Written over a century ago, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is epic both in stature and its game-changing nature. It’s a book that’s hugely influential not only upon the world of literature, but on popular culture too. Sometimes its success makes it feel as though it has been pushed into the shadows by the very beacon of horror which it created. That being, of course, the vampire Dracula.
Don’t get me wrong; Stoker didn’t invent the vampire. In novella and novel format respectively, Polidori’s The Vampyre and Le Fanu’s Carmilla both preceded it, and before those works the vampire had existed in poetry and fragmentary lore for a long time.
But it was Stoker’s creation of the uniquely fanged one, Dracula, that really brought this literary horror to the fore. Coupled with a Victorian audience only too eager to lap up its themes of sexuality, corruption and other various social issues in a time where change was accelerating, and you can see what kind of a launch pad this novel had. And launch it most certainly did, into the hearts and minds of generations.
It’s not just the really cool story of a demon aristocrat who kidnaps his guests, and climbs up walls of his rambling behemoth ancestral castle of a home before hitting London town, that sells this one. Though those are really quite salient points; no, it’s the richness of material on offer here that clinches the deal.
Stoker’s characters, even when as stilted and anal as Jonathan Harker (and he is most definitely that – and reflects upon how well Keanu Reeves played him in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation) have depth, and this resonates throughout the novel.
From the primary protagonist’s curiosity about the native cuisine in the foreign land (must get Mina the recipe etc.) to various reportage on the state of affairs and history in Europe, the idea is sometimes more that of a foreign correspondent on tour. Likewise, as we are introduced to further characters, the nature of the diaries and letters which comprise their ideas and thoughts allow us to get to know them in-depth, and tie the numerous threads together very firmly and with great effect.
It is this sense of discovery, manoeuvred so lovingly in a novel of epistolary format and the interplay of that with those red-hot elements of gothic horror, that make the book so important, so definitive. It’s sometimes the everyday nature – the casual entries in diary format for example – that makes the characters that much more human, and so too our association with them.
To cap this Mount Everest of a book you’ve one of the biggest creations of horror literature – possibly the most villainous – stalking around, and carrying various despotic deeds with his supernatural powers. Shape shifting, killing and controlling people, and then raising the dead – and not just ordinary folks, but those of the upper classes too. And ladies to boot. This was rip-roaring, cusp of the cutting-edge stuff when published.
The interplay between the genuinely creepy and evil supernatural offerings, with the solid writing and exciting goings on is flawless. It’s also sexually charged. Harker’s initial encounters with the female vampires proper is one with ‘hot breath’ on necks, ‘tongues licking’, ‘soft, shivering touch of the lips’ and ‘languorous ecstasy’, and all of that in one paragraph too! This sort of going on wouldn’t be out of place in a Black Lace title, certainly.
The action initially flies between Jonathan Harker’s scary imprisonment by the count, the soap opera-like goings on between Mina – Harker’s bride-to-be – and her best friend forever, Lucy Westenra. Then there’re Dr. Seward’s reflections on the patient in his asylum, Renfield, whose obsession with elements of the food chain is a little off-putting, to say the least. The nature of the diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, adds to the intrigue and interest, and adds more characters to the proceedings too (including Van Helsing, of course). This builds a steady chilling and dramatic tension through to a terrific climax.
From casual conversations over the years, I’ve found that there are a large number of people out there who’ve yet to read this book. Either due to perceived familiarity with the various spin-offs, film versions, and subsequent vampire fiction (much of which isn’t fit for comparison with this source).
That said, we are also deeply indebted for the great works that have been inspired by this book. From ‘Salem’s Lot through to The Passage and beyond, there’re fantastic amounts of vampire literature out there that we might not have, had Stoker’s Dracula not seen the light of day. If you’re one of those out there who’ve not yet read this great book, and are debating whether to, I have to say – go for it. It’s awesome.
Whether you like horror and supernatural literature or not, this is a classic and deserves attention. I wouldn’t be alone if I were to state that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the definitive gothic horror novel. Thus I have no hesitation in formally declaring it as such.
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