We all know the villain.
Dracula is an aristocratic vampire who lurks in a Transylvanian castle, emerging only at night from his casket in an abandoned chapel to stalk the living with unholy horror. He is suave, seductive, can transform into a bat, but is best know for his penetrating incisors, which he uses to suck the blood out of helpless maidens.
The legend of Dracula has seen myriad incarnations, from Tod Browning’s Dracula in which the iconic Bela Lugosi plays the Count to retellings in cartoon versions such as Looney Tunes and The Simpsons. However, it seems that no one incarnation of the Dracula story is consistent with any of the others. Each adaptation recreates the legend anew, including new plot twists, insights into Dracula’s character, and the victims who fall prey to him. But what, then, was the original horror that inspired these retellings?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You might have first been exposed to this original version—as I was—in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie of the same title. Keanu Reeves plays real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker, who visits Dracula while on a business trip. The Count is seeking to buy a house in London, but entraps Jonathan against his will in his castle, where he gradually comes an awareness that the count is “Un-dead,” a being called nosferatu, or Vampire.
In his novel, Bram Stoker opens with the same sequence. Jonathan narrates his story in a personal journal kept in shorthand as he rides on the Orient Express to Transylvania. At first, he does not know why the local peasants give him a crucifix and make warding signs against the evil eye in his presence—as a nineteenth-century man of a scientific age and a member of the Church of England, he has learned to shun superstition. However, the old Catholic rites of Eastern Europe later come in mighty handy, given the power of crucifixes to ward off evil spirits.
The first four chapters are so iconic, that to me they really are the story of Dracula, which we have come to know and love. That is, they show the classic plot that has trickled down to us through the media.
The tale then enters the everyday world of the friendship between two women: Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna. Mina is waiting anxiously to hear back from Jonathan, whose correspondence has stopped. She and Jonathan are planning to be engaged. Meanwhile, three suitors compete for Lucy’s hand in marriage: they are Sir Arthur Holmwood, next in line for the title of his father Lord Godalming, Dr. John Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum, and Mr. Quincey Morris, a Texan gentleman.
After opening like a lightning bolt, the story winds down to the pace of an old movie, slowly rebuilding the suspense. Things get strange when the Demeter, a ship from the Black Sea, crashes into the beach at Whitby without a crew, the captain reduced to a skeletal corpse with his hands tied to the wheel. A bottle containing an addendum to the ship’s log dangles from the corpse’s hands. After reading the captain’s account, we learn that an eerie mist haunted the ship during its passage, various members of the crew disappearing overnight without a trace.
Shortly afterwards, Lucy begins to sleepwalk. When she leaves her bed one night, Mina traces her to a graveyard. There she sees a strange, thin man kissing Lucy’s throat in the darkness. Lucy becomes sick afterwards, growing paler and paler by the day, until Dr. Seward sends a wire to his old Danish professor Abraham Van Helsing, an expert in obscure diseases.
Together, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing work together to find the root of Lucy’s illness and protect her from evil. Unable to discover how she keeps losing blood, they finally discover two small bite marks in her throat, which she had been trying to hide. Perhaps they were made by a dog.
As yet, none of the characters have an inkling that a vampire is amongst them, though Van Helsing is suspicious. However, hints appear here and there that Dracula has come to London. Once Jonathan arrives home with his journal around the middle of the book, Van Helsing puts one and two together. The various characters’ journals, telegrams, and letters—which tell their story—become crucial when the original documents are put together, forming a coherent narrative that at last convinces Mina and Dr. Seward that supernatural evil is afoot.
Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors then team up to defeat the dark forces of the Un-dead, fighting in a chivalrous battle for the sake of the woman they each love. Leonard Wolf likens the Dracula story the legend of St. George and the Dragon. It is an apt analogy. In a quintessentially English manner, the vampire hunters unite in the defense of the women they love, like knights in shining armour. Mina helps out where she can in acquiring information on the Count, while the men assume the duty and active role of hunting the evil spirits. Alas, the female vampire killer is a product of another century.
There are several discoveries awaiting a reader of Dracula. Aside from the main plot, I had many pleasures in uncovering characters who are often skimmed over in retellings, or erased. For example, there is the sane lunatic Mr. Renfield who worships Dracula in Dr. Seward’s asylum, although at first Seward thinks he is merely zoöphagus, in that he likes to eat live animals, such as flies, spiders, and even birds.
Stoker establishes many of the tropes of later vampire tales. For example, the connection between vampirism and female sexuality is strong. Female vampires tend to be associated with “wanton” sexuality and adultery, as opposed to Lucy and Mina’s purer femininity, which inspires Harker and the others to fight.
Also, Stoker establishes many of the visual/sound effects movie producers would use in later years. This includes the enlarging of a vampire’s mouth into a rectangular shape before it bites, the “hissing cat” sound they make when agitated, and the Count’s ability to climb castle walls. It’s somewhat heartening to know these images were conceived in a world before Hollywood.
On my reading experience of Dracula, I would remind readers that is a product of the nineteenth century. This is certainly not Twilight. I, for one, loved the nineteenth-century diction and style, but I am aware that this style might not be for all. If you like Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Charles Dickens, then you will find that Dracula is written with a similar taste. Expect paragraphs of Van Helsing’s expositional dialogue, for example, and characters describing how they feel through speech.Furthermore, do not expect the guts-and-gore style of modern suspense. Van Helsing is an old doctor, not Hugh Jackman with an automatic stake-shooting crossbow. As such, the “action” scenes are sparse. However, in what “action” scenes there are, the prose kept me tethered to the story and fixated on what was happening. The spaces between served to augment the suspense and sense of dread—not diminish it. Dracula is more of a haunting presence throughout the story than a character in himself, as he must be.
In conclusion, I still wonder how Dracula was received in 1897. Did people open its covers expecting the same kind of story we expect today? I doubt so, since there has been more than a century of theatre, movie, and TV adaptations of the story that are floating in our subconscious as we read. It seems so hard to imagine reading Dracula without any prior expectations or biases towards the Count and his legend—a difficulty that attests to how deeply Stoker’s legend has taken root in our culture.
Nonetheless, if you are willing to get as close as possible to the original experience of Dracula, then only Bram Stoker’s novel will be able to satisfy your lust.