Book Review


by Bram Stoker

‘There lay Lucy, seemingly just as we had seen her the night before her funeral. She was, if possible, more radiantly beautiful than ever, and I could not believe she was dead. The lips were red, nay redder than before, and on her cheeks was a delicate bloom.’

What is there to say about this novel that hasn’t been said before?

Published in 1897, it is often cited as the prototype gothic horror story. But of course that isn’t quite true. Gothic novels were well-established long before Bram Stoker took up his pen to write one. Ann Radcliffe had made the genre respectable in the 1790s. Coincidentally, Horace Walpole had already written one in the year of Radcliffe’s birth, 1764. The horror elements in Radcliffe’s work – if one can call them that – lay with events which may have seemed supernatural, but were not. The novels were romantic, not fantasy horror.

Dracula was different. Here the emphasis was on myth and fairy tale, old legends which grew in the telling from the religious superstitions of the past. The ancient castles, the storms, the dark woods, haunted tombs and other gloomy scenes were there, it is true, but the real horrors were in what happened for real, rather than in the characters’ imagination.

Dracula wasn’t even the first vampire novel. The origins of the genre (in English anyway) are more properly fixed (although even that is arguable) in 1816, at a famous literary gathering near Lake Geneva. Present were Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley). From that social evening sprang one short work and one major novel which is still popular today. Polidori’s The Vampyre, probably based on Byron’s idea, is almost forgotten; Godwin’s Frankenstein is not!

‘In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner …… All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips ……. “He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all.” ‘

Fifty years after The Vampyre, Sheridan le Fanu, like Bram Stoker an Irishman, published a fascinating novella entitled Carmilla which, like the former, was popular for a while but has since faded in the public memory. As I wrote in my 2017 book It’s a Fantasy World, Dracula might have suffered the same fate, had it not been for Hollywood and the Hammer Film Corporation.

So what about the story of Dracula? We all know it well, don’t we …. or do we?

Jonathan Harker, a soon-to-be-qualified lawyer, travels to Transylvania to conclude a property deal with Count Dracula. Jonathan is engaged to Mina, whose friend Lucy is engaged to Arthur Holmwood. (Incidentally, Lucy has three admirers; there are also Dr John Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum, and Texan Quincy Morris.) Dracula imprisons Jonathan in his castle and travels to Whitby, England to take possession of his properties, disposing of the crew of the ship in typical vampire fashion.

Having turned Lucy into a vampire, he tries working his evil on Mina too. Seward has no idea what is going on here and invites his old professor Abraham van Helsing (who does) to help. The men lay wait for Lucy in her tomb and “rescue her soul” in a most gruesome way.

While increasingly influenced by Dracula, Mina, together with Lucy’s three admirers, plus Jonathan – who has by now escaped – and van Helsing, pursue the undead count to his native land and destroy him.

Characters: The story is narrated through several journals, diaries and letters, mainly by Seward, Harker and Mina. We do get glimpses of their minds, but they and the other men are too much of a sameness to be sympathetic characters. Lucy and Mina too are quite alike, although the former, being dead, isn’t active long enough in the story to be developed. Mina, however, shows true grit as the plot unfolds. Van Helsing is more heroic but Stoker caricatures his speech too much for us to take the man seriously. Moreover, in his efforts to reproduce the dialect of Londoners and Scots, Stoker seems ridiculous.

Epistolary novels are not in fashion today, nor are attempts to replicate speech or accents of any kind, except in very minor ways. However, in spite these and other negatives, Dracula is still fun to read. Even if the dialogue is flat, many of the descriptive passages are poetic, and the story itself hypnotic and engaging.

‘As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph. But on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan’s great knife. I shrieked ……’

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