by Bram Stoker
428 pages, Townsend Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Everyone has one... whether it be an album you've not listened to for a long time or a movie you've not sat down and re-watched. You know it's great. You loved it the first time you listened to/read/watched it and you wonder if your fond memories will still ring true when you return to it or whether time will not have been so kind to it as your fond memories. Mine is “Dracula” - as a student I had an oversized copy containing the novel, a few critical essays and “The Lair of the White Worm”. The book had a wonderfully lurid cover and what I loved about it was that it looked about as un-academic as it was possible to get. I read the novel first as part of my module on the Victorian era and then a couple of times afterwards for pure enjoyment. Alas, that copy of the book was given to some bird called Penny who I was haplessly trying to screw and it was never returned. It's been years since I've read Bram Stoker's masterwork and I'd forgotten what an absolutely brilliant book it actually is.
First published in 1897, “Dracula” is, first and foremost, a horror novel. Though academics have written countless papers analysing the psychosexual subtext and Stoker's proto-feminist icon Mina Harker, one should never lose sight of the fact that Stoker spent most of his life working in the theatre. He wasn't interested in educating his audience, his main aim was to thrill and entertain. And good golly gosh, what a bloody entertaining book this is!
Strikingly modern in its style and structure, the story of “Dracula” is pieced together from diary entries, newspaper clippings and letters between the main protagonists. Think of it like a book version of those “found footage” horror movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” that are so popular. The story itself is classic fin de siècle paranoia of an invasion of Britain by foreign (albeit supernatural) forces. The group of protagonists – take note that they are all Westerners – see off Johnny Foreigner Count Drac with their combined knowledge of his movements and then by exploiting his weaknesses.
Stoker's novel is very much a period piece. His evocation of Whitby in the north of England is uncannily accurate (Whitby hasn't changed much in the past hundred years, but that's the North for you, eh?) and his grasp of the “low” dialects of the common folk is similarly charming. What really gives the novel it's strongest sense of time and place is the fact that it is crammed full of the technological marvels of the age – blood transfusions, phonograph diaries, high-speed rail links enabling fast travel across Europe – Stoker exploits all of the wonders of his age to great use within the story (though some may find his obsession with train timetables a little odd). The very real late-Victorian setting helps to contrast with the wildly shocking and bizarre powers wielded by the Count. The novel is set in “the real world” - a world which Stoker's original readers would have recognised instantly. Rather than dragging his protagonists halfway around the world to experience strange goings-on Rider Haggard-style, Stoker brought the supernatural to Britain and in doing so helped to make the terrors all the more real.
Count Dracula is a great creation and it is such a shame that the countless cinematic incarnations have somewhat robbed the Count of his power to shock. We all know his strengths and weaknesses from seeing Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee in the classic films but one gets the feeling that part of the fun of the novel when it was first published was that readers didn't really know what to expect. Sure, there had been many vampire stories before “Dracula” but it was Stoker's novel that really kick-started the vampiric craze that still runs on today. Count Dracula symbolises all the fears of the average man of the late-nineteenth century. A foreigner from the East, the Count is both wealthy and powerful. He moves to Britain and begins his seduction and corruption of its innocent young women. To top it off, the Count possesses numerous strange powers which defy any kind of scientific explanation. He can control animals, turn into a bat or a wolf or even a seething red-eyed fog. His powers seem in contradiction of both physics and logic and to the rational-minded Victorians there was nothing more terrifying or infuriating than the utterly inexplicable.
There are parts of the novel that won't sit too comfortably with a modern reader. The mid-section of the book is flabby and in desperate need of a trim. Once the heroes have Dracula all figured out, they spend a lot of time discussing their actions but don't seem to actually do very much. And the crying. Christ on a bike, with the amount of tears the heroes shed you'd think they were all going through menopause. Victorian audiences loved their melodrama but the descriptions of the assembled vampire-hunters all sat around the table holding hands and blubbing away like little girls are unlikely to endear themselves to anyone. However, the thrilling chase and violent climax at the end of the novel more than make up for these shortcomings.
“Dracula” is a stupendously good novel. Stoker never wrote anything better and in all seriousness, it is unlikely that anyone will write a vampire novel to equal it. Forget what you think you know about Count Dracula, you haven't met a real vampire till you've read this book. It's a classic for a reason.
Hereward L.M. Proops