaths.
That’s also, incidentally, another clumsy running theme throughout the novel – Stoker continually violates the show-don’t-tell rule in his attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings. The characters are constantly crying and holding each other’s hands and talking about what good, strong, brave people their friends are, and what a great pact of friendship they’re making, and so on. Meanwhile the reader is counting how many pages left until he can be rid of their company.
I can’t recommend Dracula; it may be a classic, but despite a few strong sections it’s not a good book. Simply because a novel is old and enduring and spawned an entire subgenre of horror fiction doesn’t mean it has great literary merit or is even, by modern standards, the easily readable popular fiction it was originally meant to be.