Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula, by Bram Stoker book coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Dover Publications
Published: 1897
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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Jonathan Harker’s small law firm sends him to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction with Count Dracula. Jonathan soon discovers that his host is a vampire — a shape-shifting creature of the night, who drinks human blood to survive. Leaving Jonathan trapped in Castle Dracula, the Count travels to England and sets up multiple residences, complete with coffins where he may rest during the day. First Lucy Westenra, then Jonathan’s own wife, Mina, fall victim to Dracula’s bloodlust. A small group of vampire hunters, led by Professor Van Helsing, vows to end the Count’s reign — even if the quest takes them all the way back to Transylvania.

The opening chapters of Dracula are gripping, but the narrative loses steam once the Count arrives in England. Too many pages are devoted to the case of Renfield, one of the residents in Dr. Seward’s asylum, and by the time Lucy’s fourth blood transfusion is described, most modern readers will begin to lose patience with the story in anticipation of the final confrontation between the vampire hunters and Dracula.

There is a slight challenge in reading a book written over 100 years ago, but the text requires only a little more effort than usual for readers accustomed to a steady diet of contemporary writing. Perhaps one reason for the novel’s flow is its epistolary form — most of the narration is a series of intimate letters and informal journal entries. Although the women tend to use more flowery prose than the men (Lucy begins one letter to Mina with, “Oceans of love and millions of kisses…”), the characters generally communicate at the same level. The dramatic exception is when Stoker attempts to write in a local dialect or patois for such characters as Mr. Swales, an old sailor, or Thomas Bilder, a zookeeper. The resulting dialogue is atrocious, and must be sounded out phonetically in order to decipher. Stoker fares little better with Van Helsing’s broken English — “Young miss is bad, very bad. She wants blood, and blood she must have or die…[W]e are about to perform what we call transfusion of the blood — to transfer from full veins of one to the empty veins which pine for him.”

More than a simple horror story, Dracula can also be read as a Victorian parable about the dangers of sexuality. The three mysterious women Jonathan finds in Castle Dracula inspire “a wicked, hot desire that they should kiss [him] with those red lips” as he looks upon them in “an agony of delightful anticipation” and a “languorous ecstasy.” Dracula’s attacks on Lucy and Mina can be interpreted as both seduction and rape. When Arthur Holmwood pounds a stake into Lucy’s heart, the weapon is blatantly phallic — “The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions…[Arthur’s] untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake… And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less…Finally it lay still.”

Sexual symbolism aside, the casual reader may be more interested in the way Stoker combines traditional Gothic elements with adventure, horror, and the supernatural to create a monumental work that is still widely read today — while nearly all the rest of Stoker’s copious output has faded into obscurity. Bram Stoker did not invent vampires, but his 1897 novel assured their immortality in literature and motion pictures.

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