Dracula, the book
This review is not about the films, the mythology or anything like that. It contains something about tall, dark, elegant men sucking at the soft body parts of young virgins. There are suggestions that death and sex are somehow intertwined. We have none of Dracula's virgin brides, but we do see a little of his three daughters. There is, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal about Dr. Van Helsing, but this one is called Abraham, not Gabriel.
Those coming to this novel for the first time, may find it hard to remember that most of the world had never encountered the myth of vampirism prior to its publication in 1897. This book set the ground rules for all future vampire fantasies. In the intervening century, we have all become familiar with the symptoms of vampiric attack and the paraphernalia of stakes, crucifixes and garlic used to destroy the creatures. All these ideas were first presented in this seminal book. In fact, much of the mythology surrounding vampires remains true to Stoker’s creation, and that is no small tribute to the imagination of this otherwise obscure author.
Jet-Poop says, "Dracula wasn't the *first* vampire story, just the first to become super-popular... :)"
The novel, Dracula was written in the last decade of the nineteenth century by Bram Stoker, a frustrated-civil-servant turned theatre reviewer, who studied mathematics and physical sciences at the presitigious Trinity College, Dublin in the 1860s. Stoker became a close friend of the actor Henry Irving and through him, came to know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other leading writers of the time.
By following Irving's theatrical career, Stoker travelled widely in Europe. During one of these trips to Hungary in 1890, professor Arminius Vanbéry of the University of Budapest told Stoker the story of Vlad the Impaler who ruled Wallachia in the 15th century. Vlad's official title was Vlad III Dracula, a name he inherited from his father, Vlad II Dracul. Dracul is the Romanian word for dragon and refers to a Chivalrous order to which Vlad II belonged. The extra 'a' is grammatical , arising from the genitive 'son of' construction.
In 15th century saxon, however, Dracul also meant 'devil' And perhaps this is one of the reasons Stoker chose the name for his anti-hero.
I mention this only to establish that Stoker had indeed travelled to central Europe and had an appreciation of some of the customs and culture there. It is clear from reading the book that the author is at least superficially familiar with the area in which the story begins, and where the final chapters are set.
Much of the middle of the book is set in England, with many references to the area around Whitby in Yorkshire, where Stoker lived during the period he was writing the book (1892 – 1897).
The book is part of the gothic horror revival of the late 19th century, and a particularly fine example of the genre. It is not written as a narrative, but appears like a scrapbook with passages taken from diaries, newspaper clippings, letters, official log books and other such documents. The early chapters describe the journey of English solicitor's clerk Jonathan Harker as he travels to Castle Dracula to help a Romanian nobleman purchase a derelict building in Surrey. Harker's diary describes the journey, getting ever more un-nerving as he travels into deepest Transylvania. You know you are in for a good ride when you read this kind of passage.
The horses began to tremble worse than ever and to snort and scream with fright. I could not see any cause for it, for the howling of the wolves had ceased altogether. But just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They were a hundred times more terrible in the grim silence which held them than even when they howled. For myself, I felt a sort of paralysis of fear. It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.
Wolves, of course were the least of Jonathan Harker's troubles. We have to remember that this was the original vampire novel. This was the book that set the rules for Vampires through the ages. So here, from the original, are the rules that govern the vampiric world
- They cannot be seen in a mirror, nor do they cast a shadow, nor do their bodies block the light of a candle flame;
- Vampires live through centuries and remember all their exploits;
- A vampire cannot cross running water;
- A vampire has great physical strength, and adds more strength for each soul it has sucked;
- A vampire can control the weather, summoning storms or fog;
- Vampires, at least Count Dracula, can control wolves, rats, bats and other low creatures to do his bidding;
- A vampire cannot enter a dwelling unless it is invited and the invitation cannot be forced, it must be made from free will;
- Thereafter, the vampire may come and go as it pleases;
- If the Vampire is not resting, then it can transform into any creature at will, but only at sunrise, noon or sunset;
- They eat only fresh human blood, for which they have a near-uncontrollable thirst;
- As they drink more, they become younger-looking and their lips become more flushed with red;
- Lips aside, vampire flesh has no colour and their touch is as cold as ice;
- Vampires find it easiest to attack while their victim is asleep, and they can make a person drowsy;
- Their preferred source of blood is babies and children;
- A single bite is not enough to turn a mortal into one of the UnDead;
- Dracula sleeps in his coffin during the day only emerging after sunset. The coffin is full of unconsecrated earth;
- A stem of wild rose placed on his coffin will confine him to the coffin;
- A Vampire can change into dust or vapour to move through thin cracks;
- A vampire cannot sleep in earth contaminated with Holy bread or the Host;
- Nor can a vampire pass through a crack or doorway treated with such holy bread;
- Garlic blossom, crucifixes and sacred bread (the Host) all give protection against vampiric attack;
- Vampires will release their grip on the mortal soul if a stake is driven through the heart, or the head severed, or a sacred bullet fired into the heart.
Perhaps the place to start is with Stoker's description of his most famous character:
< blockquote >His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline
, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair
that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache
, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.
Stoker continues, describing the Count's hands:
< blockquote > .. were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank
, but a horrible feeling of nausea
came over me, which,
do what I would, I could not conceal.
Stoker later describes the Count's as having a great, white moustache, but after he has drunk blood, the white hair turns to a dark, iron-grey.
I add these details here, only because the man they describe does not sound attractive to me. Over the years, the Dracula bandwagon has turned Stoker's description into a dashing man, tall, slim, handsome and fatally attractive. Most of the pallor has gone from the original, so that modern-day portrayals of vampires have become more or less indistinguishable from humans.
His female vampires, on the other hand, simply drip sex from every throbbing, pumping, heaving breast.
< blockquote >The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuous
ness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal
, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat
. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips
on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy
and waited, waited with beating heart.
Vampirism and eroticism? It started from the very first vampire adventure, as the above passage shows. Stoker's vampires are the opposite of seemly conduct, as judged by the Victorian society he knew. His female vampires are all voluptuousness and abandon and sex. His male vampires are scheming, arrogant and cruel. I have not read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, but one suspects those books are similarly chauvinistic. Must be something to do with the time they were written.
I also think Stoker does not transform well into a female voice. He writes a series of pieces that claim to be from the diaries of women in their twenties, but the letters are not in any way convincing. It seems like he has just borrowed some of the phraseology from the great female authors (the Brontes, Jane Austen) of the previous century or so and others and just adapted the words to his own needs, rather unsuccessfully.
On the subject of using different voices, Stoker also attempts to write in various regional accents. In this passage, a cockney (presumably) zoo-keeper is explaining the habits of wolves. I leave the reader to judge the success or otherwise of the writing.
< blockquote >"'Ittin' of them over the 'ead with a pole is one way. Scratchin' of their ears in another, when gents as is flush wants a bit of a show- orf to their gals. I don't so much mind the fust, the 'ittin of the pole part afore I chucks in their dinner, but I waits till they've 'ad their sherry and kawffee, so to speak, afore I tries on with the ear scratchin'. Mind you," he added philosophically, "there's a deal of the same nature in us as in them theer animiles. Here's you a-comin' and arskin' of me questions about my business, and I that grump-like that only for your bloomin' 'arf-quid I'd 'a' seen you blowed fust 'fore I'd answer. Not even when you arsked me sarcastic like if I'd like you to arsk the Superintendent if you might arsk me questions. Without offence did I tell yer to go to 'ell?"
Writing style aside, the book is a great adventure, with plenty of scary scenes. I freely admit I do not read a lot of horror. I've never read a Steven King or even watched The Omen, let alone The Blair Witch Project but the scene of Dracula coming ashore at Whitby seemed pretty scary to me. The final chase scene where the good guys catch up with Dracula just as the sun sets add some great tension to the book. I'm pretty sure hardened horror fans would find a lot of this writing quite tame by modern standards, but it got my heart racing more than a few times.
I think also that the old-fashioned writing style detracts from the horror angle. Because the style is so different from any modern text, it seems artificial and this artifice makes it less real. Perhaps a re-write in modern language might put it into the top flight of modern day horror.
Having said, that, whatever the quality of the writing, this book is up there in the top three or four books ever written in the horror genre, if only because it has spawned such a huge mythology based on the creatures Stoker invented and the mythology he designed for them.
If you are remotely interested in horror or the goth scene, this is a must-read, so that you know where it all came from. If not, then it's a good romp through central Europe with some scary bits thrown in. At the very least, when everyone else is talking about the latest vampfest blockbuster, you can quietly point out where the uncultured film-makers lost faith with the original.
I'm not sure the book needs a summary of the plot, but in a few paragraphs, here it is.
Young solicitor's clerk Jonathan Harker is dispatched to Castle Dracula on some legalistic errand. He is obsessed with train timetables until he meets some wolves and a castle full of vampires. Harker meets Dracula and finds a lot of strange things going on. He becomes a prisoner in the castle and discovers more of Dracula's secrets. He also discovers the female vampires. Harker makes all the arrangements to get Dracula to England, including purchase of a residence there, adjacent to a lunatic asylum. When Dracula leaves, Harker escapes, leaving the female vamps disappointed that they did not get to suck manflesh.
Cut to Whitby. Ship arrives in mysterious circumstances. Fog. Huge dog runs ashore, none can catch it, but other large dogs found with their throats ripped out. The ship's log records a nightmare journey ending with the captain chaining himself to the wheel with a crucifix tied into his hands. All hands are dead or lost, including the captain.
Cut to sweet, innocent Lucy Westenra, almost 20 years old and as pretty as a picture. Shortly after the dog runs ashore she starts getting weaker. Enter Dr Abraham Van Helsing, of Amsterdam University. He quickly realises the cause and gathers a group of friends to defend Lucy. Despite their best efforts, Lucy dies after a month or so and a three or four large blood transfusions. She is buried in the family tomb in Hampstead. Almost immediately, little boys in the area start to go missing with tales of a beautiful lady. Van Helsing persuades the friends to put a stake through the girl's heart and as they do, all see the look of relief and peace on her face as the monstrous vampire is banished.
Van Helsing then tells us about vampires, calling them the UnDead and nosferatu. The friends form a team dedicated to destroying Dracula. Meanwhile, Harker has recovered and returned to England. He joins the friends and tells them about Castle Dracula and the house in Surrey. Next begins a long chase in which the friends first track down Dracula, and then chase him as he returns to Transylvania.
It all ends within sight of Castle Dracula, as Dracula's daughters reprise their earlier role of soft-core thrills, this time trying to make a foursome with Harker's new wife, Mina. Eventually, with the sun setting, they find Dracula's coffin and make to strike the death blow. At the same instant, the sun sets and Dracula's eyes show triumph....
You'll have to read the book if you want to find out what happened. The full text is available at Project Gutenberg. Or here Dracula - Chapter 1, Part 1