Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Dracula: Bram Stoker, September 30—November 3, 2011
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Count Dracula, easily the most famous vampire other than perhaps Michael Howard, makes his début in the eponymous novel by Bram Stoker. As such, the premise needs no introduction from me.
The early part of the novel, and in my opinion the strongest, follows Jonathan Harker into Count Dracula’s castle and we see through his eyes the horrible realisation of who – and what – his host is and his desperate struggle to escape. It is here that Stoker builds Dracula into a marvellously intelligent, charming and enigmatic villain. Introduced to the reader via Harker as the audience surrogate, we share his horror and panic.
Thereafter, the attention switches abruptly to Harker’s fiancée back in the UK, her BFF Lucy and Lucy’s multiple suitors as half of London decides to propose to her on the same day. For a sizeable chunk of the novel, our surrogate Harker vanishes from the scene and Dracula himself becomes, at best, a supporting character. Instead, we hang around waiting for someone else to die of their vampire bite. For ages. To the point I wanted to just smother her with the pillow already and move on. Everyone is utterly bamboozled other than Van Helsing, who knows precisely what is wrong but doesn’t say a word.
Not only is the death more long and drawn out than double maths on a Friday afternoon, but it’s intensely frustrating as the reader has already been informed of Dracula’s being a vampire. As a result, there is no suspense for the reader, but a long wait on everyone else catching up. Lo and behold, she kicks the bucket and from there begins what I consider to be the third and final section: the characters (including a returned Harker who we no longer care about) decide to go kick some Dracula butt and try to kill the evil vampire.
One of the most interesting concepts about the novel is its epistolary nature, consisting mainly of journal entries by the main characters with some telegrams and newspaper clippings thrown in for good measure. I always praise an author who tries to do something a little different and, credit where it’s due, Stoker has carefully thread together the various documents which comprise the novel. The most obvious benefit comes when the characters themselves begin reading each other’s journals, therefore providing a clear, quick and easy way to convey what the characters now know (i.e. whatever we do) without the need for repetition and this serves Stoker well. Another advantage for me, albeit a matter of personal preference, is that the character’s do not bother to include in their journals what their house, mother, socks or breakfast look like. I prefer to let my imagination do the work. Only Dracula and Van Helsing are described in any detail and this is a deliberate and successful use of writer’s craft to attach importance to these characters.
The biggest downside of this technique, particularly given the genre, is the guaranteed survival of the writer until at least the end of their entry. The writing is also very clinical at times. It’s written in the extreme past tense, leaving the reader to feel like they missed the action rather than being part of it. Where Harker’s journal at the beginning worked, the rest of the novel failed. Again, there is no suspense or atmosphere. That terrifying, day-by-day realisation lends itself well to journaling, but action sequences are done a disservice.
This technique gives the reader a unique and intimate way to get to know the characters, and Stoker completely failed to capitalise on that. Every character writes their journal in the same way: the same layout, the same format, the same tone, the same vocabulary. The reader should be able to pick up the book and know exactly who’s writing, but the opportunity is wasted and actually results in the cast becoming one big bland corporate narrator, plus Van Helsing. It’s little wonder some film adaptations go a step further and even amalgamate multiple characters into one.
My only other criticism of the journal system is that Dracula himself is overlooked. Your normal omniscient narrator would be able to take us to Dracula, show us his mind and get him more involved. Perhaps it was deliberate on Stoker’s part to make Dracula distant, unknown and untouchable. But personally I’m disappointed he didn’t have a greater role. By rights, the novel should be called Dr. Seward.
One of the most interesting sub plots was Renfield, the psychiatric patient who had a form of connection to Dracula. I found his part intriguing and Dr. Seward’s case study on him was an intriguing parallel story worthy of some scholarly analysis if you so wished. There is great fodder within the novel for some good study and exploration – the themes, symbolism and more philosophical dialogue.
While Stoker’s contribution to the genre cannot be ignored or overstated, I was underwhelmed with the final product. It is slow and long-winded (if you were to cut out all of the pledges or allegiance, swearing by each other, et cetera at the end of every entry you’d probably half the length straight away), not to mention extremely melodramatic (if the maid brings them tea all of the men burst into hysterical tears and fall in love with her on the spot). By contrast, I felt the ending was extremely rushed: the final battle was over in around six lines, as if Stoker realised he was late for his bus and just wrote “and then they killed Dracula. The end”.
By the end, you do begin to wonder if you yourself have been drained of enthusiasm by having it sucked from your neck.