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Critique • QuotesTextDracula at the movies

Dracula first editionFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Literary, fantasy

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 180,000 words

Fear of what we are

The first part of Dracula, when Britisher Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to inform his firm's mysterious client about its purchase of real estate in London on his behalf, has got to be some of the most entrancing, suspenseful pages written in English.

A century after their publication and with countless (perhaps that's a bad choice of words) movies having made the encounter with the vampire very familiar, the first-person diary passages still horrify.

So much so, that it's a tremendous letdown about an eighth of the way into the novel when the scene suddenly shifts from Harker's dark predicament to some seemingly irrelevant characters in bright, airy England. It takes most of the rest of the novel to recover a portion of the former involvement, bringing all the characters back into a unified plot for a final semi-exciting chase scene.

The characters after that first inspired section never really engage. They are poorly written: all the protagonists are one-dimensionally wonderful, the women pure and noble, the men stalwart and true. Anyone who is not upper-crust English talks with a ridiculous accent. Van Helsing, leader of the group that hunts down the vampire to save civilization and potentially the most interesting character of all, is Dutch, which Stoker renders by having him make random grammatical errors in English.

It takes chapters and chapters for our heroes to figure out that Dracula has arrived in England and may have something to do with the bloodless bodies showing up with punctured necks, or with members of their own troupe appearing pale and lethargic after restless nights of strange dreams about a large bat beating against their windows. (We'll leave aside the implausibility of this creature travelling partway around the world to find fresh blood in a large metropolis and coincidentally alighting on Harker's own circle of friends—poetic license is given for the sake of compression.)

And it takes chapters and chapters for them to organize a counterattack, between long diversions of romance and a whole confusing subplot about the madman Renfeld who eats bugs and is somehow in the long-distance thrall of his vampire master.

Saving the vampire

What saves the novel however is two things. First, Dracula himself. We never really get to know him after that initial intriguing glimpse. Instead of being developed into a character of immense contradictions, who might become a great tragic figure, the count settles into being a symbol of unadulterated evil, the sometimes-hunter, sometimes-hunted target of our do-gooders. However, he is still Dracula and his every appearance sparks a frisson of terror.

Secondly in the novel's favour is the sophisticated narrative method that Stoker adopts. The entire story is told through diary passages, letters and reports with no third-person exposition. This gives the experiences of the characters an immediacy, a you-are-there feeling. This first-person, shifting point of view is not entirely new but still seems a relatively innovative concept for the late nineteenth century. It took quite a bit of skill to pull it off so that every important narrative detail is included without appearing contrived. Which makes me wonder why so much of the other writing is bad.

(On book-selling sites you'll find readers rhapsodizing about how great the writing in Dracula is, from which I can only conclude that they have not read other, much better writers from this time, such as Thomas Hardy or Oscar Wilde, or even H.G. Wells.)

Thanks to Hollywood, it is difficult to discuss Dracula without a comparison to that other work about a monster, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The latter was written four generations earlier, but the movies have brought both subjects together in our minds as co-inhabitants of spooky, lightning-framed castles. The films, especially the studio classics of the 1930s, have even recast the stories to resemble each other somewhat.

But the novels really are quite different. Frankenstein, as indicated by its alternative title The Modern Prometheus, is all about man's overweening pride, man usurping the powers of the gods, playing Maker without the requisite moral strength or wisdom. Shelley focuses both on the arrogant human creator and, more touchingly, on the creation who is cast into life without a human soul (whatever that is) and without being able to connect with the rest of the world's inhabitants. If there is a fear uncovered (and what is a horror book or horror film but an exploration of our fears), it may be fear of science and technology growing faster than our ability to control it. If a question about humanity is raised, it is about what makes us human: is it fixed, eternal? is it fluid, fragile?

Three-quarters of a century later, after the Industrial Revolution, after the Romantic reaction, Stoker's novel is even more about fear.

The threat of everlasting life in Dracula does not come from progress at the hands of man, as in Frankenstein, but from something primitive and mysterious—something that may be stirred in any human heart. It is unclear exactly how the novel's central figure himself became a vampire, but a single contact with him could turn anyone else into the same eternally damned creature. Pointedly, this transformation is passed on through the blood, indicating a process deep within the person, within his or her very life force. Tellingly, Stoker spends little time focusing on the vampire and almost the entire main plot on the terrified and defiant vampire hunters who want to preserve themselves, and all of us, from this fate worse than death.

But it is also unclear what exactly is so terrible about becoming a vampire. You live forever. You get to change your shape at will to fly around the sky or gallop through the woods whenever you want. You seem to enjoy an endless stream of hedonistic delights. None of the vamps seem to express anything but glee with their situation. So you can't do as much during the daylight hours and there are these people trying to stake you through the heart and your soul (still whatever that is) is not at rest. But if you add up the pluses and minuses unemotionally, it still sounds pretty good.

The monster buried within us

Oh, one more thing on the negative side: you're evil!

This of course is a value judgment by those in the novel who are not vampires and are terrified they will be seduced into becoming them. And we accept this immediately—we have a visceral identification with their dread. Surely this represents fear of what strange darkness lies within our own hearts. Unlike Frankenstein, which obsesses about what humanity is and what may be lost as civilization progresses, Dracula concerns what we are and what we've been—what's buried inside us since primeval days, ready to erupt should the veneer of enlightened civilization be worn off.

"What does it mean to be human?" may be the great question that all literature, perhaps all art, asks over and over again. Neither Frankenstein nor Dracula are great literature in the usual refined sense of the word, but they may be great popular literature in that they put the question more nakedly than subtler works. Everyone can identify it—and identify with it—at least on an instinctive level. Their creatures have become cultural icons because they represent extreme possibilities in our natures as much as do any of the strangest creations of Shakespeare, Stephen King, ancient mythologizers and the Biblical writers.

The Annotated Dracula is the highly acclaimed edition of the Bram Stoker novel with notes on almost every page by Leonard Wolf, the foremost Dracula scholar and a native of Transylvania (in Romania) no less, about the historical background and other interesting information about people, places and things in the novel. If you're into the genre, it's well worth the extra expense. The annotated volume is out of print but you can still find secondhand copies online.

The New Annotated Dracula (2008) is an even more elaborate tome that includes maps, illustrations and learned articles tying Stoker's text to the historical figure that editor Leslie S. Klinger believes the fictional character was based on.

Numerous theories have been propounded on what has made Dracula an enduring figure: Does he represent a medieval past we are trying to escape? Does he personify our fear of drug addiction or disease? Is he our buried sexual drives incarnate? Is he our pagan heart bursting from the tomb of Christian civilization?

For a great survey of such ideas, you couldn't do better than review some of the dozens of films that have been made about Dracula over the past century, or at least read the commentaries on them. Every age seems to have a different take on what keeps the appeal of the blood-sucking count going.

— Eric


Critique • QuotesTextDracula at the movies