“Welcome to my house! Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!”
For over 100 years, Count Dracula’s welcome has been gratefully accepted into our cultural imagination. Although not the first vampire story in literature, there is no doubt that Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is the one that has had the most impact. All of today’s vampire iterations owe something to the dark count in one way or another.
Narrated through a series of diary entries and letters from an array of characters. Dracula is the story of a young lawyer, Jonathan Harker, who is sent to Transylvania to manage the affairs of a mysterious Romanian count, only to find himself held prisoner by a force of evil that will threaten all he holds dear. As Dracula makes his way to London, Jonathan, his wife Mina and his friends, including the inscrutable Van Helsing, must risk everything to save themselves, and their way of life from Dracula’s monstrous whims.
Dracula is not the book I imagined it to be, probably because years of vampire lore have raised my expectations. For one thing, it is not particularly frightening to a modern reader. The opening scenes, where Jonathan is prisoner in Dracula’s castle contain a delicious sense of oppression and Dracula’s journey on a boat to England is as grotesque as it gets.
However, once Dracula has made his way onto English soil and the fight against him begins in earnest, the book loses steam and my interest waned as I waded through pages and pages of earnest conversation told from different perspectives.
The epistolary nature of the narrative does work very well as it leaves Dracula, the main source of terror, as a void at the centre of the story. The reader never meets him directly, we only hear about him and that means that despite being the constant focus of everyone’s attention, he remains a dark shadow, a shape to be filled out by the reader’s own sense of fear.
Dracula is a book of its time and should be read as such. Stoker melds folklore, myth, science and psychiatry in such a way that directly reflects the age in which he was living. Issues of sexuality, the nature of origin and religious purity hint at the wider social concerns of the time and like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dracula is a deeper work than its source material would suggest.
That is not to say I particularly enjoyed Dracula. It read like a book of two halves for me, with the pace becoming turgid and heavy-handed during the final pages, before a somewhat rushed and convenient ending. While I enjoyed the scenes with asylum inmate Renfield, a lot of the time I just did not care for these characters.
Not that my reservations really matter. I cannot imagine what Bram Stoker would have made of the afterlife of his most famous creation. In just the last few months, there has been a new BBC adaptation of Dracula, the hilarious vampire spoof What We Do in the Shadows and a vampire-related episode of Inside No 9.
Dracula is no longer just a story, but a myth and we will undoubtedly be welcoming him across the threshold for a long time to come.
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