Hollywood has released yet another vampire movie, this one named after Bram Stoker’s book from 1897. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the only thing the movie has in common with the source material is a) the main character is a vampire and b) the movie’s title is Dracula. What is a surprise to me is how a book can spawn so many movie adaptations and books and TV shows, while at same time has never been made into a movie that’s completely faithful to the original (the film from 1992 comes closer than any of them, but it still messed with the story in some pretty important ways). Whether you’re a fan of Dracula or Lestat or Damon Salvatore or even Edward Cullen, it’s worth it to read Stoker’s novel to see for yourself the book which had so much of an impact that it’s still inspiring people more than a hundred years later.
Fair warning though, this one was tough to get through in places. Even on the second re-read I found myself getting bogged down by the flowery prose. The characters are all just so earnest; going on and on for a page and a half at a time about how desperately grateful they are to have such stalwart friends to stand by them through these trials, and the whole time I’m wishing they would just shut up and move on. In order to really appreciate what Stoker created here, it’s helpful to keep in mind that this is not a collection of old black-and-white movie cliches and overly-dramatic stereotypes; this is where all the cliches and stereotypes come from. The vampire myth was around before Bram Stoker, but he was the one who defined it for modern audiences. Dracula is what started it all.
One of the first things that makes this book stand out is the format. Every part of the story is told in journal entries and letters and even newspaper articles. With no centralized narrator, every chapter has a different voice and feel. Doctor Stewart’s phonograph medical diary (with his descriptions about his strange spider-eating patient Renfeld), Mina and Lucy’s correspondence, and Van Helsing’s journal are just three examples out of at least a dozen different viewpoints used to tell the story. And since most of these are a very personal viewpoint, you get to see into the mind of each character, and then see how that character changes. Jonathan’s happy, chatty little journal about the beautiful Carpathian landscape and the quaint people and their interesting food (with a couple of notes to “get recipe for Mina”) gets progressively darker and darker as he sees more of the Count and his castle.
The jump from viewpoint to viewpoint also creates some shocking contrasts. In one chapter Dr. Steward’s diary tells about everyone’s desperate attempts to save Lucy, who’s mother has just suddenly died from heart-failure, and who’s slowly but surely dying herself from something no one can figure out. And then the very next chapter is a letter from Mina, full of hope now that she’s been reunited with Jonathan, and wanting to know all about Lucy’s upcoming wedding, and what she’s planning to wear, and just how is her dear mother getting on? The chapter is titled “Letter, Mina Harker to Lucy Westenra (Unopened by her.)” It’s chilling, going from Dr. Steward’s “God help us all,” to a cheerful letter that Lucy will never read.
Stoker is excellent at describing the hauntingly beautiful (or terrifying) scenery throughout the book. Dracula’s coming is usually foretold by blood-colored sunsets, creeping fog, or tempests (“pathetic fallacy”, I think is the term for having the weather match what’s happening in the story.). One of my favorite chapters is from a newspaper cutting that’s pasted in Mina’s journal. It tells about a sudden storm that hits the harbor town of Whitby. The whole chapter is almost cinematic, filled with Stoker’s descriptions about the storm, and the sea-mists that part just long enough for the lightning to show the waves “so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible,” and a mysterious schooner with all the sails up, crashing through the storm without any direction at all. I loved the image of the cliffs over the shore, crowded with tourists who all cheer whenever another boat makes it to safety, while out beyond the harbor is the literally dead ship with a corpse tied to the wheel.
It was a shock to me to turn from the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvelous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water, and to realize all the grim sternness of my own cold stone building, with its wealth of breathing misery, and my own desolate heart to endure it all.
The characters can be a tad one-dimensional at times (“Brave”, “Pure”, “Wise”, “Doomed”), but that made me enjoy Renfeld’s scenes more; he’s crazy, except when he isn’t. You’re never quite sure what his motivation is from minute to minute. He’s convinced that he’ll be able to live forever by absorbing lives, which explains why he’s constantly luring flies and spiders into his cell, and then eating them. The character is played as a kind of comedic relief in most adaptations, which is pretty much what he is here. Sort of. His mood swings from intelligent and genteel to total crazy-pants make for some of the more lighthearted parts of the book, but you do get the idea that it’s only the fact that he’s stuck in a cell that’s keeping him from eating anything…larger.
And then there’s Mina. If anyone has a reason to complain about how their character has been altered in the movie adaptations, it’s Mina. It’s more than just the fact that everyone wants to add a romance between her and Dracula ( something which is completely nonexistent in the book, and for damn good reason; Dracula terrorized and imprisoned her future husband and then slowly killed her dearest friend. Why the hell would she have a romance with this thing?) It’s that she’s so much more than a damsel in distress, she’s also a full participant in the quest to find and kill Dracula. There’s a scene where she even holds a gun for crying out loud. On at least a couple of occasions she manages to figure things out before anyone else, and when she becomes Dracula’s victim she has the sense to make all these fine gentlemen swear that they’ll kill her before they let her become another monster. Contrast Mina with female characters created by other writers of the same time period, like Oscar Wilde’s Sibyl Vane, who quits acting when she falls in love and then kills herself when she’s rejected. What makes things even more interesting is that Mina’s obviously a strong, brave, intelligent woman, but also terribly, terribly Victorian. One scene that caught me by surprise was when she went out in the dead of night to bring back the sleepwalking Lucy from a graveyard. She gives Lucy her cloak and shoes, and then along the way she stops at a puddle and daubs her feet with some mud to hide the fact that she’s now barefoot. Imagine, they’re walking back from a cemetery half-clothed at midnight, no telling who they might meet or how they would explain themselves, but it’s still important that no one see her with naked feet. It’s silly and sweet and resourceful, all at the same time.
One of the most amazing things to me is how far the vampire legend has come from Dracula. Vampires are all sexy, troubled beings now, but Dracula? Dracula was horrible. He’s ugly and extremely cruel, he draws out poor Lucy’s death and then feeds from Mina in order to punish the men who are trying to stop him. There’s nothing romantic about being a vampire here, and the book goes out of its way to show that turning into one was so much worse than death. There’s a scene towards the end of the book that sums it up beautifully. The characters all know that they have to find and kill Dracula, because if he goes into hiding he can simply wait for a hundred years, long enough for Mina to die and turn into a vampire herself. If they fail they’ll have to kill her to keep that from happening. Mina is aware of this more than any of them, so before they set out she asks them to perform a Rite of Burial. And they do. It’s a powerful scene, and for the life of me I can’t remember if any of the Dracula film adaptations have included it. It would be a pity if none of them did; it says more about how horrifying vampires are than any special effects could.