Friday, January 9, 2009
Book Review - The Classics - Dracula by Bram Stoker - "...how sweet the morning can be."
When the dry leaves of autumn began to crumble into dust, when the winter wind began to howl through the bare branches of the giant maples on the front lawn, and when the first snowflakes began to fall, I wanted something really different to read, something very atmospheric and in keeping with the dark, gloomy days and long, seemingly interminable nights. I pulled one book after another off my shelves, but nothing filled the bill until I started reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I’ve seen so many movie versions of the Dracula legend and none of them, absolutely none, begin to do this book justice. It’s so rich, so haunting, so tragic, so supremely human that once I picked it up, I just couldn’t put it down. Even though I knew how things would work out, I didn’t know how we’d get there, at least not in this book, and I got totally caught up in the story, totally involved with the characters.
Surprisingly, Dracula isn’t Dracula’s story. In Stoker’s book, the Count spends most of his time “off-stage.” This book really belongs to a small group of courageous victims who band together to defeat the forces of darkness.
Told in a series of letters and journal and diary entries, with the occasional newspaper clipping, the book opens when Jonathan Harker’s small law firm sends him from London to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction at Castle Dracula. Although the Count, on the surface, seems to be a charming and most accommodating host, Jonathan soon becomes suspicious, and after a long and unscheduled delay, follows the Count back to London.
In London, Harker and his bride, Mina, are drawn into the quest to end the Count’s bloody reign of terror when Mina’s dear friend, Lucy Westenra, falls victim to Dracula’s inevitable bloodlust. They’re joined by Lucy’s fiancé, Lord Godalming, Godalming’s friend, the psychiatrist, John Seward, and Dr. Seward’s friend, the fearless Dutch vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing. Rounding out the group is a brave and gallant Texan, Quincey Morris, also a friend of Lord Godalming.
The story belongs to everyone in this group, and the point of view constantly shifts from one to the other depending on whose letter or journal we happen to be reading. Stoker really didn’t work hard enough on giving each of his narrators a distinct voice (other than Lucy and Mina), but this didn’t stop me from enjoying the story thoroughly. The one exception to this was Van Helsing. Van Helsing’s extremely broken English, though easy enough to understand, started to grate on my nerves a bit once I passed the book’s halfway point. By the time I reached the end, he started sounding just plain silly, and though he was good and brave and honest and kind, I began losing sympathy for him. Occasionally, other minor characters speak in an almost indecipherable dialect, but fortunately, their appearance in the book is limited to a paragraph or two, and their speech does nothing to stop or slow the book’s momentum.
Dracula is, of course, a 19th century book, and because of that, some people are going to find the language stilted. For example, Lucy begins one of her letters to Mina with “Oceans of love and millions of kisses….” I doubt any woman would write to another in this manner today, but rather than feeling stilted, I felt it enhanced the book’s atmosphere. It really gave me a terrific sense of time and place, and without that sense of time and place, the Dracula legend, at least for me, would have suffered.
So many people think of Dracula as “just” another horror story, or “just” another vampire legend, but nothing could be further from the truth. For me, this book was more of an adventure story, a very atmospheric adventure story. It was, of course, quite Gothic, something I really loved, and something I was really looking forward to. It certainly did not disappoint.
Bram Stoker was a prolific writer, but only one of his works, Dracula, is still widely read today. There’s a good reason for that – the book is truly superb.