by Bram Stoker
Since this past week was Mr. Stoker’s birthday – and according to some people, also Vlad Tepes the Impaler’s – it seemed appropriate to finally write up his famous book, which I have at long last read to its completion.
I know, I know; I read fantasy and horror both, I have written a book about vampires – how could I have never read Dracula? I can’t really say. I tried reading it once, several years ago, and stopped because it got boring; I’ve never been very good at reading classics, having avoided most difficult work in high school and nearly all of the classic canon in college. It has only been in the last couple of years, with my discovery of Jeffrey Farnol’s magnificent pirate books and his excellent Regency romances, and then my becoming an AP English teacher, who must teach his students more of the classics of British and American literature than I have hitherto, that I have started going back and actually working my way through Bronte, and Dickens, and suchlike.
And now, Dracula.
I will say that Stoker didn’t really do himself many favors, in the eyes of the modern reader. He had this wonderful idea, and a real gift for both action scenes and wonderful atmosphere, and what is three-quarters of this book? Victorian manners and stupid people fluttering about wringing their hands. Several of the characters are great, at least in concept: the Count himself is wonderful, as are his three ladies of the night, and Renfield is one of the most interesting people in the book. The concept of eating life, of capturing flies and feeding them to spiders, and then feeding the spiders to birds, and then eating the birds – that is fantastic. It’s one of those things that a madman would think, but it makes so damn much sense that it gives we sane folk (I flatter myself, of course, and probably you, too, if you’re reading this review of mine) pause. Van Helsing is a great character in theory, though in his actual words and deeds, he is much more annoying than I wanted him to be. But everyone else is boring and stupid and obnoxious, more often than not.
And then there is the vampire. The Count is good as a character, particularly the contrast between the dignified nobleman and the lizard-crawling wolf-summoning bat-transforming blood-drinking monster; but just the idea of it is so magnificent, that even if the book was total trash – and it isn’t – the way that Stoker brought this idea to life and into the modern world (at the time), and the legacy he built, would be enough to justify his fame. The man must have known he had lightning in a jar, when he thought of this one. The creature that lives among its prey; the creature that once was one of its own prey, and became a predator; the creature that turns humanity, the most destructive and murderous of the animals, into victims, a solid step down from the top of the food chain – the dead that eats life to live – that is an amazing thing. No wonder we just keep writing about it and talking about it.
As for the book, the beginning is boring. Jonathan Harker goes to Dracula’s castle, and it’s creepy there, but nothing actually happens. When Stoker wrote it, I’m sure people were swooning over the Count and his evil magic, but now that we all know what vampires are and what Count Dracula was, it just drags on until Harker finally escapes. And then we get to the most annoying part of the book: Mina Murray fretting over the slow decline of her friend Lucy. Again, when the idea was new, it might have held more suspense; but even then it must have been difficult for a reader to sustain interest when Mina is such. An. Idiot. “Oh me, my dear friend is pale and weak, as if she has lost much blood; she has holes in her neck; and that strange man was bent over her on the bench with his face right by her throat. I WONDER WHAT EVER COULD BE THE MATTER?!?!?!?” Good grief, woman. The only saving grace in this part was Renfield. It also made it much more difficult to be on board with the gentlemen who team up to fight Dracula, as they swear their undying devotion to Mina, whom they will give their very lives and their Christian souls to save, for she is so good and pure and perfect, and I’m like, “Don’t give your life for that moron. Let Dracula have her: she might be more interesting once she’s dead. (Lucy was: I like that she went straight to eating children. Reminded me of Angel on BTVS.) Find yourself a smart girl.” It took something away from their heroism that it was dedicated to a dolt. But then, it also took something away from their heroism that they just kept swearing their dedication to their task, which they seemed to do every chapter, every conversation, and that they had so damn much trouble accomplishing it. Ask me, they were all idiots.
So for the book overall, the beginning is boring, the characters are idiots, and the Victorian writing drags sometimes – the fact that Stoker wrote it as diary entries and letters works well for the most part, but he actually included the correspondence from the guys who drove the cart that carried Dracula’s boxes of dirt, for the love of God; and the gentlemen all see this as a chance to praise Mina for her wondrous abilities, which did kind of crack me up. “My God! A Victorian woman who can type as well as swoon? What a goddess! I pledge my life to save her!” – but none of that matters. Because it’s Dracula. It’s vampires. It’s wonderful. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, but I’m glad I read it now.