More Than Bats, Castles, and Fangs
(A Book Review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula)
Conceivably, no other single work in horror fiction has had a greater impact than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Published in 1897, Stoker’s vision of the vampire, based from a Romanian folklore, has experienced repeated resurgence from time out of mind and had been imitated countless times in books, films and television (even video games) making Count Dracula probably one of the most iconic villains apart from Satan. As the Undead’s allure continues to captivate the imagination of millions of fans around the world — its popularity hadn’t for one drop of blood waned — it likewise “inspired its own literature and mythology of the supernatural.”
Consequently, who among us in this day and age haven’t been yet introduced to these blood-thirsty monsters? Sure thing, we’re all familiar how movies depict vampires: that they sleep in a coffin during the day; that the sun’s ray disintegrates them to ashes; that they suck the blood of their victim in the neck until it dries out; that they can turn to bats; and the picture of Dracula is almost always associated with gloomy castles and Transylvania. But let me ask you Gentle Readers, have you taken the time to read the unabridged novel, its original source?
As I said enough I’m a guy who likes Horror fiction and it would be remiss on my part if I didn’t take the chance to at least read this classic work of the genre. It’s also my intention to see, just for the hell of it, what’s with Count Dracula (and vampires in general) that so held generations of readers enthralled and mesmerized. For old time’s sake I willed myself to tread through 400+ pages of dense, unadulterated Victorian prose and was mildly surprised that — far from the present day media portrayal — the eponymous vampire of the novel is a lethal, conscienceless, insatiable killing machine with a deep streak of cunning and malice.
Before we continue on let me digress for a bit at this point as I express my admiration for this particular edition’s book cover (pictured above). I’m not one to literally judge a book by its cover since it’s always my custom to at least have a working knowledge of the kind of books or authors I wish to buy. Yet I couldn’t help but count this as one of the superb covers (that made me literally grab it the first time I saw it) out of hundreds I saw in numerous bookstores. Every time I look at it, (and I’m now looking at it again as I type these words) it makes my flesh creep. True, the cover is patterned after Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (click here to see the cover), and aside from the glaring fact that she’s also the one who wrote the splendid introduction for this particular edition (if you’re the kind of reader who avoids spoilers as Dracula avoids sunlight, then hear me out and read this one after you’ve done reading the book through, you’ll really learn a lot), I’m just astonished to realize that it effectively works so well. There’s nothing of the usual sort of trappings you see when you see the word DRACULA splashed across the cover; there’s no image of the titular vampire, a castle, or the cross or any lurid illustrations of the monster biting the neck and sucking the blood out of its victim. Notice too that the image neither uses nor shows any blood.
I think what makes this rendition very effective is the red damask (the patterned fabric background) which for me screams: GOTHIC! HORROR! The half face image or painting of the girl, turned on its side, looks as if peeking into a partially opening coffin signaling that the vampire is out of her slumber, ready to haunt the night, hungry. And the font (THE FONT FOR CHRISTSAKE!) is dead right: a gold color that utilizes the precise amount of script is sublime and yet at once Gothic. Compared to other covers that feel rather cold and classic, this one feels warm, plush and almost contemporary. The warmth though isn’t the snugly kind; rather it’s a piercing cold embrace.
The novel is written in the first person perspective consisting of a number of letters and journals of the main characters in conjunction with newspaper cuttings arranged chronologically to form a narrative of events. The story begins with the arrival of Jonathan Harker to the castle of Count Dracula where he quickly discerns that things aren’t what they seem to be and the Count is more than just a peculiar client. From this mystery the tale unravels, taking the reader from the dark menacing halls of Dracula’s Transylvanian abode to the shores of England then back again.
Despite the dated narrative technique, its facility to tap the reader’s mind as one is lead onto the psyche of the characters as they experience psychological turmoil — as opposed to sheer death by violence — makes the novel truly gruesome and appalling in its ability to torment, nevertheless. The plot itself is suspenseful and tense and although the reader is made aware what the villain is capable of I’m surprised to learn this book has some several satisfying twists and build ups beneath its old cowl.
Some readers may find the story proceeds somewhat slowly mainly in part due to the antiquated language and as it intermittently dwell on courtesy and description. However, it’s a work that’s a product of its time, written in the style representative of the Victorian era. As revealed by some of the characters’ journals, I too doubt how a person can remember such long tracts of conversation in one’s memory, yet this was also the age where people have long attention span and even vast amount of time to spend it writing in their diary (Imagine just how many does this now?!). (Aside from rumor mongering there are just a handful of pastimes during the Victorian age, no?) While the linguistic and grammatical style of the book may make the book seem like it is rambling or long winded, I think there is no portion in the book that is not central to the plot or to establishing the point to unfold the story.
What really makes the novel is its villain, Dracula. I think it’s one of the first novel to strike a balance to that brand of terror that we’re afraid and is somewhat drawn to. True, Count Dracula is a terrifying figure but he’s also engaging, charming by his genteel ways and quite often literally spellbinding. Even though he’s present in just a few scenes we feel his presence throughout, seething underneath, waiting for him strike, and it is through his malevolence and strength our characters banded and the book would have not been just about suspenseful or affecting if it wasn’t for such a memorable antagonist.
More than the horrific elements in the book, I think one of the aspects of the novel that readers fail to recognize (and one too that I highly enjoyed) is how Stoker interplays and exploits his characters’ strength and weaknesses, heroes and antagonist alike. It not only paved the way in how Stoker presented his own reimagining of the vampire folklore, it likewise modernized the monster as we know him now despite Judeo-Christian overtones — that is Dracula as representative of the Devil and his vulnerability to the cross and the Holy Host. Stories that include strength and weaknesses as plot device makes for a thrilling read because first, we are one with the protagonist in deducing the villain’s Achilles’ heel and once figured out how can it be used against him; and two, what then will be the antagonist’s response which in turn he might use to wrong foot and turn the tables to our hero. So you see, it’s this tug of war interaction that’s why we still enjoy reading Superman as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Lex Luthor up to this day, which in the same way proves true with Abraham Van Helsing and Count Dracula’s eventual encounter, which when read near the ending develops in a cat and mouse chase becoming riskier by turns as roles continually change as daylight cycles to night time.
In many ways reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula changes preconceived notions readers may have had before reading it. There’s so much to this multi-layered Victorian novel that it feels I just barely scratched the surface. I haven’t discussed its Freudian pyscho-sexual content but I’ll leave that to the critics and psychologists perhaps. As 114 years of constant publication attests, it’s still a well thought out, fantastically executed book that, even in the face of persistent modern day science, one could not argue that by Stoker’s influence the culture of vampirism remains strong and thriving in many forms so many years later — even with a stake driven in its heart.
Book #36 for 2011
Published by Back Bay Books
(2007 Trade Paperback, First Printing)
Started: September 12, 2011
Finished: September 27, 2011