Monday, October 26, 2009

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula (Puffin Classics) Dracula by Bram Stoker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I highly recommend reading this to any fans of the vampire genre. It is a commitment and investment for the reader, but it is worthwhile. While Dracula is not the 1st vampire novel/story, it has firmly established many of the conventions of the vampire genre. I must say that no movie version I have watched does this justice. Bram Stoker's Dracula might have been a somewhat faithful rendition, but it took unforgivable liberties with the relationship between Mina and Dracula, and downplayed the deep, abiding love between Mina and Jonathan. In addition, it portrayed Dracula as a seductive, lovelorn and sympathetic character. He is none of these. Dracula is a complete and utter fiend. He is unrelenting evil, and I spent this whole book waiting for him to get what he deserved.

I love the use of letters and correspondence to tell the story. It was added an authenticity to this story by revealing the narrative through written details of events. One would think that this would create a distance between the reader and the story, but strangely it does not. Instead it infuses the story with a human element, as we see things unfold through the eyes of the humans who witnessed everything. In addition, the diary entries from Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray (soon to be Harker), Lucy Westenra, and John Seward show the emotional impact of the characters to the horror of Dracula.

Dracula is very much a Victorian work. It is clear what the mores were at that time in reading this story. It is also evident how society is changing as time speeds towards the 20th Century (this book was published in 1896). The attitudes towards women as sweet, beloved creatures who should be loved and adored is very much in evidence. However, Mr. Stoker took the time to show that Mina has a powerful role and usefulness beyond what was expected of her as a woman of her times. In fact, she plays a very pivotal role in this story. Because of the connection between Dracula and herself, she cannot be relegated to a second class citizen in this story. In addition, her view of the situation shows much about how Dracula managed to to wreak his reign of terror over poor Lucy and how devastated Jonathan was from his early encounter with Dracula. Mina turns out to be a real heroine in this story. She is very resourceful, and her methods are a great help in the process of understanding what Dracula is, and tracking him down. I felt for her when she was under his thrall, because her love for Jonathan was true, as well as her abhorrence of the evil of Dracula and how it had affected her. Those scenes added a psychological component to the horror element in this book.

This book is not a thrill a minute book. It might be a horror story, but it's also a crime novel, in that the group composed of Drs. Van Helsing and Seward, Jonathan and Mina Harker, Quincy Morris, and Arthur Holmwood spend much time trying to track and defeat their prey, Dracula. Readers should approach this story from with this in mind. There are some moments that are truly unnerving and scary, all the same, but they are used with good effect. I would be reading right along, and then something really scary would happen. When my heartrate went back to normal and I fell back into the procedural-type narrative, another creepy moment would occur. Thus, my investment of diligent reading paid off, for those scary moments were quite suspenseful.

Readers should also be aware that the characters tend to be along sentimental lines. They are good, decent people. They cry and feel sorrow. The men might be brave, but they are not afraid to break down and sob out their anguish. I admired each of the protagonists that I was supposed to admire: Mina, Jonathan, John/Jack Seward, Van Helsing, Arthur, Quincy, and the poor, unfortunate Lucy. Each of them invest their heart and life into tracking and destroying the beast. This might strike a modern reader as being too good to be true. But in the historical context, I didn't have trouble with it. I might expect different characterizations for a modern vampire novel.

I found that issues that I had with the recent movie adaptations of Dracula did not exist in this novel. Mina is not played as the good, innocent foil for the sexually adventurous and slightly wanton Lucy. Lucy is a sweet girl who was preyed on and destroyed by Dracula. Mina is not a fickle woman who would abandon her true love for the seductive wiles of the vampire Dracula. That always bothered me about the movies. I didn't see why poor Lucy was deserving of what happened to her. Even if she had been a wanton, she still wouldn't have deserved what happened to her. Reading about her demise was extremely difficult, not to mention the effect it had on the loved ones she left behind. Additionally, I dislike how throwaway the love that Mina had for Jonathan is portrayed in the movies. I'm glad it was not this way in the book.

Renfield is a character who has been played for laughs in many of the Dracula adaptations and knockoffs. In the original novel, he is a character to be pitied. He was seduced by Dracula, subsequently losing his reason. There are glimpses of his formerly formidable intellect and sanity, as well as a sense of right and wrong that shone through, causing me to feel sorry for him. Particularly when he warns Seward not to keep him in the Asylum. If only Seward had listened.

Drs. Seward and Van Helsing are physicians and men of science with profound respect for each other, but who tend to look at situations differently. Dr. Seward is very much a rationalist. He tries to approach Lucy's strange illness from a completely scientific perspective, yet Dr. Van Helsing is a learned man who is trained in modern medical science (as well as a pioneer in medicine), but gives credence toward the ancient beliefs, and whose knowledge is shored up by his faith in God. The struggle that Seward faces in having to accept that Lucy's demise is due to a powerful supernatural entity is evident as we read his journal entries. Van Helsing is seen through the descriptions of the diary entries of Mina, Jonathan, and Seward. I found Van Helsing quite the character. Without at doubt, he's my favorite in this book, although I found some of his lines hard to read because of the fact that it is written as though English was his second language (which it was). He is a man of compassion, although with a tendency towards bluntness. I like that he's able to think his way out of difficult situations, but also relies on faith against his demonic enemy.

The movies tend to emasculate Jonathan, but he is a very strong character to have survived his imprisionment in Dracula's castle, with his body and his sanity intact. His conviction to protect Mina at all costs, despite knowing the depths of the power of his enemy speaks to me. He might not be a he-man, but he is definitely a worthy man mate for Mina.

Arthur Holmwood is a noble, yet he is not protrayed as a prig. He is very down to earth, and willing to do his part to destroy Dracula and to see justice done for his beloved Lucy. I admit I tended to picture Cary Elwes (an old crush of mine who played Holmwood in Bram Stoker's Dracula about 50% of the time). He definitely rose to the occasion, despite the seemingly insane ravings of Van Helsing about Un-dead creatures, and the need to drive a stake through the heart and cut off the head of his beloved.

Quincy Morris embodies the Texan spirit in the very best of ways. His devotion to Lucy and later Mina causes him to risk his life in the struggle against Dracula.

Don't look for a sexy creature of the night in this book. Dracula is a horrid, evil beast. When he meets his demise, I didn't feel one iota of sympathy. I was cheering instead. It's refreshing to read about evil vamps without any charisma for once (and this from a paranormal romance fanatic).

This book is a delicious work to have read. I'm glad I attempted it when I could fully appreciate its genius. I freely admit when I read it in high school, I wasn't ready for it. It took me the better part of the week, but I found myself eager to keep reading, despite the somewhat antiquated language. I wanted to see how things would unfold. You might think, "Well Dracula is old hat. I've seen many vampire movies. It's all the same." I'd tell you, not so. You should read this book if you're a vampire fan. You will find a resonance that is lacking in most of the modern vampire fare, with its classic setting, genuine characters, and the tangible essence of the unearthly evil of the vampire. And to think that Stoker wasn't quite as glutted on the rich milk of the vampire legends as us modern vamp fans are. Maybe that's why this book felt so authentic to me.

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