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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

Dracula
1897 | Novel
A still from Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
  • C+: 3 stars (out of 5)
    on 09 Jul, 2022

    A vampire travels from Transylvania to London where a motley group, including his real-estate agent, realizes his true nature and set out to end his existence.

    Ah Dracula. The novel everyone knows but most haven’t read. I got a copy about when I’d begun playing less and less with my Transformers and other toys. Oversized, with a felt-embossed cover and featuring illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt, it was the nicest book I owned. Years later, I’d recognize it in Fright Night Part 2.

    Anyway, I read it—or at least I tried. I made it through to Dracula’s arrival in England, then lost interest. I suspect that copy’s still sitting on my parents’ shelf.

    Thirty-some years later I gave it another shot, lured in by an Audible production featuring an all-star cast headlined by Alan Cumming and Tim Curry. More on the audio production later, but I’m heartened to report my younger self wasn’t a literary philistine. The middle drags.

    Stoker tells the story via diary entries, newspaper reports, and phonograph recordings. The written equivalent of a found footage movie.

    The first section comprises Jonathan Harker’s diary. Harker, a London-based real estate agent, travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania. He encounters rampant superstition among the natives and a peculiar figure in the Count.

    Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.

    His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

    Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine; but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse—broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal. The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back; and with a grim sort of smile, which showed more than he had yet done his protuberant teeth, sat himself down again on his own side of the fireplace.

    Days pass and Harker realizes he’s trapped in the castle. Soon after, he discovers his host’s monstrous true nature. A nature shared by the three voluptuous women also lurking in the castle.

    Realizing Dracula intends to leave him as sustenance for these women, Harker makes a desperate play. Stoker crafts a taunt scene where Harker descends the castle wall and steals into Dracula’s rooms, bludgeoning the sleeping Count with a shovel before fleeing back to his room and recording the incident in his diary before making his escape.

    The writing interlude struck me as ridiculous. Like found-footage films, the novel struggles with suspension of disbelief regarding its character’s incessant recording of events.

    Back to the story. Via a slew of exposition, Stoker introduces multiple new characters, including Lucy Westenra, a much-courted young girl from a wealthy family vacationing with Harker’s fiancée Mina in Whitby.

    Lucy’s been sleepwalking, and her nocturnal wanderings coincide with the blood-thirsty Count’s arrival on English soil. I always thought Dracula caused her nocturnal wanderings, but no, it’s because she’s sleep walking that he chances and preys upon her. Dracula follows Lucy after she returns to her London home.

    Along the way, more exposition as we meet her three suitors, Quincey Morris, an American from Texas, Jonathan Seward, a doctor who runs a sanitarium in Purfleet, and Arthur Holmwood, a nobleman and the one Lucy chooses.

    For the book’s next third, we wait for the characters to catch up with what we already know. Meanwhile, Lucy gets more and more ill. Baffled, Seward calls in his old mentor, Dr. Van Helsing, a Dutchman who speaks pidgin English. Quincey hangs around. Lucy perishes.

    A detail I never knew: Van Helsing buried Lucy with a crucifix to imprison her in her tomb until he could dispatch her, but a woman robs it from the corpse. Van Helsing somehow recovers it from the thief, and the story continues. Lucy rises undead and roams the Hampstead Heath, preying on small children. In this section’s best part, the men confront her and put her to rest.

    Now the final third improves. Harker returns to the narrative and fills Van Helsing and company in on his horrific experience. The puzzle complete, the men hunt Dracula. Stoker proffers tense scenes where they sanctify Dracula’s various lairs around England.

    In one, Dracula attempts to summon a horde of rats, but Seward, prepared, calls in his hunting dogs that disperse the vermin. In another, the men must burgle Dracula’s Piccadilly residence in broad daylight. They settle on the novel but believable approach of having Arthur, a nobleman, call a locksmith, feigning ownership of the property.

    Around this time, Van Helsing illuminates the rules surrounding vampires. On changing forms to bat or mist:

    Only at certain times can he have limited freedom. If he be not at the place whither he is bound, he can only change himself at noon or at exact sunrise or sunset. These things are we told, and in this record of ours we have proof by inference. Thus, whereas he can do as he will within his limit, when he have his earth-home, his coffin-home, his hell-home, the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby; still at other time he can only change when the time come.

    I’ve read and reread the above and still don’t understand. At least the rule regarding running water is clearer:

    It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide.

    Van Helsing also dashes any hopes Mina had of aiding the hunt:

    We men are determined—nay, are we not pledged?—to destroy this monster; but it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer—both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.

    Spurred from England, Dracula retreats. The count’s wardrobe as he arranged his escape amused me:

    They make known to us among them, how last afternoon at about five o’clock comes a man so hurry. A tall man, thin and pale, with high nose and teeth so white, and eyes that seem to be burning. That he be all in black, except that he have a hat of straw which suit not him or the time.

    Dracula in a straw hat. Imagine that.

    By now, Dracula has preyed on Mina as revenge for the group’s actions against him. She’s half-converted and can establish a mind-link with him when under hypnosis. Van Helsing reverses his earlier stance on Mina’s involvement, realizing she can aid in tracking Dracula’s movements.

    Van Helsing also explains why they must destroy Dracula instead of contenting in his retreat.

    in him the brain powers survived the physical death; though it would seem that memory was not all complete. In some faculties of mind he has been, and is, only a child; but he is growing, and some things that were childish at the first are now of man’s stature. He is experimenting, and doing it well; and if it had not been that we have crossed his path he would be yet—he may be yet if we fail—the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.

    Near as I can understand, Van Helsing means Dracula’s testing his powers, and the more he learns, the more dangerous he’ll become. He elaborates:

    He has all along, since his coming, been trying his power, slowly but surely; that big child-brain of his is working. Well for us, it is, as yet, a child-brain; for had he dared, at the first, to attempt certain things he would long ago have been beyond our power. However, he means to succeed, and a man who has centuries before him can afford to wait and to go slow. Festina lente may well be his motto.

    But I’m not sure what he means by:

    Ah! there I have hope that our man-brains that have been of man so long and that have not lost the grace of God, will come higher than his child-brain that lie in his tomb for centuries, that grow not yet to our stature, and that do only work selfish and therefore small.

    Also interesting is that despite looking younger as he feeds on more blood, the Count can’t regenerate. He retains the scar from Harker’s early shovel blow throughout the book.

    Anyway, the Count flees back to Transylvania and the men and Mina follow. The ending proves abrupt but satisfying, despite lacking any confrontation between the Count and the protagonists. They seize upon his sleeping body in transport and—just as the sun sets—stab him through the heart and behead him. Quincy receives a fatal stabbing. The epilogue, set seven years later, reveals Mina and Johnathan have named their son after him.

    Influential but far from great. I enjoyed the first and third acts but the middle proves a slog, with nothing to buoy it save the scene with undead Lucy.

    Stoker’s writing also left me wanting. Aside from Van Helsing’s confusing English and Lucy’s purple emoting, little differentiates the voices of Harker Steward, and even—to a lesser degree—Mina. Quincy’s sacrifice doesn’t resonate as he’s a perpetual periphery player, narrating no action himself. Arthur suffers a similar fate.

    Stoker aspires to a grand epic with his larger cast, but seems more comfortable in the realm of a short story—as the opening sequence with Harker and the Count attests. Another revision thinning the cast and—by extension—the second act would have worked wonders.

    As for the Audible production, I came away underwhelmed. Alan Cumming shines as Seward, but Tim Curry—despite getting second billing—only narrates short portions as Van Helsing. The production has the performers read the entirety of sections written by their character. If it’s Seward’s diary, Cumming will read it, including all the dialogue. Thus, most of Van Helsing’s dialog comes via other readers, and Dracula has no single voice. A fair enough decision, but one that incurs unintended side effects.

    For example, when Simon Vance as Harker narrates early, he gives the Count a broken Hungarian accent ala Bela Lugosi. This despite the book saying the Count spoke “excellent English, but with a strange intonation”. Harker would have recognized a Hungarian accent. This accent disappears later when Cumming, as Steward, narrates the Count fleeing the group in London.

    Van Helsing also suffers. Cumming and Curry do their best Dutchman impressions, but Katy Kellgren, as Mina, narrates him in an accent more akin to the one Vance gave Dracula. Disappointing, given Audible coordinated the recordings and should have spotted these inconsistencies.