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Cold Reads: Dracula by Bram Stoker
In a world that has become populated by hunky, teenaged bloodsuckers with a penchant for sparkling, this reviewer finds it very refreshing to go back to a time when vampires were of a charming nobility and still possessed an air of mystique and utter horror. Dracula is just the fix I need, providing an engaging adventure story set to the tone of the moody European Gothics. While it is not free from faults, this novel is a seminal piece of literature for serious fans of vampires, whether they be Edward Cullen or Max Schreck.
English solicitor Jonathan Harker is traveling through the strange wilds of the Carpathian Mountains to close a deal with the mysterious Count Dracula in his brooding castle. Jonathan is leasing a molding estate in London by the name of Carfax Abbey to the decrepit noble. Beset by many strange occurrences such as the incessant howling of wolves and the sight of the Count crawling across the castle walls, Jonathan soon becomes a prisoner in the castle and watches in horror as the Count leaves for his new home in England. There the devious monster begins to drink deep of the country's rich blood and is only threatened in his existence when a team of hunters including the brave Dr. Van Helsing and Jonathan's wife Mina attempt to end his unholy reign.
The grand spectacle and star of the novel, as the title obviously implies, is our good friend the Count. No, I'm not referring to the math-obsessed puppet that frequented Sesame Street. I'm talking about the Dracula himself, the big cheese, the head honcho Nosferatu, the guy who gave necking a new meaning. His appearances in the book are full of menacing power and an evil that could only be born of Hell. There is no conflict or battle going on in Dracula's psyche: he is all evil, all the time. This makes him much more than a character; he's a force whose black presence can be felt in every chapter. Indeed, Stoker seems to have succeeded in creating an epic villain who is the epitome of the darkness he inhabits. The trouble is, the flesh-and-blood character of Dracula is hardly ever seen in the novel at all. Given that he is the nefarious spirit and presence that he is, this approach works... to an extent.
The book kicks off to a great start: Jonathan's eyes become our own and we are now the stranger in the strange land. The superstitious habits of the villagers build great suspense and prepare us for our imminent introduction to the Count. The payoff is fantastic as well. Dracula seems to be an elderly, eccentric noble, but Stoker slyly imbues him with a few physical oddities that pique our interest: a hairy palm here, an inhumanly strong grasp there, and two scarlet eyes that are quite sinister in nature. These little nuances culminate in great scenes where the true nature of Jonathan's host is revealed to him. There is a marvelous sequence where the helpless Jonathan watches in terror as a village mother comes screaming towards the castle, her baby having been fed to the Count's brides the previous evening. Suddenly, the harsh whisper of the vampire is heard from atop the castle's battlements as he stares malevolently into the night. Soon a pack of ravenous wolves descends upon the shrieking maiden at his command... and we cannot help but picture the Count with a hard, cruel smile playing on his dead lips.
The scenes of Lucy's midnight seductions on the beachside cemetery of Whitby and the breakneck finale that brings us back to Transylvania are also noteworthy scenes involving Dracula. But other than that, the infamous vampire is hardly heard from during the bulk of the novel. Instead the focus is put upon the hunters and their eventual (stress eventual) realization that evil is amongst them. Not to say that these moments are intensely boring, but even the most patient of readers will find themselves scratching their heads and wondering why Stoker decided to name the book after the least visible character.
A demonic presence can only go so far... you have to be a bit more liberal and add some more sugar to the cake. Of course some people out there would find investigations into a vampire's residence and whereabouts through real estate agents, shipping yards, and train stations utterly fascinating. But for the majority of horror readers, the lengthy absence of the famous character will have them eagerly driving a stake through their own hearts before they have to read one more chapter of the hunters waiting for something to happen.
During this day and age, we have become used to the fact that vampires and sexuality generally go hand in hand. But in the year 1897, a novel such as Dracula could not go unnoticed for its controversial approach to sexual intercourse. The metaphor is a strong one and I would say that this has aided the public's lurid fascination with the vampire over the years. These erotic tinges are noticed especially in the scenes of Jonathan's encounter with the vampire brides and Mina's account of both Lucy's and her own seduction by Dracula.
Jonathan notes that the undead maidens possess an intense sexual presence, with their full, luscious lips and their dark laughter that hints at a hunger for more than just blood. He watches as they advance on him while he fakes slumber, secretly wishing that the women will kiss him and caress him. This scene now takes on the atmosphere of a twisted sexual dream with Jonathan being plagued by impure and naughty thoughts. The same happens to Lucy and Mina at the hands of the Count. Lucy is compelled to walk in her sleep to the cemetery on the beach where Dracula deflowers her by taking her blood. Mina is frozen to the spot as the loathsome mouth of the vampire closes on her throat. She seems quite repulsed, but the reader can't help but feel that a small part of Mina wants the Count to take her.
This is especially felt in the moment when Dracula gives Mina "a baptism of blood," a rite of passage to becoming one of the Un-Dead. By willingly drinking from the Count's vein, Mina has now soiled her soul and become damned for all time. The red mark left by a holy wafer on her forehead, like the physical effect of a sexually transmitted disease, is a constant reminder of her sin that plagues her for the rest of the novel. Like a parasitic virus, Dracula's evil has entered Mina's body in a scene of perverse passion that completely obliterates the image of a consensual consummation. The Vampire takes what he wants by force and his sexual hunger is that of the animal, his main goal only to procreate and infect the world with his offspring. This invasion of our bodies may horrify us, but there still seems to be something delightful, something so very enticing, about sharing the life force of our bodies with that of another.
As far as characterization goes, Stoker does an admirable job of supplying his readers with likable, if somewhat two-dimensional, supporting characters. The biggest complaint to be made is concerning the four young heroes: Jonathan Harker, Jack Seward, Lord Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris. In essence, these four different characters actually feel like they are all one personality, gloves worn by the same hand. They all share that respectable air that gentlemen of their day would and are always going off doing very nice and righteous things. They are selfless and pledge their honor to protecting their women from the vampire scourge. They are brave, daring, adventurous, kind, passionate, and lots of other mushy stuff.
However, if one were to listen to an audio recording of the scenes in which these four characters are present and talking, no real distinction could be made of who was speaking unless told. This creates a monotonous din of repetition that may bore some readers. And although Van Helsing has a more clear-cut and amusing personality, his speech patterns can get somewhat grating on the nerves. So, at the end of the day, our only saving grace is Mina. Surprisingly, Stoker's best characterization lies within her. She is a strong woman who would go to the ends of the earth to help her friends. It is very interesting to watch her rising conflict as Dracula's evil begins to taint her soul. She handles her horrifying situation with as much bravado as any of her male counterparts would. She is a worthy woman who I'm sure would stand up to the evil Count if given the chance.
An interesting notion that Stoker presents to us within the book is that Dracula possesses what Van Helsing calls a "child-brain." He explains that after Dracula's human death and birth into the vampire, his brain subverted back to that of a "child." He has a new outlook on un-life and begins to discover things all over again. This can be anything from the extent of his powers to knowledge of his weaknesses. This also affects his psychological processes. He is arrogant, selfish, and boastful of his powers and crimes, like a spoiled toddler. And as he grows older with time, so does his knowledge. It now becomes an even more imperative effort to hunt him down before he becomes a master of the dark side and develops into a full-grown force of evil. This puts a unique spin on the vampire's rebirth motif and leaves room for thought on just what Dracula could have become if he had lived on for a few more centuries...
When undertaking the reading of a classic, one is bound to have high hopes going into it. I did as well when I picked up my copy of this book. Most of these were very well met, but to say that I wasn't at least a little disappointed would make me a liar. There are scenes and memories of this book that will stay in your mind for years to come: Jonathan's plight within the walls of Castle Dracula, the nightly attacks on Lucy and Mina, the high adventure that ensues during the final chase scene. All the other things are merely fodder, food for vampire bats. But it is the erotic beauty and creeping chills of the book that will keep you awake during the cold hours of evening, desperately wondering if what you heard was really the music made by the children of the night.