The tomb in the daytime, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim and gruesome enough; but now some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns; when the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance; when time-discoloured stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron, and tarnished brass and clouded silver-plating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined. It conveyed irresistibly the idea that life – animal life – was not the only thing that could pass away.
It’s ironic that the novel we most associate with the name Bram Stoker was less than successful during the author’s lifetime; he was so impoverished in his last years of life that he petitioned for a compassionate grant from the Royal Literary Fund; after Stoker passed, his widow sold his notes and documents at a Sotheby’s auction that raised a little over 2 pounds. His later novels were also critical disappointments, such as his last published work, the oft-maligned Lair of the White Worm. But since then, in the intervening decades, Dracula has influenced almost every work of vampire fiction made, an influence felt in untold thousands of books, films, comics, and TV shows. Its popularity surged after an unauthorized film adaptation—1922’s Nosferatu—became entangled in a legal battle with Stoker’s widow, triggering an official film adaptation and subsequent re-publication that has kept Dracula in the public eye.
One of the earliest American newspapers commenting on the novel was The San Francisco in July of 1897: “Bram Stoker, Henry Irving’s manager, has written another novel. It is called “Dracula.”” At the time, actor Irving was far better-known than Stoker; he was the first actor to receive a knighthood and was a major force within English classical theater, performing Shakespeare at London’s Lyceum Theatre. The role of Count Dracula seemed tailor-made for Irving, but no stage version of the novel ever appeared; it’s reported that Irving found the novel “dreadful.” (And not in the good way.) Yet over a hundred years later, Irving has faded into history while Dracula has become universally known, a “classic,” a household name, the novel that’s often mistaken for the first vampire story due to its staggering influence on the genre.
Solicitor Jonathan Harker has been dispatched to the far-off Carpathian Mountains, to provide legal support for a real estate transaction as Count Dracula wishes to relocate from his castle to the most important city in the world—London. Soon enough, Harker realizes not all is well in Translyvania, and suspects he’s being held against his will. While his host is eager to learn the English language and customs, his eccentricities and strict rules wear down Harker’s resolve and sanity. As day and dream and nightmare become one, Harker is subject to improbable situations and impossible horror that Jonathan knows cannot be true—yet it is truth: the discovery of a blood-drinking monster that treats humanity like cattle, driving Harker to flee in a fit of desperate madness.
The plot then jumps to Harker’s fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy Westernra; Lucy will chose a husband from a trio of suitors—Lord Arthur Holmwood, son of a local lord; Quincey Morris, adventurous Texan; and John Seward, the doctor from the local insane asylum. If this sounds like an abrupt change of pace, it is; suddenly the reader is forced to become interested in the Victorian gothic relationship drama of Lucy and her suitors, Lucy and her wonderful vacation by the seaside, rather than the Victorian gothic dread of mouldering old castles and ruined abbeys full of things from Jonathan Harker’s nightmares.
Not to worry; after a few sluggish chapters establishing these characters, strange occurrences begin to mount up, and Dracula makes his presence felt. Mina observes Lucy sleepwalking, and then there’s a mysterious shipwreck in the midst of a storm; a salty old sea-dog dies, Seward is put in charge of a patient with a grotesque palate, and a large bat begins to flutter outside of Lucy’s window each night… Before too long, Lucy falls victim to malady and begins to waste away. Seward calls for a surgeon friend, Dutchman Abraham Van Helsing, but Lucy’s fate is uncertain even in his capable hands. United by their love of Lucy, the three suitors and Van Helsing will do anything to protect her—and when their story crosses Jonathan’s, their mission becomes clear.
The novel feels surprisingly modern—especially with its prose—save for a few key elements that harken back to its Victorian origin. For one, a kidnapped child saved from the vampiric menace is not a person but an it; there’s a notable distance when referring to the missing children not as “he” or “she” but as “it” or “they.” More noticeable is the novel’s epistolary format—it consists as a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, jagged notes, and other documents. This gives the novel a great cast of first-person perspectives, but makes the story far too passive—as in, past tense—and diminishes its suspense when you know that these characters either 1) survived, by virtue that they’re here writing this note we’re reading, or 2) had enough time between the horrible terrors they describe to stop, find a pen and ink, and jot down their thoughts.
That epistolary format—a style more popular in the 1700s—has some surprising bits of modernity, pinpointing Dracula‘s origin at the tail-end of the Victorian era. Aside from the typical letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings, we have characters receiving telegrams, the 1890s equivalent of a text message and fastest way to deliver messages at the time. John Seward’s diary entries were phonographic recordings later converted to writing by Mina; that detail fascinates me, because I can’t imagine phonographic diaries were very common or popular. Stoker has set John Seward up as the ultimate early-adaptor, using cutting edge technology in ways that never really caught on.
Dracula falls into the body of work known as “invasion literature,” a reflection of the pent-up nationalism and paranoia of foreign invasion that would culminate in World War I. These novels feature Britain besieged and occupied by strange monsters or geopolitical adversaries, most often Germany, who decimate the countryside and either shatter the British Empire or are conquered by it. Dracula is rich in the same themes: an outsider not just from the Continent but from Eastern Europe, a noble of the old order, sneaking into London by subterfuge to prey on symbols of innocence and purity. As her blood is drained night after night, it’s often mentioned how Lucy’s beauty and purity shine through her frail appearance; then, a new vampiric threat arises, attacking helpless young children in the night. While more subtle and sinister than the Germans in The Battle of Dorking or H.G. Wells’ Martians, Count Dracula filled the same role and themes Victorian readers would be well familiar with.
As for the vampire elements, much as you’d expect, what was mysterious and suspenseful in 1897 is now a series of well-known tropes and expectations: shape-changing, bats and wolves, drafty old castle, mental dominance, the draining of blood, an “Un-Dead” monster held at bay by Christian iconography and running water. You can imagine how mysterious and fresh this must have been to its original audience, before it became ingrained in the public consciousness thanks to Bela Lugosi, Tomb of Dracula, Hammer Horror, Anne Rice, the thousands of successors influenced by Stoker’s vision—the trend now is to invert the tropes Dracula established because they’re too well-known. I was most surprised that the novel gives the Count a “child-man intelligence” near the end, having spent so much of the novel building quality suspense around this cold, cunning, calculating killer embarking on a reign of terror to bring England to its knees.
Having never read it before, Dracula is more or less what I expected. The first segment with Johnathan Harker is dripping with pure gothic atmosphere as he slowly comprehends his horrific host; the novel sags in the middle, the atmosphere gone, the pacing jolted, the atmosphere and suspense starting again from scratch with the other characters. Things drag on a bit before the dread and mystery return, and while there were times it felt like I’d been reading it for forever, there are also times of gripping intensity. There’s nothing here that will surprise you in terms of plot or character development, if you have at least passing familiarity with the novel (e.g. if you have a pulse). What may surprise you is the quality of the prose, and the fact this hundred-plus-year-old novel that brought neither fame nor fortune to its author can still inspire shock and awe.