Dracula by Bram Stoker. Originally published 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company. Signet Classic edition reviewed. 380 pages.
Bram Stoker's Dracula is told in the epistolary format (the success of this attempt will be addressed later). It focuses not on the titular Count, but on those who become intertwined with him and his machinations to establish himself in England. Therefore, it is an assembly of diary and journal entries, news clippings, notes and memorandums.
The tale opens with young Jonathan Harker, a freshly minted solicitor, on a train to Transylvania to cement some real estate purchases with the reclusive, mysterious, Count Dracula. As he travels deeper and deeper into these mysterious Eastern European lands, he finds a pervading aura of fear and superstition. So many locals pray for his safety and adorn him with talismans and fetishes, much to his confusion. Upon arrival at Castle Dracula, he becomes increasingly aware that there is not only something amiss with the Count's intentions for his purchases, but he comes to experience what kind of creature this Dracula truly is.
Back in England, we meet Harker's fiancee, Mina, and her best friend, Lucy Westenra. While Mina awaits the return of her beloved, Lucy contemplates three separate proposals from young men enthralled with her; Dr. John Seward, steward at a local asylum, Arthur Holmwood (later Lord Godalming), a society gentleman already in courtship of Lucy, and Quincey Morris, a brave and adventurous Texan. Little do the members of this circle realize how closely the events about to transpire will bring them together as they rend their lives apart.
This occurs when Dracula, now in England, makes a wicked thrall out of Lucy. To assist in deciphering this unfamiliar malady, the aforementioned group enlists the esteemed Dutch doctor, Abraham Van Helsing. It is he who first ventures to guess the contribution of an unholy force in Lucy's suffering, and it is he who acts as the linchpin in ferreting out and trying to destroy Dracula. This proves to be a task much easier said than done, especially as the work must be done on the sly, since no one would be apt to believe the nature of this creature.
There are so many other details, which are best left to the reader to discover. Suffice to say that the events of the story differ greatly from Browning's picture, and go so far beyond Coppola's interpretation.
Dracula's supernatural powers in the book are pretty amazing, and all have some clearly drawn limits. He has his sharp intellect and cunning, as well as the strength of twenty mortal men. He can change the appearance of his 'human form', as well as transforming into a giant bat,or an ominous mist. He can impact the weather, and bring on fog and winds. And, not only can he makes thralls out of humans, but he holds mastery over the nastier animals of the world; wolves, rats, etc. However, he slumbers during the day, and needs the earth of his homeland for his vulgar rest. He cannot cross moving water, and if he cannot get back to his familiar earth, he will be trapped in his current form until the next sunup/down. Also, he cannot enter a home without being invited, or allowed in. Although once he gains access to an abode, he has free reign to come and go as he pleases.
Now that we have all the basics out of the way, what is there to say of the prose? Of the many works and shows that attempt to dissect Stoker's masterpiece, many nitpick on two main points: first, the lack of accuracy in the depiction of the Transylvania locale, and the fact that Stoker's writing is a tad on the dry side (I've seen some go so far as to argue that without cinematic fame, Dracula the book would have faded into obscurity). Let's address the latter first.
Dracula is not, suffice to say, a "rip-roaring" action romp. It doesn't need to be. And it might be a bit lean on the main villain, simply because for the most of the work, he is acting as a quarry that is stubbornly hard to root out. Therefore, after a great, and chilling opening portion (covering Harker's plight in Castle Dracula), things pretty much level out.
Where Dracula suffers is that there is precious little character development. While there are attempts to try and inject urgency into the text, most characters remain relatively stable despite the extraordinary events. There are many melodramatic outbursts and declarations, but the despair, frustration, elation, etc., it just doesn't show. This is especially true regarding the contributions of Van Helsing and Seward, who, as it just so happens, constitute the bulk of the narrative from the middle to the end. As a note, I will say that Jonathan Harker's character is the one best rendered throughout the novel, making the middle portion where he is absent noticeably lacking.
Another point I will make is this; there is a lot of dialogue. A lot. And most of it is done by Van Helsing, whose expositions go on and on for paragraphs. He serves as the moral compass for the group, and injects what little humor there is to be found. But quite honestly, I can see how his broken-English caricature can be grating at times. So, if you read this book, after a page or two of Van Helsing, if you find him annoying, just put the book down.
And this leads me to the next little gripe about Dracula. While the attempt was made to convey the story in the epistolary format, there are times when the prose unmistakably falls into a traditional narrative. Honestly, the book would have thrived more within the parameters of that format, with the diary entries and news clippings peppering the story throughout.
As for Stoker's efforts in fleshing-out the Eastern European locales that he had never himself visited, all I can say is that it is easy enough to be a Monday morning quarterback over a century after a book comes out. Working from whatever available resources on those lands, he creates a plausible, imaginary area that would gel with contemporary assumptions. What I find more mournful is how little description England itself gets. Street names are rattled out as if the reader has complete familiarity with them. Therefore, it is truly a work that was made for his English contemporaries.
All in all, Dracula is a classic in regards to what it has spawned, more than what it is. It is completely and utterly dated, where a true literary masterpiece is timeless. And yet, it is spectacularly imaginative, and even disturbing at times. It is a book that has truly earned its respect.
Here's what it is:
It's the book that introduces the world's most famous vampire. On that merit alone it deserves a look.
This Signet Classic cover isn't too bad. A nice, evocative pic, which gives the impression of emerging from dark woods and happening upon the nightmarish Castle Dracula. Not bad at all.
Cover Final Score: