This book is fucking awesome. Given the saturation of Dracula and vampire-related material in pop culture, I fully expected to be underwhelmed by the book because I knew the whole thing already, but the opposite was the case. It’s a page-turner front to back, and undoubtedly better than any movie rendition (full disclosure: I’ve never seen one).
Bram Stoker starts with a gripping first-person narrative in the form of the journal of Jonathan Harker, a man traveling from London to Castle Dracula to help finalize a property purchase on the part of the Count who lives there. It’s moody, and creepy, and builds very nicely. Our hero is first just sort of weirded out, then mildly alarmed, and then is pretty much panicked at his situation, and Stoker doles it out to the reader with a beautiful slow burn. The whole first section of the book gets you in its grip, which then proceeds to tighten.
Section one ends with our narrator’s presumed escape, and then the book explodes out in many different directions made up of various people’s journals and correspondence. We have Mina, Jonathan’s fiancée; Lucy, Mina’s bosom buddy and the object of several men’s affections; Dr. Seward, who presides over an insane asylum; Mr. Holmwood, who is indiscriminately rich; Quincey, a good old boy from Texas; and finally we have Dr. Van Helsing, the most badass vampire hunter Holland has ever produced. After the tightly focused beginning, it’s nice to see things spread out a bit, with seemingly unconnected threads of a larger story. But eventually, we start to see the relationship between these people and our original narrator, and the thing that unites them all: a certain blood-sucking monster.
We do have just a bit of social drama, as three different men fall in love with Lucy, and she is forced to break two hearts—Quincey’s and Dr. Seward’s—but since it is Victorian England, the chaps all meet this with a stiff upper lip (even the American) and pledge their undying friendship in any case, which seems awfully nice of them. But this social drama soon segues into horror as Lucy begins exhibiting strange behavior, and then contracts some sort of inexplicable illness which causes her blood to disappear from her body on a nightly basis. Shortly, Van Helsing puts it together and does what he can to save her and outflank the beast.
Sadly for Lucy and all of her admirers, she dies, and then is turned into a vampire herself, rising from her tomb each night to drink the blood of various children unlucky enough to be drawn to her beauty. After some pretty elaborate sections where Van Helsing convinces Quincey and Holmwood (who is Lucy’s widower by now) that what’s happening is really happening, Holmwood drives a stake through her heart, which was frankly just awesome. I was expecting the book to be fairly reserved on these matters and look discreetly away at the key moments, but nope: Stoker wants you to see undead Lucy’s writhing body as the stake is pounded into her undead torso. Rough stuff for old Holmwood.
Following this turning point, our various narrations more or less come together, and the remainder of the book follows our band of characters as they attempt to track down and defeat Dracula, first in London and then eventually in the very shadow of Castle Dracula itself. Along the way Mina is bitten by the Count in what is probably the most gruesome scene in the book. The several heroes burst into her room to find Holmwood passed out on the ground, and the Count forcing Mina to nurse blood from the gash on his chest he made for that purpose. I mean, damn. This turns her into his undead slave, and she slowly begins her transformation into a vampire. She takes it all very stoically, as befits a good Victorian woman.
Eventually, after multiple turnarounds, the fearless gang tracks down Dracula back in Transylvania and is able to take him down. Quincey doesn’t make it, but since he’s one of the characters who didn’t keep a journal or write letters, we don’t mind too much and frankly sort of see it coming. But everyone else survives, Mina has the curse lifted from her, and they all live happily ever after.
I came to this book with an inevitable fluency in vampire lore and Dracula’s story specifically, but the book still managed to thrill and surprise me. I can imagine how it must have landed with readers who had no idea what was coming, and who faced the dark doings of the Count with no expectations or grounding: It must have scared the hell out of them, of course, which is why the book has been successful all these years. Its reputation is quite well deserved.
Excerpt from Dracula, by Bram Stoker
The two men sitting on the bed stood up and came over, standing behind him so that he could not see them, but where they could hear better. They were both silent, but the Professor started and quivered; his face, however, grew grimmer and sterner still. Renfield went on without noticing:—
“When Mrs. Harker came in to see me this afternoon she wasn’t the same; it was like tea after the teapot had been watered.” Here we all moved, but no one said a word; he went on:—
“I didn’t know that she was here till she spoke; and she didn’t look the same. I don’t care for the pale people; I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to have run out. I didn’t think of it at the time; but when she went away I began to think, and it made me mad to know that He had been taking the life out of her.” I could feel that the rest quivered, as I did, but we remained otherwise still. “So when He came to-night I was ready for Him. I saw the mist stealing in, and I grabbed it tight. I had heard that madmen have unnatural strength; and as I knew I was a madman—at times anyhow—I resolved to use my power. Ay, and He felt it too. for He had to come out of the mist to struggle with me. I held tight; and I thought I was going to win, for I didn’t mean Him to take any more of her life, till I saw His eyes. They burned into me, and my strength became like water. He slipped through it, and when I tried to cling to Him, He raised me up and flung me down. There was a red cloud before me, and a noise like thunder, and the mist seemed to steal away under the door.” His voice was becoming fainter and his breath more stertorous. Van Helsing stood up instinctively.
“We know the worst now,” he said. “He is here, and we know his purpose. It may not be too late. Let us be armed—the same as we were the other night, but lose no time; there is not an instant to spare.” There was no need to put our fear, nay our conviction, into words—we shared them in common. We all hurried and took from our rooms the same things that we had when we entered the Count’s house. The Professor had his ready, and as we met in the corridor he pointed to them significantly as he said:—
“They never leave me; and they shall not till this unhappy business is over. Be wise also, my friends. It is no common enemy that we deal with. Alas! alas! that that dear Madam Mina should suffer!” He stopped; his voice was breaking, and I do not know if rage or terror predominated in my own heart.
Outside the Harkers’ door we paused. Art and Quincey held back, and the latter said:—
“Should we disturb her?”
“We must,” said Van Helsing grimly. “If the door be locked, I shall break it in.”
“May it not frighten her terribly? It is unusual to break into a lady’s room!” Van Helsing said solemnly.
“You are always right; but this is life and death. All chambers are alike to the doctor; and even were they not they are all as one to me to-night. Friend John, when I turn the handle, if the door does not open, do you put your shoulder down and shove; and you too, my friends. Now!”
He turned the handle as he spoke, but the door did not yield. We threw ourselves against it; with a crash it burst open, and we almost fell headlong into the room. The Professor did actually fall, and I saw across him as he gathered himself up from hands and knees. What I saw appalled me. I felt my hair rise like bristles on the back of my neck, and my heart seemed to stand still.
The moonlight was so bright that through the thick yellow blind the room was light enough to see. On the bed beside the window lay Jonathan Harker, his face flushed and breathing heavily as though in a stupor. Kneeling on the near edge of the bed facing outwards was the white-clad figure of his wife. By her side stood a tall, thin man, clad in black. His face was turned from us, but the instant we saw all recognised the Count—in every way, even to the scar on his forehead. With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink. As we burst into the room, the Count turned his face, and the hellish look that I had heard described seemed to leap into it. His eyes flamed red with devilish passion; the great nostrils of the white aquiline nose opened wide and quivered at the edge; and the white sharp teeth, behind the full lips of the blood-dripping mouth, champed together like those of a wild beast. With a wrench, which threw his victim back upon the bed as though hurled from a height, he turned and sprang at us. But by this time the Professor had gained his feet, and was holding towards him the envelope which contained the Sacred Wafer. The Count suddenly stopped, just as poor Lucy had done outside the tomb, and cowered back. Further and further back he cowered, as we, lifting our crucifixes, advanced. The moonlight suddenly failed, as a great black cloud sailed across the sky; and when the gaslight sprang up under Quincey’s match, we saw nothing but a faint vapour. This, as we looked, trailed under the door, which with the recoil from its bursting open, had swung back to its old position. Van Helsing, Art, and I moved forward to Mrs. Harker, who by this time had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear-piercing, so despairing that it seems to me now that it will ring in my ears till my dying day. For a few seconds she lay in her helpless attitude and disarray. Her face was ghastly, with a pallor which was accentuated by the blood which smeared her lips and cheeks and chin; from her throat trickled a thin stream of blood; her eyes were mad with terror. Then she put before her face her poor crushed hands, which bore on their whiteness the red mark of the Count’s terrible grip, and from behind them came a low desolate wail which made the terrible scream seem only the quick expression of an endless grief.