First things first, it’s impossible to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time in 2014 and have anything like the same experience as when it was first published in 1897. This book is nearly 120 years old and in that time, it has permeated our collective consciousness to the point that almost everything about it has become cliched. People who write about vampires these days deliberately avoid the old Dracula mythology or they subvert it or they hang a lamp on it.
Which isn’t to say that the book has become in any way farcical, only things that seemed bewildering then, like the wreath of garlic flowers around Lucy’s neck, seem perfectly logical now. Nor is it to say that Stoker invented vampires or the myths surrounding them, only that this book popularised them.
Onwards, with spoilers. I thought you couldn’t spoil a 120-year-old book that has become more myth than literature but it turns out that although everyone knows Dracula, Transylvania, garlic, mirrors, bats, Mina Harker and Van Helsing, I for one had no idea how the actual story went.
First of all, I had no idea that it’s not a story as such. It’s an epistolary novel, made up on letters, journal entries, newspaper cuttings and Dr Seward’s phonograph diary. It’s crying out to be remade online as a multimedia thing. It absolutely races along – my dad, who raves about this book, has always said that and he’s right. As with the Sherlock Holmes books, I’m astonished how readable this is – I think I’ve got it in my head, like most people, that classics are dry and dull and tedious.
Next, the characters. I suppose I thought the Harkers were the stars of the show but it seems Van Helsing is – and it amuses me no end that Abraham “Bram” Stoker named his protagonist after himself. They’re all very good and very brave but perhaps not so bright. Fair enough, no one realised what had happened to Lucy but it was just plain stupidity to not realise that Mina had been bitten by a vampire. My other observation on character – again, from a modern perspective – is that I bristle somewhat at the men’s attitude towards Mina of “we know what’s best for you, dear, you leave us to worry about matters”, even when they can see it’s making her worse to not be included. I know they love her dearly but they do treat Mina so patronisingly. And such dependence on the diaries! You must write everything down and then Mina must type it all up! This is of the utmost importance! It really isn’t, I don’t think, particularly as they acknowledge in the epilogue that it’s of no value whatsoever as evidence. I half expected them to throw it all in the fire.
For a while, I was astonished that so much of the book was set in Whitby. I’ve never been to Whitby, I don’t know what it’s like but it didn’t seem like the sort of setting for a book like Dracula. It’s far more suited to London, so I was delighted when it finally moved there when the real action got going. London has so many faces – for all the pretty things, like Hugh Grant films and Ross’s wedding and pomp and circumstance, there are ten dark and creepy things. There’s no other city in the world, except possibly Paris, so suited to a story about creatures of the night.
I enjoyed some of the simplicity of the Dracula chase – how do the vampire hunters get into the monster’s Piccadilly mansion? Why, they just stride up as if they own it and get a locksmith to change the lock in broad daylight. That’s beautiful. How do they sterilise Dracula’s various coffins so he can’t hide from the sun there? They just sprinkle a piece of Communion wafer in it. So easy. I enjoyed the mundane details about shipping and carriage – partly because I’m in that line of work and partly because it is so mundane. How does a vampire move fifty coffins to the other side of a continent? By the hand of working men, who are more than willing to sell his precious secrets for a few coins or a pint of beer. Lord Godalming strides in, flaunting his title and people fawn over him to give him confidential details and show him invoices. Dracula takes ship to Romania and the humans shrug and say “we’ll go by train and it’ll only take us three days so we can hang around at home for another fortnight”.
The chase – a colleague of mine saw me reading this the other day and knowing I’m very squeamish, immediately demanded whether I knew what I was reading – blood! gore! violence! But first, I was particularly squeamish because I refused to sit and listen to the details of laser eye surgery once upon a time and second, Dracula isn’t like that. Yes, it’s horror, I suppose. But it’s not horror horror. I would hesitate even to call it psychological horror. It’s really not bloodsoaked or gory at all. Alright, there are moments of violence and I was a bit unsure of the bit when Van Helsing proposed the after-death surgery on Lucy but that turned out fine and ungraphic. It’s creepy in places – probably all the more creepy if you read it a century ago but it’s not really scary. Like my dad says, it’s a chase.
Dracula, incidentally, is a terrible antagonist. For the entire final act of the book he’s helpless in a box! He plays no part whatsoever in the trans-European part of the chase and is killed in his sleep. I know there’s no other choice because you can’t really kill a vampire when it’s conscious but “put Dracula in a box and carry him around Europe” means he’s pretty much out of the picture when he should be at his most terrifying. By the way, when everything about the Dracula legend has become so well-known to the point of cliche, why has no one ever told me that Dracula has a long white moustache? That’s not the popular image of Dracula at all! And even before the chase, there are so many limitations placed on his movement. I know you need to level the playing field a bit between the human hunters and the supernatural creature with supernatural strength, speed, violence and ability to transform into at least four forms but by the end, those limitations have knocked him down so far it’s almost like the climax is humans vs jellyfish.
As to the girls and their vampirisation – I have feelings. Poor dear sweet Lucy – the image of her luring children to her on Hampstead Heath and drinking their blood is equal parts horrifying, tragic and hilarious. As for Mina, the men may have been stupid not to realise a vampire had got at her; she was even more stupid. Not because she let a vampire get her but because she wrote it all down exactly as Van Helsing had described it not so much earlier on and never realised it was a vampire and not just that she was tired and worried.
There is one thing I want. Right at the end, when Dracula is staked and Mina is freed from being part-vampire and suddenly becomes pure sweet human again, I wish we’d seen the moment when her human appetite returns and she realises she hasn’t eaten in days and stuffs her face. It’s been nearly 120 years – someone must have written this scene by now.