Dracula could be named the quintessential Gothic horror novel and no soul would hear a word of argument from me. Since the first time I read it (nearly six years ago – how time flies), it has remained my favourite novel of all time. Stoker’s fundamental imagining of the vampire laid the groundwork for a mythological beast that has remained adhered to the minds of the public consciousness as if Stoker’s immortal soul itself had cemented it there.
The novel is laid out as a collection of diary entries from multiple characters. The main players are Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker and John Seward with the ocassional contribution from the likes of Lucy Westenra and Abraham van Helsing, along with newspaper clippings. The main effect of this writing style is the immersion it provides for the reader, allowing you to feel almost like these events are of a true nature despite your best intentions to think logically. At no point does it feel intrusive to have to live inside the pages of someone’s diary, but rather it feels genuine and inevitably more interesting.
When the novel was first published in 1897 (nearly one hundred and twenty years ago) it was not met with all that much success, in spite of the almost universal praise from the critics. Stoker’s style was compared to the likes of Shelley in Frankenstein or Brontë in Wuthering Heights – with some going as far as to say that his Gothic novel was even better than their work ever was. I cannot help but agree with the novel’s contemporary critics. There is of course a reason why Dracula has become imbedded into our culture, even beyond the effect it has had on popular culture, mythological folklore and academia. Its themes resonate to this day and most are still relevant to our society today, if not more relevant than ever.
A short list of these themes include sex, passivity, xenophonia, technology (or lack of) and, of course, the classic eternally raging battle between good and evil. The themes of sex in particular are exquisitely written by Stoker and are somewhat more overt than a reader may believe present in nineteenth century novels. There is one particular moment of vampiric assault which bears terrifying resemblance to rape. Dracula’s attacks on women are sexualized to the extent that the bloodsucking could be interpreted as much as a need to satiate sexual lust as to stay alive (or stay “undead”, if you prefer).
As with many novels of this period, ideas concerning gender seem to be thrown around. Mina Harker is the “lead female”, so to speak, and carries a unique strength within her that none of the male characters seem capable of possessing – an aspect of her personality which they all seem to consciously address themselves. She is certainly no warrior but she is the driving force of the heroes. For her, they fight to vanquish this figure who personifies evil in a ghastly way. The strength she possesses becomes the physical strength of the men, and for this I struggle to think of a reason not to admire this character.
This is not to say she outshines every other hero we meet. Jonathan Harker supplies us with the most interesting and horrifying section of the novel in the form of the first few chapters. Meanwhile, Abraham van Helsing is not the action hero Stephen Sommers and Hugh Jackman would have us believe, but he is the most lovable and kind old soul I have had the pleasure of reading in fiction.
Just like every other work of fiction, however, ‘Dracula’ has its flaws. In terms of both evaluative judgement and personal opinion, I do completely believe them to be few, but they certainly exist. A newspaper reporter, for instance, writing quotes in the dialect they were spoken in is both irksome and makes dialogue harder to read. Not to mention I feel unconvinced that ANY newspaper reporter would submit themselves to doing that. It may also be argued that the book delves too quickly into absolute and relentless horror, only to pull out all too quickly and slow the pace of the book to an unnecessary degree.
At the time it was published, Dracula was named the “sensation of the season” – a remark that was ahead of its time by years, as the book picked up most of its popularity in the nineteen-twenties when F.W. Murnau adapted his loose movie version Nosferatu. Yet this quote is somewhat incorrect. For ‘Dracula’ stands to this day among the masterpieces of Shakespeare, Austen, Hugo and so many more as a “sensation of human history”. It is a privilege for Stoker to have shared his fascinating, as well as horrifically appalling, vision with us. It is a timeless story and one we should never allow to fade into the background noise of our vast and glorious culture.