Friday, October 24, 2014

Classic Fiction: Dracula by Bram Stoker

As we close in on Halloween I thought I would cover a classic that many people know about but few have actually read, Bram Stoker's Dracula. These days it would seem that there aren't enough books and movies out there about vampires (and zombies) to keep the public adequately entertained. Every story leaves people crying out for more, and there are many authors and movie producers out there who are more than willing to oblige. Even in 1897, when Dracula was published, vampires proved to be quite popular, and have remained so ever since.

The Situation: Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, is meeting up with a Count Dracula in order to provide legal support for a real estate transaction. The meeting is to take place on the Transylvania border in the Count's castle. Despite Dracula's knowledge and charm, Harker eventually realizes things aren't quite right, and finds himself as a prisoner in the castle. The Count himself leaves for a trip to England, but that doesn't mean he has left Harker in the castle by himself. Before Dracula left, Harker had already encountered "the sisters," three women who live with Dracula in Transylvania and are vampires themselves. Now the sisters have Harker all to themselves, and would have begun to feed on him if he hadn't barely escaped with his life. This one ordeal is horrifying enough, and Harker is indeed lucky to be alive, but it is only the beginning of the terror Dracula will inflict on Harker's life.

The Problem: Count Dracula leaves Harker in his castle in Transylvania only to begin tracking his fiance, Mina Murray, along with her lovely but naive friend, Lucy Westenra. Lucy's three suitors, Dr. John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood, are also drawn into the drama, along with one of Dr. Seward's patients, Renfield. Renfield is helpful in that he is able to sense Dracula's presence and provide help in that way, but he also believes he can consume insects, spiders, birds, and rats in an attempt to absorb their life force, much like Dracula does with human beings. When Lucy falls suspiciously ill and begins to waste away, Dr. Seward calls for a former teacher, Abraham Van Helsing, to help in find out what is going on. Van Helsing knows what has happened, and fears that there is only one way to "cure" Lucy, especially after it appears she has been stalking small children at night. And when Harker returns from his escape, all currently unaffected members of the group must band together to take down the powerful Count Dracula before he claims anymore lives. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic horror novel set in late 19th century Europe. Many people are familiar with the idea of vampires, and with the story of Dracula, but what many probably don't realize, unless they have read the book, is that it is written in epistolary format. That's right, the entire story is told through letters, journal entries, ship's log entries, etc. So instead of reading the story from the point of view of a third person omniscient narrator, or even just one person, there end up being many storytellers and many different voices and opinions, with Van Helsing's probably being the most verbose and rambling. Naturally, the one person the reader would probably most likely want to hear from the most is Dracula, but that option is never presented, which adds to his overall mystery. It is clear that the Count has some sort of great power, and uses the life force of other humans to sustain himself. What is also clear is that he is far too powerful for one person to fight on their own and must be stopped. When the story was initially published in 1897, it was incredibly popular, and controversial. Within the same year of its publication the story would be performed onstage. And of course, the story still remains popular today. And while many modern vampire stories have nothing to do with Count Dracula himself, it is clear that the influence is still present. 

My Verdict: Reading a book will never be as easy as watching a movie, especially when that book is over 100 years old and written in a style that many modern readers just aren't used to. But with that being said, lovers of horror should read Dracula at least once in their lives. I think the main challenge would be getting past the epistolary format and switching voices. Once that is accomplished, the character of Dracula is just as uncomfortably charming and horrifying as he is portrayed onscreen. And what is constantly present is the sense of foreboding and dread that comes from knowing some sort of powerful being is close by and potentially watching you at any moment, looking for the right moment to strike you or someone you love, and there is little you can do about it. Even for an old horror story, it is still incredibly scary.

Favorite Moment: When Renfield attempts to warn Mina of Dracula's intentions, despite being under the powerful vampire's control. 

Favorite Character: Although his diary entries can sometimes be a little much, my absolute favorite character in the story is Abraham Van Helsing. He is the one who comes in and knows what must be done in order to be rid of this threat, while acknowledging how difficult and dangerous it will be to do it. He makes very little pretense as to what is truly going on. 

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore more classic novels that are more horror than they they are romantic, I recommend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But be warned, this is one of those books that actually isn't that long, but for some reason takes forever to read. Oh yeah, and it also written through letters. 

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