Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Source of book: I read this during my waiting times in court, on my tablet.

The legend of the vampire stretches back before any human memory, with legends of blood-sucking spirits appearing in the earliest written literature. The vampire as the undead, however, appears to have originated in southeastern Europe, where it also received its present name. Our modern conception of the vampire, so ingrained in our culture as to be well known to nearly everyone, owes its existence primarily to this particular book, written by Bram Stoker in 1897. While it was a reasonable success when it was published, and was hailed by critics and other writers as a masterpiece, it did not become the universal sensation that it has since become until it was adapted for a film starring Bela Lugosi in the 1930s. (There have been many adaptations, serious and otherwise, since then. I was first introduced to the trope by Count von Count in Sesame Street - who was more of a sinister character at first than he is today.)

Stoker’s portrayal is notable for the full development of the legend as we know it today. Dracula’s appearance, powers, weaknesses - all are here in full form, and few additions or changes have been made since.

Stoker turned out to be a one-hit wonder. Nothing else he wrote is familiar today, although his original career as a theater manager continued to support him.

The book drew on a number of sources. The basic concept of the vampire as a nobleman preying on young women was drawn from The Vampyre, a short novel by John Polidori as the result of the discussion with Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley that also led to Mary writing Frankenstein. Stoker settled on the name of Dracula after discovering the real life Vlad III, “The Impaler,” a Fifteenth Century Romanian prince, who was also called “Dracula,” the son of Dracul, that is, the Dragon (Vlad’s father’s nickname). Stoker used some of the real life details of Vlad III in the backstory for his villain. (Peculiar side note: Vlad III’s son was known as Wihnea “the Bad,” which belongs with Ethelred “the Unready” and Ivan “the Terrible” in the pantheon of derogatory royal epithets.)

This is another book I really should have read in high school, but somehow missed. I won’t spoil the plot for those who have not read it, but the basic outline is presumably familiar to most of us anyway. The book is told through a series of diary entries by the major characters, none of whom initially know what the others know. The use of multiple perspectives helps to add to the drama, as the reader knows things that most of the characters do not. The reader gets to see them stumble around the truth until they finally all are able to each contribute a piece to the overall puzzle.

In fact, I would say that this is the best part of the book - the tight plotting and pacing. As a good horror book should, it draws the reader in more with suspense than with gore and death. The pace starts slowly, but gradually builds to a frantic chase at the end. It is easy to see why this book was the basis of so many successful films. It already has all the elements of drama in place without modification.

One of the things that struck me about the book is how Stoker both reinforces and subverts certain Victorian fears and stereotypes. First of all, the sexual undertones of the vampire legend, while largely implied rather than stated in this book (unlike in earlier references, where it is more explicit) clearly line up with Victorian anxieties: the helpless, innocent, young, beautiful female who is the favorite prey of the vampire. His desire to pierce her, and mingle fluids. The fact that his vampirism is a contagious disease, like the syphilis which was at that point incurable, leading to insanity and death. The idea that the vampire had to be invited in initially, but that he could come and go freely thereafter. Back in the 1700s, this superstition led to the unearthing of corpses to kill the supposed vampires, but the Victorians had their own fears for their daughters - as do we, which perhaps explains the continued fascination with vampires. (I’ve also heard the more pernicious outgrowth of this fear wherein African-American men are stereotyped as having insatiable and dangerous sex drives and Latino men are viewed as being continually engaged in smooth seduction.) I, myself, being male and not understanding certain genres at all, have a harder time understanding the apparently widespread female desire for the ministrations of the vampire. Stoker perhaps did, though, as he writes of Mina’s simultaneous commitment to destroy Dracula, and her sympathy for him.

Mina is the character that I found most fascinating in this book. Jonathan Harker, Mina’s eventual husband, gets bonus points for being a lawyer, and for showing ingenuity, but he is a more expected character. Similarly, the central character of Van Helsing fits a common pattern found in much literature of the time: the brilliant scientific mind, familiar with the legends, and prepared for nearly everything. Also present would be Lord Godalming, who has the necessary financing, and is desperate to avenge the death of his wife, Lucy, Dracula’s first victim in England; and the American, Quincey Morris, who is clearly the “expendable crewman” of the story. He might as well be wearing a red shirt during the story.

While Lucy is the typical Victorian female: innocent, demure, pure, sweet, and of course beautiful; Mina is in a much more modern mold. She is treated as an equal partner in the quest to destroy Dracula, and she continues to show her remarkable fortitude and capabilities even as she falls under his spell. It is she who finally reads Jonathan’s journal and brings it to the attention of Van Helsing, thus allowing him to determine the identity and location of the vampire. She insists on accompanying the rest back to Transylvania, taking part in as much of the physical rigour of the chase as her weakened condition allows. She is able to calm her husband’s fears, and stiffen his spine by taking his focus off of her and on to the task at hand. She is even able to swear the others to kill her should the need arise. This amazing capacity for self sacrifice, and for fearlessness in the face of what she knows may well destroy her is an entire level above the heroism of the men, who can act from a more ordinary and straightforward source of courage. Mina is allowed to display virtues other than those typically viewed as “female,” (see Lucy above) and instead can share the traits that can and should be the aspiration of all of us, male or female: courage, intelligence, good judgment, control of emotion, focus, determination.

I also appreciated that Stoker allowed Mina to participate in the adventure without being reduced to eye candy or a love interest. If anything, by marrying her to Jonathan pursuant to an engagement pre-dating the start of the narrative, he removes the possibility of sexual tension becoming the secondary focus of the story. She thus must be interesting for her own skills, personality, and actions, rather than primarily for the “will the hero get the girl” subplot. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but one does sometimes wish that more writers and filmmakers let their female roles in mixed gender groups rise above that of “love interest.” (I think this was part of the genius of the Star Trek franchise, and a reason that it has endured despite being a bit campy and dated.)

I will admit that I have always appreciated strong women, both in books and in real life. Perhaps that is why I married one. Contrary to Mr. Bennett’s surmise, I would definitely not prefer a stupid wife.

This book is definitely worth the read. Not just another gothic horror bit of pulp, this book truly is a classic, and an example of good writing - particularly in its plotting and pacing.

Note on the castle:
Dracula’s castle is as much a part of the legend as the man himself, and Stoker’s spooky description of the nighttime arrival there is masterful. It is unclear exactly which castle inspired the author, although he may have drawn on books by Jules Verne and Anne Radcliffe. There are theories that he was inspired by Castle Bran in Romania or New Slains Castle in Scotland. While these castles are all right in their own way - beautiful, in fact - I imagine something more like this, from the Carpathian Mountains described in the story, although this particular location is in Slovakia rather than Romania. 

                                     Spiš Castle from the Branisko Pass (Wikipedia Commons - Photographer not identified)
Click to expand picture for a better view.


1 comment:

  1. I haven't read it. Nor do I know what the plot is! It's on my reading list. But I don't do scary well so I've kept putting it off because in my mind it's scary.