First, a confession: Dracula is probably my favorite book. I have read it no less than 5 times. The book is iconic yet so many people have never read it. With this review (and it will be glowing), I hope to spread the Gospel of Dracula. This novel is one that nobody will ever regret reading. It’s that enjoyable.
Written by Irishman Bram Stoker in 1897, Dracula follows the story of a young solicitor sent to the wilds of Transylvania to close a land deal with an enigmatic Romanian aristocrat. It is the scientific age and the idea that something supernatural is afoot is the height of absurdity. Yet the main characters suddenly find themselves in the midst of a nineteenth century horror movie. People die, people rise from the dead, and the atmosphere is spooky.
The man himself. This is what a 19th Century pimp looks like.
I am going to divide this review into two parts. The first will be my take on the main themes of the book and the second will talk about the writing and stylistic choices made by Stoker. Honestly, I have so much to say about this novel that I could write this review over a dozen parts, but I will try to reign myself in for this.
The Themes of Dracula According to John
Theme 1: Science vs. Folk Superstition and Religion
It is the age of science and it is ridiculous to think that something supernatural like vampires actually exists. At the end of the book, Van Helsing even states that the likelihood of anyone believing them is small, but we all know the truth, don’t we? I mean, the Romanian peasants have meltdowns when Jonathan Harker tells them he is going to Castle Dracula. They cross themselves, give him holy symbols, and generally flip the fuck out. Harker reacts with a general WTF? and continues on because modern 19th century science has explained everything ever.
In an ironic twist, however, these modern science guys who scoff at peasant superstition have no qualms about dropping to their knees and praying to God at every opportunity. Dracula has turned away from the Lord and he corrupts every soul he touches and the only thing that keeps him at bay is praying and eating garlic (among other wholly non-scientific things). Not so smart now are you, science?
Theme 2: East v. West
The British Empire is the height of civilization and it is being invaded by a godless being of unspeakable evil from Eastern Europe (GASP!). The people of Romania and Hungary might as well be from Mars in this book. The main characters scoff at their backward ways and ignorant superstitions. Of course Dracula has a mercenary band of gypsies that helps him out because they are godless barbarians after all. It is no coincidence that Dracula can be in Romania for centuries building his powerbase and scheming but cannot last more than a month or so in London before having to turn tail and run. The power of Western men! You suck, Eastern Europe.
Theme 3: Sex is Bad, especially for women
It is a poorly kept secret that this book is drenched in sexual overtones. Vampires represent the corrupting influence of sex in prim and proper Victorian society. Dracula turns Lucy Westenra into a whore. The three female vampires are sluts that cause a good God-fearing man like Jonathan Harker to cheat on his wife. And what do you do with whores? Why you kill them, of course. It’s for the best. When you kill a godless whore, you save their soul. We would all do well to remember that.
The original. A signed copy is available on eBay for only $64,000.
Dracula as Found Footage
You think Blair Witch Project invented the found footage genre? Well, you probably don’t actually think that. I am reasonably certain Stoker didn’t either, but the novel is written in a found footage style, the story being told through excerpts of journals, letters, and newspaper articles. Victorian readers probably shit themselves with terror at the prospect of the story being true (probably not, but I can dream). I really like Stoker’s choice here. It accurately portrays the move from denial of the supernatural to horrified acceptance of it. Although Van Helsing is a crazy old coot every minute he is on the page.
Dracula: The Travel Book
Rick Steves has nothing on Bram Stoker. In 1897, Romania was the sticks of Europe. I doubt any Englishman worth his salt would ever vacation in *shudder* Eastern Europe. Stoker knows the forests of Romania are an unknown world to much of Victorian society and so he goes to great pains to describe Harker’s impressions of this alien locale. He talks about the landscape, the peasant costumes, the food they eat, the language they speak, their customs. It is easy to imagine that a reader in 1897 felt immersed in the story. Not only is it educational and adds a layer of credibility to the tale, it is also awesomely racist.
Stuttering in a Diary and Other Stylistic Choices
This review can’t be nonstop praise and so I have picked out some parts that I think were plain silly. First, Stoker has the annoying habit of calling children “it.” A child is attacked by fledgling vampire Lucy and Stoker re-assures us that everything is ok by saying “It had had a sleep and taken some food, and altogether was going on well.” It? I can spot the fatherly types when I see them, Mr. Stoker.
Many modern stories require the characters to act as if they had been lobotomized for the sake of conflict. Stoker is not immune to this and it would not be a thriller without the characters being sort of dumb. Towards the end of the book, Dracula steals into Mina’s room in the form of mist and attacks her. Mina is completely aware that Dracula can do this and yet tells no one that she was attacked. She chalks it all up to a strange dream. Didn’t Lucy also complain about strange dreams before she died and then was horribly disemboweled and beheaded because she had become an undead fiend? But you’re right, Mina. I’m sure it is nothing.
Finally, did you know that when you are writing in your journal and emotion overwhelms you that you actually stutter in your writing? No? Well you do. Dr. Seward is overcome with emotion when things look grim for Mina Harker. In his diary, he records “I—I cannot go on—words—and v-voice—f-fail m-me!…” I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read this. Usually, Seward would use a phonograph but this chapter clearly says we are reading an entry into Dr. Seward’s Diary. I may give Stoker the benefit of the doubt here and say that this was supposed to be Seward speaking into his phonograph and that it had been transcribed by Mina. In fact, this is probably what actually did happen, but fuck it, it still illustrates Stoker’s penchant for melodrama. This book is FULL of melodrama. Every moment is the end of the world, every setback is God turning his back on the protagonists. Be prepared for page after page of wailing and gnashing of teeth. If you enjoy human angst and exclamation points, Dracula may be the book for you. And, by the way, Mina could have typed out a normal sentence instead of viciously portraying Seward as a sniveling wreck. Bitch.
The book is far from perfect but it is excellent and a recommended read for everyone, not just those interested in the character or the genre. Do yourself a favor and read this book at least once.
9/10 Romanian Noblemen That Never Drink…Wine