Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Part of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror! You can see the rest here and here.

[Read as an e-book, if that matters to you.]

I've read Frankenstein several times over the years, including for a college class. The number of times I've seen the most famous movie version and endless variations is legion. I am a person who loves classic horror, and Karloff's shuffling criminal full of pathos is for me the defining moment of the horror genre.

Perhaps because vampires keep becoming the in thing, I've always been less inclined to Dracula. In fact, other than an excellent comic adaptation by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano, I'd never even read the source material. That finally changed, and I'm glad it did. Stoker's work may have been used and abused over the years, but the original text makes for a striking book that reads far more modern than its time period and is a much better book than Frankenstein.

For those who may not be familiar with the plot of the actual book, a man named Harker comes to Castle Dracula to help a mysterious man make arrangements to go to London. To his horror, he learns that this man is not all that he seems, but he is powerless to prevent his coming to the teeming metropolis. Soon, Dracula is on the prowl claiming victims, including the lovely but helpless Lucy. Lucy is the friend of Mina, Harker's fiance, and eventually, with the help of the noted but eccentric Dr. Van Helsing, a group of revenge seekers form.

Can this team of weakened but determined adventurers stop Dracula from making an army of the undead? You know the answer, of course, but it's the getting there that's the fun.

I was pleasantly surprised by the text itself, which read a lot more like a modern novel than I'd expected. At first I was a bit put off by the epistle format of the book (a fair number of the characters share their experiences via letters or journals), but they soon begin to link up in a way that drives the narrative. It's really interesting to see how Stoker links things together, and the added advantage of knowing more than the characters by virtue of being able to read all of the letters in a logical sequence provides an omniscience even within first-person narratives. I don't think this tactic is something I'd want to read every time out, but as a change of pace from the books I normally consume, it was extremely effective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that Mina is a strong female character. Lucy is a typical female victim, but for the bulk of the book, we are dealing with the fact that the male characters in the book don't quite know what to do or are weakened to inactivity while Mina drives them on to the task, even at great personal cost to herself. I suppose it's wrong of me to generalize in this way, but I had figured on things playing out a bit differently. I thought all of the non-male characters would be props for the virile males to either endanger or save. Dracula is certainly no feminist novel, but it's also not misogynistic.

On the other hand, Dracula is extremely anti-immigrant. Dracula is the strange figure from eastern Europe who comes to London to "ruin" it, particularly its females. There is a strong vibe against the feeling of the other, coming in to corrupt that which is considered pure. Even Van Helsing and the American get placed in a different light and offer to do things that would be improper for the Brits in the book. It's hard sometimes to remember that not all that long ago, if you weren't from the right part of Europe, you were the enemy.

You could substitute the location of the book and have it serve as a stand-in against African Americans, Asians, or, most recently, Hispanics. When they spoke in such dismissive tones about anyone that was not a WASP, I winced. It makes the book hard to read in places, though I am somewhat used to that in reading older literature of any kind. I wonder if the recent revival of racism against those who aren't "true" Americans (or Brits or French, to name a few other hotspots) made me more sensitive to this or not.

There is also the prudishness that pervades the novel. Anyone who is not strictly seen as chaste comes off badly, and the link between the vampire's kiss and sex is so well documented I don't think I need to get into it here, as the cultural racism angle interests me far more than if Stoker had problems with people enjoying intimate relations. However, everyone reads for different reasons, so you may prefer to go through the book and pick up on the signs that point to upholding a morality that is (and probably always was) out of date.

Dracula is not a book for everyone. It's still slower than a modern reader may like and the epistle format definitely will bother you if you don't get into its rhythm right away. For those who like Victorian writing or the transition period of James and Wharton, this is definitely something you should check out. I'd also recommend it for anyone who likes vampire fiction. Go to the source and see how it all began. The results may surprise you.

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