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A Vampiric Tale of Life, Love and Death
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Member Name: marandina
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Date: 17/04/02, updated on 13/08/03 (536 review reads)
Advantages: Still a classic, Wonderful story
Disadvantages: See op
Abraham (Bram) Stoker (1847 ? 1912) was born in Dublin. The son of a civil servant he overcame an incapacitating childhood illness to become a civil servant himself in later life. An accomplished writer, he had a number of books published (examples being The Snake's Pass 1890 and The Lair of The White Worm 1911) of which Dracula is by far the most famous.
In an era that demanded more and more crime, ghost and horror stories, the Victorians' increasing awareness of sexuality meant that this particular book fed a need at almost the perfect time. Pornography was almost accepted in some quarters and any author that could conjure images of sexual power was always going to appear on the bestseller list.
Published for the first time in 1897, Dracula (originally intended to be called The Un-Dead) told the tale of what was on the face of it a struggle between good and evil. The story was in reality so much more than this and operated on several levels. Issues of human identity and sadness; the predation of sexual power as opposed to sexual desire and the tangible reality of the occult were examined in differing levels of detail leaving the reader to take from the book what they will.
The heart and soul of the book can, maybe, be found from a passage found early on in the story "...I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness, which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth. Lower and
lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat."
In it's most basic form, the story is relatively straightforward. Reproduced on numerous occasions, the closest to the original text is Francis Ford Coppola's gothic classic starring Gary Oldman. Whilst there have been numerous other homages to Stoker's creation ranging from Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu to Hammer's Christopher Lee centric version, Ford Coppola stayed reasonably faithful to the original text albeit this is part of the challenge when reading Dracula i.e. having an open mind and putting aside the pre-conceived images generated by so many ventures on celluloid.
Jonathan Harker is a representative of an English company dealing in property transactions who is dispatched to Transylvania to negotiate a deal with a Romanian aristocrat. The format is a little unusual in that the book is made up of a series of individual journal entries enlisting first person accounts from various characters in the story. The initial perspective is that of Jonathan Harker and tells of a strange passage of events at Castle Dracula. Stoker re-creates a wild backdrop of dense forests and mountain top castles evoking an immediate feeling of foreboding exemplified by the local peasants' reaction to Harker's destination along with the sinister presence of wild wolves seemingly under the control of the mysterious Count. Harker's descent into virtual imprisonment in an unfolding set of bizarre circumstances is a thrilling opening to the book as the story moves to a second phase with Dracula's journey to England leaving Harker to escape the madness that he has become embroiled in. Harker's entreaties are addressed to his intended, the seraphic Mina Murray, who is back in England awaiting his safe return so that they can marry.
Lucy Westenra is the principal figure in the English setting. Based in Whitby,
she is the subject of the affection of 3 different men. Having had 3 marriage proposals all on the same day she decides to opt for Arthur Holmwood leaving the others a little disappointed. One of the rejected duo is Dr Seward who runs the local asylum. Lucy starts to become the victim of increasingly bizarre behaviour including strange bouts of blood loss eventually lead him to enlist the help of Dr Van Helsing, an experienced scholar with a vast knowledge of parapsychology.
Meanwhile, an interesting sub plot involving a deranged patient called Renfield develops providing a fascinating insight into the workings of a psychotic mind. Renfield is waiting for the return of his Master (Dracula) and his abnormal behaviour is developed as the story goes on. This includes sucking the blood from insects and increasingly violent outbursts mirroring the proximity of his Master. Seward's ongoing analysis of him provides a fascinating parallel to the main story.
The crux of the story revolves around the efforts to keep Lucy alive and the aftermath of its failure. What ensues is a sweeping tale of a Gothic romance spanning hundreds of years and the ensuing fight from the good Doctors to subvert the plans of the evil Count.
There is so much to praise about the book and yet, despite its classic status, it is still open to certain criticism. It seems harsh to pick faults with such a wonderful milestone in literature but then that's what critiques are for.
The style of presenting a story from different perspectives is, for me at least, unique. However, because of this, Stoker never really builds any depth into the characters. He seemingly bypasses the need to give much more than a cursory history of any of the main players by using the first person approach throughout. This also extends to Dracula who for large periods merely hovers in the background in various guises including that of a large bat. Of course, if you didn't know the sto
ry already then the subliminal characteristics and limitations of the monster would be slowly leaked in a cumulative method that serves to rack the tension as the story progresses.
Perhaps representative of the time, Stoker's vernacular is a little formal and reminded me of Conan Doyle's in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Maybe harsh as a criticism but worth mentioning for any would be readers so that you can make allowances.
The strengths of the book far outweigh the weaknesses and in it's literary capacity as a classic could be described as legion.
The actual story is so wonderfully inventive. At that particular time, there were other vampire stories such as Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) and Rymer's Varney The Vampire but Stoker tapped into the common psyche immediately propelling the book to significant heights of popularity. The effusion of romance and horror are wonderfully worked, interweaved with a strong strand of occultism that fire up the reader's imagination.
The story itself is timeless, belonging to any age and not just it's Victorian founder. Such a unique set of events come together to amount to the kind of story that could be told around a camp fire on a cold night in the middle of some dark woods.
For those wanting to go deeper into the sub-text, the exploration of sexual power and suggestion provides something of an insight into the Victorian mind. After all, we said earlier that pornography was prevalent in certain circles and Dracula with its references to vulnerable maidens and vixen-like temptresses seemed to highlight the mood of those times and the want of more daring prose.
Occult references were brought into mainstream literature in a way that large numbers of people had access to what many would find disturbing. Whilst hardly new (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein had pre-dated Dracula having been written in the first part of the 19th century), many would have fo
und (and find today) the candescent references to spiritualism, hypnotism and monstrous fiends out of step with normal every day life. The book conjures images that are simply disturbing e.g. the Count crawling down the outside of his castle walls; the premise of ritualistic killings and the eminence of blood driven crimes.
As with any book associated with the horror genre, the reader can be forgiven for asking questions of religion of the author and the relationship between events and Heaven and Hell. There are certainly a number of references in the story that make the association including the history of the Dracula family and it's mystical association with defeating foreign invaders in times gone by and subsequent links with devil worship. At one stage Renfield even makes the association between blood lust and the connotations of the role of the blood of Christ in a religious mass making a comparison of ever lasting life between the unspeakable acts of his Master and holy communion.
Having read this book, I am thrilled to have undergone the experience. I could go on for so much longer as there is such a rich vein to mine but won't for fear of subjugating your interest when it's the book that should be centre stage.
This is a journey into a maelstrom of literary genres culminating in a magnificent story of love, desire and destruction. If you can clear your mind and read the story as though you?ve never come across it before then it's a read that comes strongly recommended as part of your reading experience.
Thanks for reading.
This edition was published by Penguin (www.penguinclassics.com) and cost £3.50. It includes notes by Maurice Hindle. I bought this version at Waterstones who are also online at www.waterstones.co.uk
There are a number of references that do not easily translate into today's terminology. Each is annotated numerically and indexed in t
he back by way of explanation.