When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula with the purchase of a London house, he makes horrifying discoveries about his client and his castle. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the imminent arrival of his ‘Master’. In the ensuing battle of wits between the sinister Count Dracula and a determined group of adversaries, Bram Stoker created a masterpiece of the horror genre.
There has been a lot of hate for vampires in recent times. This is doubtless due to firstly, their becoming far more mainstream, and secondly, the manner in which they have been portrayed. These days, it is common to see vampires falling in love, renouncing their blood-sucking ways and prancing about in the sun shine. It wasn’t always like this, though.
Bram Stoker’s controversial Dracula is widely regarded as the progenitor of the vampire myth. While this statement is arguable, Stoker undoubtedly popularised the vampire. The vampires that Stoker brought to his audiences were quite unlike much of the media that is about these days. Dracula is a pure and unadulterated horror novel. Count Dracula, the eponymous vampire of the novel, is a lethal, conscienceless, insatiable killing machine with a deep streak of cunning and malice.
The controversy comes from the fact that Stoker conscripted a historical figure and national hero to become his villain. Vlad Tepes (otherwise known as Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula) was prince of Wallachia – a part of Romania. Son of Vlad Dracul, Dracula (literally “son of Dracul”) is famous for defending his home land, and thus a large portion of Europe, from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. As much as he was revered by his countrymen and allies, he inspired terror in his enemies. Dracula was frequently outnumbered and facing enemies with superior equipment. He was not outclassed, and used ruthless and tenacious tactics to hold off enemy advances, and even invade Turkish territory.
His title, “the Impaler” comes from his penchant for waging psychological warfare on his enemies. Dracula would frequently order defeated soldiers to be impaled on large stakes. There were so many stakes with impaled soldiers that these warning symbols often resembled forests.
Stoker drew on this history and force of will and created a monster of unimaginable purpose and resolve. Stoker’s premise is that Dracula’s determination to see his people remain protected drove him to spurn death and live on as a bloodthirsty demon bent on perpetuating his own curse.
Enter Jonathan Harker, a solicitor summoned to Transylvania in order to arrange affairs in England for a Romanian nobleman. While things begin ominously enough, they soon become dire as Harker discovers a dark conspiracy that, if allowed to come to fruition, could destroy the entire world. The only problem is that he is a prisoner in an ancient, crumbling castle with only the devil and his daughters for company.
Dracula is written from the first person perspective of several people involved in the saga, and takes the form of diary entries and correspondence between characters. Although this was a fairly common narration method in the late 19th century, it is rather novel approach by today’s standards. No particular character ever feels too overused during the book, and there are a satisfying number of forks and twists to the plot.
The plot itself is suspenseful and tense. Although readers are aware of who and what the villain is, there are several satisfying build ups throughout. The first is obviously with Jonathan Harker in Transylvania. This is followed by arcs including some friends of Wilhelmina Harker – Jonathan’s wife, a psychiatric patient’s bizarre obsessions and the final show down.
Some readers may find that the story moves along somewhat slowly. The language certainly is archaic and occasionally belabours courtesy and description. This is really no different to reading Sherlock Holmes or War of the Worlds, and represents the style of the time. While the linguistic and grammatical style may make the book seem like it is rambling and long winded, there is in fact no portion of the book that is not crucial to the plot or to establishing some point that leads to progress.
The characters are well developed and interesting. Many of the characters also have their own arcs and complete journeys of their own. Jonathan Harker’s development in particular is interesting to see unfolding. He begins as a regular English citizen, young and poor but full of optimism and vitality. With his dark discovery of Dracula’s true nature, he is shocked and determined to make an escape. Eventually arriving back in London and supposed safety, he lapses psychologically and becomes weak in both body and will as he attempts to forget the traumatic experiences that he has undergone. Finally realising the Count’s true intentions, his passion and resolve return to support his desire to see his friends and family protected.
Furthermore, as stated previously, the villain of the piece is a true terror, and really makes the book. Dracula is remorseless, relentless, incredibly powerful and utterly driven to achieve his goals. Without an antagonist of such malice and strength, the band of adventurers would not come together, and the story would not be nearly as suspenseful or emotive as it is.
That being said, the Dracula of the book is somewhat different from the vampires that many are accustomed to. Dracula can move about during the day, for one, though with certain restrictions. He does not automatically combust upon contact with sunlight. He can command animals as well, and especially wolves. He can take on the form of a bat, a wolf, or of fog. He also has more commonly explored powers such as immense strength, the ability to see at night, hypnotise his victims and so forth.
Dracula also has weaknesses: he is unable to cross running water unaided, is repelled by garlic and holy symbols, cannot enter a dwelling the first time without an invitation and cannot change form between sunrise and sunset, amongst others.
What truly elevates the story above many modern vampire adaptations is that the powers and weaknesses are used, are exploited to their fullest by both the antagonist and the heroes. Many stories often include powers as plot devices for certain situations and fail to use them as effectively as they could be. Dracula knows his powers and limitations well, and never misses an opportunity to show off his prowess when necessary. He frequently eludes detection by changing in to mist or a bat or wolf, or uses his powers of enthrallment to gain an invitation to places he desires entry to. He uses his resources and main strength to hire and keep cronies in line.
Similarly, once his opponents are informed as to his true nature, they never flinch in using any and every advantage they can get over him by attempting to corner him during daylight hours, sealing his refuges with Host and securing their accommodation by means of garlic flowers and bulbs. A highly satisfying game of cat and mouse ensues, one in which the roles continually change as daylight cycles to night time.
Dracula is a well thought out, fantastically executed Victorian horror novel. Any fans of period pieces, horror novels or a combination of both – Gothic horror novels – will get great mileage out of this book. Dracula is an iconic Gothic horror novel for good reason. If the slightly laborious language can be excused, then an enthralling and chilling tale awaits.
- Genre: Gothic Horror
- Demographic: Young Adult and up
- Rating Out of Five: 5
- Format: Paperback
- Find At: The Book Depository
- Published: May, 1897