Dracula by Bram Stoker.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
So it seems I’m on another Gothic Lit jag. And where better to continue with the granddaddy of fanged fiction: Dracula?
You know this novel, though, right? It’s pretty much the ur-text for how we conceive of vampires, and throws a long shadow. (Though not, presumably, in a mirror.) It’s overwritten and can flip between boredom and action in a moment. I always find it a drag to read until about halfway – I am almost always of a mind to give it away – but then it snaps back in and I’m pulled through to the end.
It is, in other words, a curious work. Frustrating and a little bit in love with its epistolary nature, I find it takes time to find the right rhythm to read it. But I’m always rewarded when I do, rediscovering anew its desire to bring scientific enquiry to the problem of the Count. I’m also always surprised that there’s elements of the chivalric romance at play:
‘We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’
Though I’d read it a couple of times, I’d never really looked much into the life of its author. At time of writing, Stoker was a Whitby-holidaying theatre manager writing penny-dreadfuls to supplement his income. His background was for the dramatic, the exclamation point-heavy, and it shows in the work. (As does the fact that he wrote a well-received handbook for law clerks, explaining the documentary nature of the work.)
Knowing the theatrical background of its author also explains some of the narrative choices in the book. For example, there’s large sections where the reader is in possession of facts – apparently really fucking obvious ones that other characters are not. This leads to a real feeling of pantomime interchange at least on my part: he’s living next door, for fuck’s sake!
(Obviously, this is completely intentional. It works: I was engaged, and frustrated. But I kept reading.)
Interesting to me on this read-through was the concept of Dracula as invasion literature. The coming of the Count, seemingly unopposed, reflects English fears of the arrival of foreign forces on their shores. There’s an undeniable sexual component to his presentation, too – the sapping of vital fluids via enhanced osculation, really – and so I can imagine how many moustaches were set twitching by the work.
I do like that there’s a big sense of not belonging, of being out of one’s depth – both in terms of the heroes and the villain. Harker is obviously out of his depth as the book opens, and the Count’s reliance on proxies to do the work he cannot means that almost everyone in the book has to take a punt on the unknown in order to get their results. As Stoker says,
But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one; men know him not – and to know not is to care not for.
The only thing that stops me from giving Dracula five stars is the fact that its epistolary nature gets in the way at times. The story is already in the realm of the fantastic, but such breathless diarising inserts a distancing frame from the more vital action, particularly towards the end of the work. It’s especially galling when the book just… ends. It’s been told, all the way through, in the form of recollection, yet there’s no post-victory ruminating on the nature of the beast, or on its vanquishers? It’s janky, and though I was satisfied by the narrative overall, this has always stuck out to me.
Still, I am glad I reread the work. It forces me, each time, to persevere to the end – and that in itself speaks to the strange magnetism of the tale Stoker spins.