Before Edward, Before Lestat, There Was Only Him: “Dracula” by Bram Stoker

Copyright © 1897 by Bram Stoker.

Not that you should really care, but I got a Barnes & Noble Nook reader for Christmas, which I’m very happy to have.  The reason I mention it is because my first read on my new Nook was not only for free, but a story I’ve wanted to read for a long time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Before I got my Nook, my only real exposure to vampire fiction had been The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, the Underworld films, and the Hellsing anime series.  But all those works–as good as they are–are still modern versions of the very old, very potent vampire archetype.  I wanted to see the vampire in its original form, and so I turn to Mr. Stoker and his story for the real deal.

The Story: Fighting Evil With Faith, Reason, And Courage

Our story begins in the 1890s, as a young British solicitor named Jonathan Harker takes a business trip to Transylvania, where he must meet the reclusive and mysterious Count Dracula.  Over the course of the novel, we see just how Dracula’s plans unfold after his first encounter with Mr. Harker, spreading his influence to England and affecting the lives of everyone Mr. Harker holds dear, including his own fiancee Mina and her dear friend Lucy Westerna.  Through the intervention of their friends and the brilliant Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan and Mina Harker lead a campaign against the malevolent Dracula in the hopes of preventing him from claiming more victims and overtaking the civilized world of England.

The Cast: British Heroes Vs. The Foreign Devil

Jonathan Harker is our first protagonist and the one who undergoes the most change; he starts out as a mere lawyer, but after having seen firsthand how dangerous the Count is, he soon takes steps at his own risk to fight the monster’s plans.  His fiancee and later wife Mina is just as strong in spirit: initially afraid, but determined to do what is right even if it means losing her life.

Lucy Westerna, meanwhile, is essentially a toned-down and more naive version of Mina with a more tragic fate.  Her three suitors all play similar roles, with only Dr. Seward providing a medical point of view to her dilemma.  And then there’s Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutch professor with expertise in both modern medicine (for his time, anyway) and the folklore surrounding vampires and other “Un-Dead.”  Despite his stilted dialogue as a non-native English speaker, Van Helsing is by far the energetic heart of this story, a brilliant light of reason against the despair surrounding Dracula.

And then, there’s the Count himself.  I have to say that, until I read this story, I had no idea that he’s described as having a mustache and supposedly looks a lot like Vlad the Impaler (with whom his backstory shares a lot in common).  But as to his character, he’s an interesting villain: a charming foreigner with a wealth of knowledge and money, but possessed of a deeper, bestial nature revealed in the presence of spilled blood and mayhem.  He can take on the form of a wolf, a bat, or elemental dust; hypnotize others with his piercing gaze; and command the very elements of nature to his favor.  For all intents and purposes, he is the very real Devil against which our devout heroes are arrayed.

The Style: What Only The Eyes And Ears Can Obtain

The most obvious and interesting thing about this story is that it is written in the form of an epistolary novel–that is, the story is told through a series of letters, journal entries, telegrams, and newspaper articles.  This not only lets us see the tale unfold from a variety of perspectives, but also hides information in a way as to build up the suspense surrounding Count Dracula’s affairs.

Another interesting tidbit is that the word “vampire” is hardly ever used–and even then, it might be more in reference to a vampire bat than to Dracula.  Van Helsing and others prefer to use the term “Un-Dead,” referring to those afflicted as in an unnatural state of existence from which they must be saved.  This has the effect of the characters acting like they are doing an act of mercy by freeing the soul of a person who has become undead, which is interesting considering that most horror stories set up their monsters as something to be destroyed.

One more thing that really fascinates me about this story is how faith and science are treated.  For the most part, Dr. Van Helsing and Seward proceed in a very scientific manner, observing and experimenting on how to handle Lucy Westerna’s mysterious illness and the later effects of being approached by Dracula himself.  But at the same time, there is a religious spirit to the work done by Jonathan and Mina Harker, which Van Helsing encourages: a sense that they are not just fighting for survival against the Count and his minions, but for the integrity of their own souls.  In some stories, there would be more tension between religion and science, but here, they go hand-in-hand very nicely.

Final Verdict: A True Thriller, Both For Its Time And For Now

As a horror story, Dracula is one of the best.  It’s a very rich and Gothic tale, full of suspense and doubt and mysticism.  There’s a lot of dark and oppressive atmosphere in this story, whether it’s in the hard Carpathian Mountains or the foggy streets of London.  The writing is crisp, the plot is intense, and despite all I know about vampires and the hundreds of portrayals of Dracula, the original story was still a great read from start to finish.

Bibliography: Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  London: Archibald Constable and Company, 1897.


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