Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

4 out of 5 bloody stars

I think this is the third time I’ve read this. I remember I wasn’t at all impressed as a kid. And I’ll admit I felt a little cheated. This was not the sizzling, erotic tale I’d been led to believe that it was. Like so much Victorian and gothic literature, you gotta read between the lines for the dirt!

It’s funny how the Hollywood machine that brought so many of these wonderful old horror stories to life, like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and of course, Dracula, are so bent and twisted out of shape that when people read the actual books, they find the pop-culture references they expect to find are not there. There is no Igor. There is no dinner party with Dracula. But I’d have you know, that this is not a meandering gothic tale that is landlocked or out on the moors. This is an action/adventure extravaganza!

In case you didn’t know, Dracula is told through a series of journals written by the principal characters. The tale begins with Jonathon Harker’s strange trip through Buda-Pesth to Transylvania. He is a solicitor, sent by his the head partner to finalize some paperwork in the sale of a new house to their client, Count Dracula, and to help answer his questions about life in England. Well the trip itself is terrifying. The locals warn Jonathan away at every turn – at one point, even trying to trick him out of meeting with the Count. He does finally make it to Castle Dracula…and soon finds himself a prisoner.

I mean, we all know what/who Dracula is. But Jonathan has no idea what’s ahead for him. Slowly, the kind and polite old Count and the castle itself, shows a dark side. Despite his meals appearing, his bed being made, the water showing up in the pitcher, there are no servants. He catches the Count himself making his bed. The Count doesn’t have a reflection in the mirror. He never eats. Then what appears to be eccentricity becomes downright menacing. The Count seems to control the wolves that prowl the mountains. He convinces Jonathan to write letters home telling them he has left… when he hasn’t. He begins to believe that he will not leave the castle alive.

While Jonathan is held in the castle, we take up the story of Mina, Jonathan’s fiancee. She’s despondent he hasn’t written her, and what letters she does get are short and uninformative. In the meantime, her friend Lucy in Whitby is beset on all sides by marriage proposals. She has chosen her man, though, and the others accept their refusals like gentleman and swear to love her and care for her all the rest of her life…. this is a very romantic, overblown story at times, in terms of sentiment, so be ready for the cheese factor. Around this time, Mina hears from Jonathan, recovering from his escape from Dracula and goes to Hungary to collect and care for him. Around the same time, a mysterious ship wrecks in the harbor near Whitby.

Shorty after this, a dark pall falls over Lucy. Her health begins to deteriorate. She sleepwalks, and is generally disturbed in her mind. One of her suitors is Dr. Seward, head of the local madhouse. We also see things from his journals, recorded on phonograph – it’s so crazy how this uses the technology of the time – it shows the Victorian love of invention. Mina even has a travel typewriter! They  can’t seem to find the cure for whatever ails Lucy, and so Dr. Seward calls in his mentor, Dr. Van Helsing, a famous …brain doctor? It’s some weird, old timey, Victorian term I don’t remember. He’s a medical genius when it comes to disorders of the brain and he has a lot of knowledge about the occult. He recognizes the mark of the vampire on her, and does his best to save her. His English becomes progressively worse and more irritating to read as the book goes on – mostly because it isn’t consistent.

Through Dr. Seward we also meet Renfield. He’s a lunatic in the asylum with a weird thing for eating bugs, believing that each life he consumes extends his own life. Sort of like the lady who swallowed the cat to eat the bird that ate the spider that ate the fly. It turns out that even Renfield is affected by the coming of the vampire!

Most of the “erotic/sexual” stuff in this is heaped on the women. Yes, Dracula’s lips are described as sensuous, but his appearance isn’t described much – and isn’t really appealing. It’s his three wives that are described as “voluptuous” numerous times – I mean, Stoker could have used a thesaurus. (I just recently heard them called his “daughters” in an article?  They refer to Mina as a sister at one point, but I do not think they were his actual flesh and blood or that their relationship was non-sexual.) Whereas the wives are heaped with revulsion, Mina is held up as a bastion of womanhood; sheer, utter, romantic perfection. There is all kind of old thinking on display in this. Because she is intelligent, Van Helsing says she has the brain of a man. As if. I love it when she is talking to Van Helsing and he asks “Ah then you have a good memory for facts, for details? It is not always so with young ladies.” And Mina breaks out her very detailed journal written in shorthand, that he can’t read! Put that in your misogynist pipe and suck it, Van Helsing!

Of all the gothic novels out there, this one is a humdinger. I love the Jane Eyre’s and Wuthering Heightses and those dark old mansions filled with secrets and ghosts… but this one is visceral and has a Texan in it, a boat chase, a race across Europe, wolves, and vampires…. what else could you want?

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