May 15, 2013

Dracula (#71a)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

What I said then:

The original, but is it the best?

What I say now:

Dracula, I'm sorry to report, is most definitely not the best. In fact, it's not even very good.

Jonathan Harker, a young real estate agent, travels from London to Romania to help settle the purchases of some land in England for a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Once there, it slowly (too slowly) dawns on Harker that Dracula is creepy as fuck, that weird happenings are afoot, and that he, Harker, is now a prisoner in Dracula's ancient, crumbling castle. Once Dracula sets off for England, Harker's wife Mina and occult expert Abraham Van Helsing gather together a small group of monster hunters to counter his plans to take over the world, one innocent English neck at a time.

The book's got a heap of problems, but the main one is the simplest: there's not enough Dracula in it. The Count's eminent position in pop culture makes obvious that he's by far Stoker's most interesting/original/captivating creation. The novel's first section, involving Harker trapped in the Count's castle and slowly realising the horrifying truth about his host, is actually pretty good. Unfortunately, once the action moves to England, Dracula basically exits the book, never to return. From that point on we hear about his actions, but never really see them; we see how much other characters fear him, but never see anything that makes us fear him ourselves. It's a genuinely strange choice on Stoker's part.

In some respects he's hamstrung by his choice to make the novel epistolary(ish) --- that is, it's constructed entirely of letters, diaries and journal entries. Dracula isn't one of our correspondents, and as he spends most of the novel hiding from the characters whose point of view we're getting, we just don't see him. Still, there had to be a way to give us more blood-sucking action.

The other big issue Stoker has with his letters/diaries style is that almost every single character speaks in exactly the same tone of voice. Even Van Helsing, who has a few 'foreign' mannerisms to his speech, still speaks in basically the same manner, and with the same vocabulary, as everybody else. The other members of the anti-Drac league might as well be the same person, for all the personality that comes through their voices.

The other major issue I had with the book was the nature of the action: Stoker seems to have no idea how to structure his story to make the most of its inherent drama. The vast majority of the book is spent having theoretical discussions. When the anti-Drac league does take action, it's most often through waiting in doorways, or writing letters to shipping agents, or looking up train timetables. Even in the final denouement, which should be super-duper satisfying after we've waited so long for it, they kill Dracula without actually having to confront him! I mean, surely that's a no-brainer, right? I couldn't believe it.

Obviously the book is super famous and continues to be read widely, and it's not for no reason. And in some ways I can understand the appeal: not only would the text itself have been pretty daring for its time, but the subtext is absolutely, positively drenched in sex (or, more specifically, the fear of sex). I have no idea what Stoker had going on in his personal life, but I suspect he was pretty hung-up about a lot of things, because a hell of a lot of psychological weirdness seeps through the edges of the novel. Unfortunately, in my opinion he wasn't in control enough of that psychological stuff to make it focussed and thematically coherent, and he certainly wasn't able to marry it to a well structured story. This ended up a pretty major disappointment for me.

Cheers, JC.

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