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Fangs for the Memories
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Member Name: SWSt
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Advantages: Deeply atmospheric and deeply influential
Disadvantages: Flowery Victorian languge and casual sexism may be off-putting
Of course, everyone knows (or thinks) they know the plot of Dracula. An ancient vampire comes to Britain and starts to prey on the population first of Whitby, then London. Few people realise the truth, but Doctor Abraham Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker are determined to stop the Count before the plague of vampirism spreads.
These days, Dracula can read as a little clichéd and tired, although there is, of course, a good reason for that: Dracula was the first real popular novel to feature vampires and as such, established most of the staples of vampire lore: garlic, stakes through the heart, fear of sunlight... all of these crept into the popular mind thanks to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Indeed, rather than criticising it for being clichéd, the modern reader needs to acknowledge its incredible, long-lasting influence. Much of what we read about in modern vampire fiction has its ancestry in Dracula.
A more justified criticism is that the language of Dracula is very flowery by modern standards and the action relatively staid. There are long descriptive passages, giving highly detailed descriptions, as was the style at that time and to the more impatient modern eye, this can be rather tiresome. It was this that put me off reading it when I was younger. I was used to lots of action and excitement; vicious attacks by monsters resulting in mass bloodletting. Judged on those terms, Dracula is rather tame. Violence and sex are certainly key themes of the book, but they are referred to only obliquely and there are certainly no bloodbaths, which might be disappointing for modern readers. If your only idea of Dracula has come through the Hammer Horror films, then you will be disappointed by the tameness of the original text.
On the other hand, this more understated, almost prudish approach allows Dracula to establish something all too often missing from modern horror literature: atmosphere. Rather than relying on shocks, Stoker uses the languid pace to establish a convincing plotline that resonates menace. As the plot progresses you become more and more uneasy about the dangers the characters face and, since you spend so long reading their innermost thoughts, you care for them deeply and worry for their safety. These are not cardboard cut-out victims whose only role is to die; they feel like real flesh and blood people. Similarly, the lack of bloodshed means that when violence does happen, it is perhaps all the more shocking and has greater impact.
You also have to read Dracula in the context of its time - as a Victorian novel - to fully appreciate how well written it is. Dracula is a very well-constructed book. Characters don't immediately leap to conclusions and think "Oh! He must be a vampire". The idea creeps up on them gradually. Even when all the evidence points to that conclusion, they still refute it on the grounds that it can't possibly be true... and isn't that an accurate portrayal of human nature? How many of us would readily accept the idea of a vampire if we came across the situation in real life? Most of us would look at every other possible explanation before we even came close to accepting that someone was a genuine Undead.
Once you accept the excessive verbiage and flowery language as part of the way books were written at that time, you start to find that Dracula is actually highly. Stoker uses a technique which is quite common now but which (at the time) was quite unusual. His narrative is not told through a standard first (or even third) person perspective. Rather we read the tale through excerpts taken from diaries, journals, newspaper reports and other written sources.
It's credit to Stoker's ability that he make these different sources really sound like they were written by different people. The journal of Mina Harker is strikingly different in tone from (say) the writings of Dr Seward; the slightly mangled idiomatic style of the Dutch vampire hunter Van Helsing is equally well observed and gives him a voice and character all his own. Viewing the story through the eyes of several different people allows Stoker to approach elements of the story in contrasting ways: some react to the menace with a sense of disbelief, others are accepting, but horrified; some determined to stamp out the menace, no matter what the cost. Stoker is able to effectively portray some very differing emotions and reactions to the horror thanks to his tactic of seeing the same events through several different pairs of eyes.
The one thing that may well be offensive to modern readers is that there is undoubtedly a deep vein of sexism running throughout. Although Mina Harker is a key character and a very strong woman, this is always tempered with an emphasis on how unusual she is for a woman and the limitations she has because of her gender. Again, this is something you need to place within the context of when the book was written, but it is slightly uncomfortable for the modern reader.
On the whole, if you are prepared to put your preconceived Hollywood-ised ideas of vampires to one side and accept the slightly old-fashioned tone of Dracula, you will discover a book which is still both highly readable and deeply influential.
Wordsworth Editions, 1993
(Note: if you have a Kindle, there is a perfectly serviceable (if badly formatted) version available for free.)
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: An influential book that still reads well today