Dracula by Bram Stoker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
this review originally appeared on Good Reads
Dracula is, like Frankenstein, a book that has influenced so much of our pop culture that we don’t even question that we know the facts of the book without having even read it. Before having read Dracula, I’d experienced Interview with a Vampire (book and movie), Discworld’s vampires, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Blade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Show, not movie), Vampire Hunter D OAV, From Dusk til Dawn, the Twilight Series (exposed to bits and pieces by the wife), and countless Hanna-Barberra or Saturday Morning cartoons that had vampire characters. In a lot of ways I knew about the original Dracula by what these other works of entertainment had done differently. For it seemed to be a game among authors and directors to take delight in having a scene in which one of the characters thinks he knows just how to kill or keep vampires away only to be chastised by the Vampire for believing such silly nonsense. So I set about reading Dracula, noting the differences from what we’ve come to know about Dracula.
Before we get to that, I just wanted to reflect on the book as I would with any other book. The book is told as a series of diary entries. At first I wasn’t sure if I’d like that, but it didn’t bother me at all in the end. It also afforded Bram Stoker a chance to revisit events through the point of view of different characters. On interesting artifact about it is that it guarantees that the author of the diary entry survived whatever ordeal he or she was documenting. After all, dead people can’t write in their diary. That doesn’t mean that whoever writes one is guaranteed to live through the entire book, just at least as long as his or her entry.
The book is modern enough that the language is not an issue (unlike Shakespeare, who is also often trying to show us how clever he is). At any rate, the version of the book I was reading (Barnes and Noble Classic) was very well annotated. That is, I think, the only justification for buying a book long out of copyright. Otherwise you’re better off just grabbing it from The Gutenburg Project.
Interestingly, and perhaps on the same level as the now-famous killing off of the lead in Psycho in the first few minutes, for a book titled Dracula, there is very little appearance of the evil guy. In fact, although I didn’t do any calculations, I’d say that the book is easily 80% absent any direct presence of Dracula. He appears here and there and causes things to happen which the rest of the characters then spend most of the book responding to. In a way it makes him a much more insidious enemy because you don’t read about what he’s doing, rather, you see the results.
Last random bits:
I’m glad that, unlike modern horror, none of the characters is forced to carry the idiot ball – in other words, considering the characters are all intelligent men, none of them does stupid stuff simply so that the plot can advance by people getting attacked, etc.
There’s some disturbing stuff in this book that is a product of its time. In the same way that the old Disney, Tom and Jerry, and Warner Brothers cartoons have extremely racist jokes including, but not limited to, blackface, Dracula suffers from the time period in which it is written. There are numerous references to phrenology, questionable psychology, and other things we find intolerable nowadays. The most egregious is how the men are always praising Mina for being smart…..for a woman. I know that for the 1800s it’s meant to be high praise, but reading it in 2011 it just sounds so wrong.
There are references Arabian Nights, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello. Pinch to wake from dream – a character asks for someone to do this to them. The book mentions slang and American who uses word “ain’t”. I loved the quote “perfect torrent of love-making” – which is actually based on the fact that making love used to mean flirting. The quote “lock, stock, and barrel” is at least as old as Dracula. There is mention of Salvation Army, customs officers and chess. And, surprising for me as I’d just finished playing Monkey Island 2: grog is a real drink! (rum and water)
Finally, the ending is a LITTLE bit stretched out. I found myself yelling “get on with it!” at my nook.
OK, now I’m going to go into the differences and tropes. I’m going to mark this section as spoilers just in case.
Differences from the Usual Vampire Depictions
-has a moustache – I’ve never seen him depicted with any facial hair
-materializing – not only can Dracula take on the form of a bat, but he can also take the form of mist and other forms
-no coffin – Dracula doesn’t stay in a coffin. Rather he appears (at least as I read it) to just stay in packing boxes
-can walk around in daylight just fine (with reduced powers)
Tropes that started with (or were popularized by) Dracula
-Vamps move super fast
-Dracula tells Jonathan to “enter freely and of your own will”
-Vampires have fangs
-Vampires have no reflection
-Thunderstorms go together with bad things happening
-Garlic keeps vampires away
-To kill a vampire: Stake in heart, Cut off head, and take out heart
-Vampires need to be invited into your home
-Dracula needs soil from homeland in his new homes
-Dead vamps turn to dust
-Need to die to become a vampire (contrast with Interview with a Vampire) – this is why they are trying to keep Lucy from dying
-Mentions Vlad as ancestor of Dracula – (turns out to be the truth in the same way that Darth Vader killed Anakin)
Overall, Dracula is a great book that has held up very well over the the past century and then some. It’s worth a read so you can see where it all started.