What could be a better review for Halloween than the ancestor to so much horror fiction–Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’d been meaning to read Dracula for ages–it was one of those classics I thought I ought to know about.
I kept not getting to it for a couple of reasons. Mostly, I thought it might be disturbing. It is horror, after all, and being old doesn’t prove anything–Poe can be pretty disturbing. Or, I thought it could be very literary and difficult to read. Fortunately, both fears proved unfounded.
To address the second one first, Dracula isn’t a difficult read, though it is slow at times. Some books transition into the current day just fine; with others, it’s immediately obvious that they were written in the 1800s. It’s a stylistic thing, but it’s not difficult, just dry sometimes.
As to being disturbing, it really wasn’t. But, to give you fair warning, I do most of my reading during the day. I’m convinced that we have some kind of deep-seated primordial instinct that makes everything seem much creepier when it’s dark out. I have two friends who read this at night–one said it was fine, the other said it was terrifying (and she’s usually good with horror) so take from that what you will. For me, it certainly had some dark moments and images, but it didn’t particularly give me chills and thrills. Honestly, nothing had the tickle-your-spine creepiness of Bela Lugosi descending the stairs and purring, “I am…Drrrracula.”
Speaking of Mr. Lugosi, he’s always been my image of Count Dracula. So I was taken aback to find Dracula described as a white-haired old man with a drooping mustache and hairy palms. I was actually fascinated by how consistently Dracula is described as ugly and repulsive. And this is the origin of the culture’s vampire obsession? (But then, I find the Phantom of the Opera a plausible romantic lead, and that’s equally strange if you only read Gaston Leroux.)
The leap from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer is mind-boggling. Dracula to Twilight is a long trip. I couldn’t imagine how we got from Stoker’s ugly, foul-smelling demon spawn, all the way to Meyer’s breathtakingly gorgeous (and sparkly!) Edward Cullen. I talked to a friend who’s more interested in vampire literature than I am, and she tells me that the bridge is Anne Rice. Apparently she’s the one who made the vampires seductive. Stoker’s Dracula is not in the least seductive–the female vampires are a bit, and the Count has a certain mesmerizing quality, but it’s much more hypnotic than attractive. 110 years has clearly made a big difference in the perception of vampires.
Speaking of the gulf between portrayals, there are few characters less like Hugh Jackman than Stoker’s Van Helsing. The Hugh Jackman movie is a fun romp about a man fighting monsters, but the original character is a sweet old man. He wields a stake when he needs to, but he’s much more an intellectual than a fighter.
To circle back to Stoker vs. Meyer, another interesting question is whether the vampires are damned. In Stoker, there’s no doubt about it. He doesn’t allude or hint. He just flat-out says that God has forsaken any and all vampires–even if you didn’t want to become one. You get bitten a few times, drink some vampire blood (even force-fed), and you’re condemned. It bothers me from a narrative and especially a spiritual perspective that people could lose their souls unwillingly. I actually have to give a nod to Meyer here for making it more complicated–the after-life of vampires is no more certain than for anyone else, and the mere fact of being a vampire doesn’t mean someone is evil.
On the other hand, when it comes to strong female characters, I’m giving that one to Stoker. He has a couple of major female characters. Lucy is endlessly described as sweet and good and beautiful, and not much else. Mina, however, has got it all over Bella. She’s right in there with the men devising their plans for fighting Dracula, and I think she has as much nerve and brains as any of them. She ends up constrained by her gender a few times, but the men clearly hold her in immense respect, and when they do occasionally try to push her out of something (for her own protection, of course) I get the sense that she thinks she’s equally capable–and that she’s right! Not bad, for 1897.
“Not bad” is probably a fair estimate of the entire book. I didn’t love it, but it was definitely interesting for its place in literary history. Taken simply as itself, it had some good characters, a good premise, it was kind of slow and I’m not crazy about the writing style. All in all though, it was pretty good–or not bad!