“Dracula” is known as the original vampire, and the word evokes a cornucopia of images and lore.
But what is the original actually like?
Published in 1897, this Victorian classic delivers a compelling story of horror and love, featuring one of the most spine-chilling monsters of all time.
As Red from “Trope Talk” will tell you, part of the magic of the story is the style. It opens with the diary of Jonathan Harker, a newly minted lawyer traveling to Transylvania for business with a mysterious count.
This first act is admirably effective, as Jonathan progresses from describing the lovely scenery, to relating the curious superstitions of the townspeople, to his nerve-wracking first meeting with the count on a midnight mountain road.
The first-person immediacy of the narrative lets us feel Jonathan’s plight even more strongly as he realizes his imprisonment in the count’s vast but empty castle – and the diary form allows a mix of “this happened in the past” and “this is what I’m going through now or hope to accomplish” that forces the reader to engage with his harrowing experience on a moment-to-moment basis.
Fade to Black, Scene Transition…
We leave Jonathan’s diary on a cliff-hanger to read the letters between his fiancé Mina and her best friend Lucy. Mina, of course, is looking forward to her marriage to Jonathan (and concerned that his trip to the continent is taking longer than anticipated), while Lucy is flattered (yet also embarrassed) to have been proposed to by three charming young men in one afternoon (Number Three being her own heartthrob…and, once she accepts his offer, her fiancé).
Seem like a tone shift? It is in many ways, but the shift from Dark Gothic to Sweet Romance makes the transition back again that much more heart-wrenching. The girls’ perfect happiness (and their idyllic vacation at the seaside) cannot last…and when Count Dracula makes his grand entrance in England, the creeping sense of foreboding is that much more acute because of the shift in narrator and perspective.
This sense of hearing the story from the eyewitnesses, with newspaper clippings and telegrams and hastily jotted notes written in trains and carriages, actually enters the story when the party is assembling the data they have on Count Dracula (the better to fight him) and uses the diaries and notes of their company to assemble a dossier of evidence.
I think this is a cute acknowledgement of the writing style…and after all, how would I be reading the private journal of a vampire-eyewitness unless someone compiled it for the benefit of posterity?
One of the things I adore about this book is that every single person is an adult. Maybe not all of them are super bright – after all, they fall for the stupidity of not sharing everything they know because “it’s too terrible for you to know, dear!” allowing Dracula to victimize one of them.
But I love how the romance is tasteful, self-sacrificial, and mature. Lucy’s three suitors all donate blood to her during her “mysterious” sickness where she abruptly loses most of her body’s blood during the night (when the window is left open…ahem). The two unlucky suitors hold no ill will toward the favored Number Three (and future Mr. Lucy), but rather do all in their power to assure her – and his – happiness.
Jonathan and Mina are pathetically in love with each other – to the point that they practice the old “withholding information for the other’s good” trope. On the other hand, the plot forces them back to full disclosure and honesty with each other, at which point they tell each other everything (with plenty of tears and declarations of love).
“I’ll never tell you about Transylvania unless I have to – it would be too horrible for you, dear!”
“I’ll never ask you about Transylvania unless I have to – I never want you to relive that horror, darling!”
Guess what becomes necessary?
What do I mean by “patriarchal” romance?
I mean the boys all rally for the protection of their women-folk and get their evil-fighting heroics on for the sake of those in need! This is not about “getting some,” since both girls are already committed to relationships – the two unlucky suitors, and Dr. van Helsing (see below), and the girls’ chosen protectors all band together to defeat the monster because monsters done need defeatin’, and they want to spare their beloved ladies as much pain (mental, emotional, and physical) as possible.
This is called “sacrificing your own needs for the needs of others” and it’s what Real Manhood is all about and I love it.
The counterpart of this is that it high-lights the specific strengths of our female protagonists.
Mina, for instance, has been studying shorthand (the better to assist her husband in his lawyering) and so she keeps a journal of all her experiences on vacation with Lucy. This comes in very handy when they need to piece together what exactly is going on – which she does along with Dr. van Helsing (see below).
Maybe she can’t race about the country on steamships and horses, and maybe she can’t physically counter Count Dracula herself, but her organization skills, logical deduction, and cool-headed smarts are a vital addition to the team. This highlights the particular strengths of women – without trying to cram the gals into black leather and force them to compete on the men’s playing field (which wasn’t really a thing in the 19th century, thank goodness).
Celebrating Female Innocence
Lucy’s strength of character is her sweetness and charm. Sure, she’s got three men (and counting) in love with her – but it’s her innocence and purity, not just her physical beauty, that attract them. In fact, far from wanting her as an object or plaything, they all desire her well-fare even more than they desire their own happiness.
Contrast this with the female vampires, who use their sex appeal and “voluptuousness” as a snare to lure their victims in. When Jonathan is almost caught by them, it’s unclear how much of his fascination is animal attraction and how much is out-right vampiric mind control!
As opposed to Lucy, whose modesty, kindness, and friendship make beauty a facet of her personality, the vampire female uses her womanly attributes as a weapon to get the blood she thirsts for…revealing her to be no different than the monstrous Dracula.
Dr. van Helsing
The most awesome character is Dr. van Helsing, a Dutch psychologist and physician with an adorable German accent who is called in when Lucy starts exhibiting her “mysterious” anemic illness.
While the doctor is sweet, gentle, conciliatory, and good-natured, he’s also the only person who realizes what’s happening – and promptly starts strewing garlic flowers everywhere and blanketing the place with gold crucifixes.
While even he is hampered by the trope of “don’t tell her mother what’s really going on lest we shock her into cardiac arrest,” let me just say I adore it when sweet old guys are the ones who know everything.
Maybe he can’t rush around on horseback armed to the teeth like the youngsters can, but he can Barney-Collier with some holy wafer like nobody’s business…and he’s got the spiritual and legend-savvy expertise the team needs to vanquish this embodiment of evil.
Speaking of the villain, the book does an excellent job keeping him shadowy and menacing…with just enough hints to remind us of his evilness without overdoing it.
I was surprised that we didn’t get an explanation for how he became this way, or why he chose to be a cursed undead horror…but then again, maybe he didn’t choose it, but was cursed by a bite just as he cursed those he bit.
The powers of the vampires in this incarnation are clearly evil, from hypnotism and mind control to regaining youth and vitality from the blood of their victims (especially children – they love to eat small children).
While Dracula can control rats, flies, wolves, and bats – and transform himself into various forms – he is also constrained by specific rules that keep him from being omnipotent…and make him defeatable (for example, he can only cross water at the tides, can only transform at dawn, noon, and dusk, and must return to a box of holy earth to recover his abilities).
An important theme in the book is that these undead are cut off from God. When their friend is raised as a vampire, the team must kill the creature not only for the sake of the other victims – but for the sake of its own soul.
Yes – the horror of being sucked on by a vampire goes beyond merely losing your blood…goes beyond being locked to your vampire-dad in a disgusting pact of mind-linking…even goes beyond rising after your death to restlessly roam the earth and inflict this curse on others, including your own loved ones.
The horror of the vampire even extends to being cut off from the God who made you, and banished from the presence of the Christ who died for you. (Yes, the book explicitly states the basics of the gospel, which is pretty cool.)
While the theology of this skirts dangerously close to the Muslim belief that something someone else does (even after your death) can affect your salvation, the way the characters repeatedly throw themselves on the providence of God (explicitly and specifically) and trust God to bring them through this harrowing experience is inspiring and thrilling. It brings the whole story to a deeper level.
And it also makes the catharsis that much sweeter for the vampires that are staked, beheaded, and stuffed with holy wafers. The hunters describe expressions of peace and release on the cursed ones’ faces before they crumble into dust…the dust their bodies should have been long ago, but for this horrible curse.
As truly repulsive as Bram Stoker makes his vampires – eating small children and gorging themselves with blood – he also makes killing them a mercy…and inspires pity for these wretched, darkened creatures who are cut off from the source of Life and the purpose of their existence: their own Creator.
And after all, your neighbors might not be ravenous, undead monsters…but they’re probably lost and cut off from God, and we should pity them and seek to set them free. Not with a stake and kukri knife, but with the Gospel of Jesus and the Sword of the Spirit (which is the Word of God).
Whoo! Now I’m getting chills.
Classic for a Reason
Yes, there are parts of the book that are obviously products of its Victorian time period…but at the same time, the slower-paced parts and the lighter tone help to contrast and intensify the skin-crawling horror of the darkness and mystery (there are parts that get a chuckle-out-loud!).
Enough with the sexy vampires! Let’s go back to the source, and experience the explicit themes of light versus darkness, good versus evil, kindness versus cruelty, sacrifice versus selfishness, that made this book something that deserves to endure.
July 2 – July 23
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is available as a FREE ebook from Project Gutenberg, or from Amazon (paperback or Kindle), Barnes&Noble, Kobo (ebook or audiobook), and the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping).
Join Kimia Wood’s mailing list for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic adventure novella Soldier! You’ll also receive periodic updates on her latest reading and writing adventures.