“What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of a man?”
In his chilling and grotesque Gothic novel, Bram Stoker brings to life one of the world’s most famous mythical figures: the Vampire.
Set in the ironically rational Victorian era, Stoker’s supernatural tale is a simple one of good vs evil. Composed of diary extracts and letters from different characters, it begins with the account of Jonathan Harker, a honourable and reputable young solicitor travelling from London to Transylvania. The reason for his journey: to conduct business with Count Dracula, a mysterious man wishing to purchase a house in London. Soon after his arrival in Castle Dracula, Harker quickly realises (even after the locals warned him against all odds to travel there and practically threw a wooden crucifix around his neck) that all is not as it seems…
The nocturnal activity of the Count, his refusal to eat meals with Jonathan and his furious smashing of Harker’s harmless shaving mirror amount to his growing suspicion of the strange old man, culminating in one of the most iconic passages in the history of Gothic fiction; horrifying and hair-raising even now, Stoker truly knew how to terrify his readers.
However, most of the novel takes place outside of Dracula’s castle, namely in the houses and hills of England. After the end of Harker’s narration it is the charming letters between Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray that pick up the story, interspersed with snippets from the elusive Dr Seward’s diary. This narrative seems utterly removed from Harker’s terrifying narration in Transylvania, but Stoker manages to weave seemingly irrelevant threads of the story into one central plot: the Count has travelled to England, and the lives of the narrating characters – and indeed the entire nation – are now at risk.
In a quiet Yorkshire town, disturbing events occur in quick succession: a ship lands with only a dead captain on board; a savage wolf is on the loose; and Lucy Westenra begins sleepwalking, haunted by the sound of bat’s wings flapping outside her window…
Before long, a team of Lucy’s suitors (both rejected and successful) and friends assemble to rescue the delicate beauty from her impending supernatural doom, soon realising they face more than a mortal enemy. Van Helsing is their leader; renowned medical professor and expert in all matters mythological, one of the heroic figures in the quest to rid the earth of its monstrous tyrant.
A literary classic, it’s not noted for its literary skill: and rightly so. It’s written fairly poorly, with substandard vocabulary and sentence structures; Stoker’s written expression is not up to the standard of most of his Victorian contemporaries. His attempt to mimic regional accents in dialogue – and in the syntax of Dutch Dr Van Helsing’s speech – detracts from the plot and central characters, adding to the sense that he is not a born novelist, but a brilliant storyteller.
The purpose of this book was to shock and horrify his Victorian audiences; and shock and horrify he did. In parts gruesome, vivid and explicit, and in others outright appalling, it proves a landmark piece of literature in its depiction of the ancient monster and mythical figure: the Vampire. Yet it is because of Stoker and his world-famous novel that we picture the vampire as we do today; it is he who created the tall, pale, coffin-bound stereotype, complete with its weaknesses of garlic, wooden crucifixes, holy water and ultimately the wooden stake.
Whilst not the most well-written book I’ve ever read, with its tendency to elaborate and detail events that could have been summarised in a page or two (leading to chapters of boredom between the action), it did keep me hooked to an extent: I was certainly always intrigued to see how the protagonists would face the Count next, and what his next move would be.
Predictable, and at times irritatingly misogynistic, Dracula isn’t the novel I’d take with me to a desert island if I could only take one. However, it’s well worth reading as a fairly intriguing and groundbreaking tale of bravery against all supernatural odds, a story that shocked its Victorian readers and inspired generations of writers.
Ultimately, Stoker’s horrifying message is crystal clear:
“Find the great Un-Dead, and cut off his head and burn his heart, or drive a stake through it, so that the world may rest from him”.