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Book Review: Dracula
"Dracula" is the grand-daddy of all horror novels, basically kicking off the horror genre along with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. It's also the first vampire novel, introducing many common vampire tropes we might today call "vampire lore"; the fact that they sleep during the day, in coffins, are called the undead, suck blood through their fangs, fly by transforming into bats, and are harmed by garlic, crucifixes, and killed by means of driving a stake through their heart. It also establishes a connection between vampires and wolves, as well as mentions the word "nosferatu" as a name referring to vampires. While these ideas about vampires will be twisted, played with, and some of the rules of vampires outright broken by future authors, this is the one genre creator where all those rules originate. This is a timeless horror classic, still being able to bring chills to readers after over a hundred years.
The book is told unconventionally as a series of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and other documents of the events. In this way, one can get into the minds of multiple characters, which is nice, and it keeps things fresh by often changing up the perspective.
Basically, a young solicitor (someone who handles civil legal matters), Jonathan, is asked by his firm to go out to Transylvania, a remote region of Romania, to meet with this "Count Dracula" dude to discuss business. We start out in Jonathan's diary as he treks over there to deal with the Count and describes his growing uneasiness with the place he's in and the person he's dealing with. Are the locals, who fear the Count, right or merely superstitious?
What Jonathan finds out about that Count through snooping around a bit is as interesting as it is frightening. The Count seems to have the power to control wolves. He sleeps in a coffin by day, being only active at night. Jonathan sees him crawl out of the coffin and fly out the window of the room like a bat. Another time, when the Count is sleeping in the coffin, Jonathan opens the coffin and notices the Count is in there not breathing, as if he were dead rather than asleep. This also gives Jonathan the chance to observe the Count's sharp, elongated canine teeth.
Jonathan gets the hell up out of there and makes it back to England, but needs the help of his fiance Mina. Back home, some strange stuff starts happening. A ship full of empty boxes crashes on the shore with a dead captain tied to the wheel. A few passages talk about the strange behavior of a lunatic in an insane asylum. A wolf breaks free from the zoo. And then, the worst thing to happen; Mina's BFF Lucy becomes a vampire herself. Lucy's fiance, and two guys who had also proposed to her (which include the doctor at the asylum), and Jonathan, get the help of Dr. Van Helsing, an expert in this sort of thing. But it's her fiance, Arthur, who has to be the one to kill Lucy.
How do you kill that which is "undead", in a state between death and life? Garlic can ward it off, but to kill it, you have to drive a stake through its heart. Arthur is actually glad that now, at least, Lucy can die at peace and go to heaven, no longer living as a twisted, evil menace to society.
But to make weird stuff stop happening for good, the gang will have to journey down to Transylvania to take out Count Dracula himself, the same way they did Lucy. Will they succeed in vanquishing this powerful evil? Or will they succumb to the madness and horror he causes?
While I'm a big fan of the video series "Thug Notes", in which the host discusses literary themes and meaning using street slang and AAVE, I think he was all wrong about this book being about women. Because, while this time period was heavily into the concepts of female purity and modesty, there's no real reason to suggest that Lucy Westerna represents any sort of rebellion against society. Like Mina, she's happy to become engaged, and described by other characters as pure and virtuous.
Anyway, being a dead-end for wannabe feminist critics (unless you're so brainwashed you have to find sexism in everything) doesn't mean there aren't other themes and symbolism worth discussing.
I think of Dracula as representing a cultural clash. He represents everything about England's medieval past, whereas Dr. VanHelsing, his Dutch adversary, represents everything modern. In the 1890's when this book was written, England was undergoing dramatic changes, namely, dramatic increases in industrial productivity. The engine of the Industrial Revolution was getting hot, and people were wondering whether this was a good or bad thing for the future.
Some people believed that England needed to return to Christianity, the protection of nature, and family values that they felt were undermined by this new industrialism. The "Gothic revival" in architecture was a way to reject the rationalism represented by the prior "Neo-classical" style, making ordinary buildings like schools and libraries look like medieval castles and churches, using the pointed arch associated with "Gothic" style architecture from the 1200s AD, meaning, it was all about romanticizing the medieval, pre-industrial past. In art, romantic painters focused on the emotional over the rational, and impressionists and post-impressionists experimented with art that was more emotionally evocative than technically skillful.
But, I believe Dracula is firmly a reaction to all this romanticism that was going on at the time, in Camp Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers of the previous era had believed in rationality, seeing the benefits of civilization and the strength in the human mind. They believed in technological and industrial progress. At this time, you could say that Catholic Romania was representing a land the author believed to be backwards, primitive, and superstitious, while the Netherlands that VanHelsing hails from represents a land of rationality, science, technology, industry, and democracy instead of aristocrats. Thus, what the author, I think, really intends to show, is not just a doctor and scientist driving a stake through the heart of a monstrous aristocrat, but to show that England needed modernity to save it, and to stop people from romanticizing the savagery of the past. Indeed, one of the first things Jonathan thinks about on his way to Castle Dracula in the beginning of the novel is the region of Transylvania's bloody history, being the site of numerous ancient battles.
The 19th century, while not being a great century for infant mortality, was a great century for literature and art. Many novels from the time are still influential and entertaining today, Dracula included. And I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with the origins of vampire lore. It's also important, like I said, as a counterpoint to the more mainstream romanticism and Gothic revivalism prevalent at this time. It's a good counterpoint to Frankenstein, in which science goes too far and creates a monster; in this novel, science is man's best friend against the horrors, and knowledge certainly is power. I would definitely encourage aspiring writers to read this too, because author Bram Stoker knew how to create a truly compelling villain like no one else.