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Dracula - Bram Stoker
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Dracula - Bram Stoker
Advantages: Creepy atmosphere, interesting structure, great villain
Disadvantages: Not particularly scary, rushed ending, slightly too long
The basic plot of Dracula, which is pretty complicated, is something like this: Jonathan Harker is an estate agent who is invited to Castle Dracula in Transylvania, by a mysterious Count who is interested in buying a house in England. Once there, Harker is invited warmly into the castle, and things seem perfectly normal. However, the longer he stays, the more he realises that Count Dracula has more to him than the friendly façade he has seen, and Harker becomes trapped in the castle, where numerous strange events befall him. Meanwhile, the Count has made his way to England, in particular Whitby, on the wreckage of a washed up boat. Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, and her friend Lucy Westenra, are staying in Whitby at this time, and Lucy’s habit of sleepwalking soon gets her into serious danger. Lucy gets very ill, so her husband, Arthur, calls his friends Dr John Seward and Professor Abraham Van Helsing (yes, Hugh Jackman from the 2004 film), to help look after her and try to improve her condition. Meanwhile (again!), Dr Seward, who runs a psychiatric asylum, has a patient who is acting very strangely, and may hold a clue as to what is wrong with Lucy. Also, Arthur’s friend Quincey Morris turns up, when he hears of Lucy’s state. The lives of all these people are dramatically brought together when they discover that something truly evil is amongst them, and they must work together to prevent further monstrosities.
The first thing that I want to say about this famous book is that despite what everyone says, it is absolutely not scary. Sure, Stoker has a way of creating atmosphere and spooky situations, and this novel contains some bizarre and creepy images, but whilst reading it, you never at any point feel “scared”, and the situations don’t linger with you afterwards or haunt your dreams for nights to come! There are some violent scenes, and moments of a sexual nature, but these are handled sensibly and ambiguously, as you might expect from a novel written in the highly moral society of Victorian Britain. But after all the violence that had gone before, no matter how it was depicted, I was left unsatisfied by the anti-climactic ending. Let’s face it; I think we can probably guess the ending, but nevertheless, I won’t say anything so that those who still can’t guess will not be disappointed. But when the gang finally do reach the end, you may expect the novel to go out with a big bang of action and excitement to make all the build-up worthwhile. Nope. It goes out with a whimper, with the culmination being far too brief and, frankly, boring.
On the positive side, I did find that Bram Stoker has a very good writing style, which is both highly descriptive, but also (mostly) exciting when eventful scenes are taking place. Stoker focuses on the characters and their domestic problems rather than putting in lots of gory violence and blood-sucking vampires, which modern readers may or may not find disappointing. Instead of the normal horror approach of mindless violence, he builds up the tension slowly, which creates even more impact when you realise what is going on. In fact, without giving anything away, there are some moments which are quite emotional and really make you think about what you would be prepared to do in that situation. There are many different sub-plots, most notably the one with Dr Seward and his patient, Renfield, which at first seem unrelated, but after reading further you find that they are all somehow linked, which is clever.
The structure of the book is also quite unique and effective. Since there are so many main characters, Stoker uses their individual diaries and journals, as well as extracts from letters to each other, newspaper cuttings and a ship’s log book to tell the story, meaning that all the sub-plots are constantly being juggled, so to speak. More importantly, Stoker tells the story from every character’s perspective (other than Dracula himself), which gives an unusual experience to the reader. For example, the first four chapters of the book are from Jonathan Harker’s journal, and describe his experiences in Castle Dracula. You would immediately presume that he is going to be the main character. Suddenly, Stoker switches away from him and continues the story from Mina’s diaries, and in the end, Jonathan Harker is one of the least important characters of the bunch. Some may find this disorientating and confusing, but when you get into the swing of it, it becomes surprisingly easy to follow, and you wonder how you ever enjoyed a book from a fixed perspective.
Stoker deals with loads of external themes and issues, and you could easily interpret the novel in different ways depending on what stance you take (sorry if this is turning into a bit of an English essay!) Some may say that Stoker was against the “new woman” and feminist ideas which were bubbling around in the late 19th century, and his portrayal of the two main women in this book could certainly interest and provoke feminist readers. You can look at the book with a psychoanalytical reading, and try to work out hidden implications of the story which were implied rather than stated by the author. There are subtle indications that Dracula may be gay, due to all his sucking of blood, from both men and women, and his overall manner and appearance. If you wanted to look at it this way, there are a lot of sexual implications, and the book is basically all about the dominance of men over women in society. There is plenty of symbolism, a load of power struggles, and underlying evidence of protests against Victorian society and sexual liberation. However, to be honest, this is all pretty unimportant stuff, and at the heart of the novel and its success is a good story, which is well written.
So, to conclude, I would say that Dracula is a book which you really have to invest a lot of your time into, but it will ultimately reward you (apart from perhaps the ending!) Don’t let that put you off; it is an excellently written book, with a strong sense of atmosphere and creepy settings, and engaging central characters. The most important of which, Count Dracula himself, has to be one of the best creations in the history of the monster/horror genre. The fact that his image is still so recognisable is a glowing testimony to the vision of Bram Stoker which started it off. More believable than Frankenstein, more creepy than (I’m really struggling here)… err… the mummy, and at the end of the day, very enjoyable to read about. It also put Whitby on the tourist map! Not the best book I’ve ever read, but I would really recommend it.
Summary: A creepy rather than scary classic