I have an unreasonable hatred for the term ‘instant classic’. There is no such thing. Something that only just came out cannot be classic, and it is categorically not up to critics, reviewers or people paid to critique any piece of work to make that decision.
If something is classic, it will become so over time thanks to the opinion of society at large, and in doing so it will often become beloved.
Often, things which are genuinely classic didn’t do that well when they first launched. On Monday, I talked about my favorite author and one of his works, but when Terry Pratchett first started out, his work was dismissed horrendously by the elitist literary review crowd.
Similarly, the cult classic ‘The Princess Bride’ was a flop when the movie first came out (mentioned here because its a movie about a book), but now just about the entire world can quote it.
And then there’s today’s topic: Dracula.
I’m not going to talk about Bram too much here, mostly because other more qualified and interesting people have dissected his life and works far better than I can.
What I do find most interesting about him, though, is how he channeled elements of his life into his work, even in the face of overwhelming negativity.
Between childhood illness, the difficulties of the time he lived in, an egotistical boss and a sometimes difficult marriage, Bram managed to not only write a detailed book about places he had never seen but also had the wherewithal to have it read in a theatre so he could maintain production copyright.
It’s truly a sad fact that he would never know how successful his book would be while he was alive… but like many people since his death, I’ve become a huge fan of this genuinely classic novel.
Most people old enough to do so have probably read Dracula by this point. I assume most people also know that some of the inspiration for the book came from a real historical figure, Vlad Tepes, Voivod of Wallachia long ago.
It’s probably hard to say just how much Bram Stoker was inspired by this man, seeing as Bram never traveled to Romania, and found most of his information from travel guides which he studied and read thoroughly.
Chief among these ‘Land Beyond the Forest’, contained some information on the country’s past, but it would hardly have given Mr. Stoker anywhere near the information contemporary culture has gone on to attribute to the Dracula story and genesis.
Speculation aside, let’s look at the actual book.
‘How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.’
What an opener. This tells us several things, especially as modern readers.
First, the prose is somewhat antiquated, and we know we’re in for a high minded ride through older language conventions. For me, that’s a cozy feeling especially as while the language is dated to my mind… it is far from incomprehensible.
Despite its age and idioms, I never struggle to understand what Mr. Stoker means or have to concentrate too hard, which makes him infinitely more preferable to, say, Shakespear to me.
Secondly, the opening tells us we are going to be reading something a bit different to the usual story. It will be a series of papers and notes from different viewpoints, all pulled together to build the story. In that regard, Dracula is an unconventional romp of an adventure, with a truly unique voice.
This structure and the way it builds the world is part of the books major selling points, in my view.
The story of Dracula was originally to be entitled ‘The Undead’ before the author came across the name ‘Dracula’. In that, the original title tells us much of what the book is about.
While we follow the protagonist team of British gentlefolk throughout the tale, the plot hangs from the noble threat that is Count Dracula himself, a member of the undead, looking to spread his sickness to the United Kingdom.
Dracula drives the plot, the protagonists fight against the events he sets in motion, and the locations and technology introduced in the work provide the vehicle in which we, the readers, travel.
As a result, the book is very gripping, and a great example of a character-driven plot.
Dracula has an expertly tight roster of characters. In some of Mr. Stoker’s original draft notes, there are extra characters and scenes which never made it to the final cut, showing that Bram very much understood that his work would do best if it hung on a small group of people we could identify with.
Nothing extraneous was kept.
Lucy Westenra – I’ll start with detailing Lucy, as I feel she gets a great disservice in the modern dissection of the work. Many have implied Lucy and her ultimate fate in the story is a moral point against wantonness. That she is the sexualized realization of Victorian repression… but I always found her touchingly real and fragile, with genuine emotions.
Perhaps it is simply that I have experienced some of the situations she goes through, and thus empathize with her better, but Lucy is my favorite character for every reason except the usual ones.
Mina Harker – While I love Lucy for who she is, one cannot understate Mina. Lucy’s best friend, wife of Johnathon Harker who starts it all, Mina is a wonderfully strong female for the time period of the piece.
Clever, brave, loyal, Mina has so many wonderful characteristics despite the somewhat limited scope of the Victorian era for women to be seen as the equal to men… and she soars throughout the story with her own will, determination, and heroism.
Johnathon Harker – The average man who starts it all by responding to a client on behalf of his employer, Johnathon has an excellent character arc. Stoker displays vulnerabilities beautifully with Johnathon, moving him from the mere trifle of being out of his depth in foreign lands all the way to a temporary mental breakdown. Despite all that is loaded onto Johnathon’s shoulders, at every turn, I find his actions plausible and believable, and the obstructions in his path to be well placed to push Mr. Harker from a mere clerk to a hero you cannot help but root for.
Quincy Morris, Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood & Dr. Van Helsing – The rest of the male cast are no less detailed, and I will refrain from going into too much detail with each, just in case there is someone out there who has not yet read the book.
What makes these four men enjoyable is their remarkable commitments to their own selves and each other. From the work conscious Dr. Seward and Dr. Helsing, through to the more ‘homely’ pair of Arthur and Quincy, each has his own personality, his own unique voice, and his own place in the carefully crafted tale. The realism and individuality given to all makes the climactic end of the book doubly impactful when the final fight does not come without its price.
The Setting – I add this in as a character, because to all intents and purposes, the locales of Dracula are just as much individuals as the people.
Of them all, Whitby was the only place in which Stoker had a genuine and complete knowledge first hand, though of course he also knew much of London too. Yet, despite his lack of personal experience in the wilds of Eastern Europe, he crafts Count Dracula’s homeland with just as much attention to detail and finesse.
Having read the book more times than I can count, well over thirty times by now in various formats, it isn’t really the story or even the people I necessarily come back for. I come back for the setting, and to feel like I am somewhere, and somewhen, else for a day.
Experience of Reading
Dracula is a pleasure to read. We know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and there is no ambiguity about why the bad guys are bad, or why we should root for the heroes.
At its core, Dracula is a very enjoyable adventure story that was revolutionary for its time (its use of new technology like the phonograph in particular.) Today, it is a classic story with warm prose, a portal to another era and another country.
Now, you may have noticed the copy in my image all the way up the top there is a version with a forward by some person called Elizabeth Kostova, who wrote ‘The Historian’.
If you have read Dracula, but not The Historian… go fix that, right now. In my personal opinion, there can be no better suited ‘sequel’ to Stoker’s wonderful novel than Kostova’s masterpiece, which maintains a similar feel to Dracula as a new generation of heroes come up against an old, familiar evil.
Of course, if you want some pure pulpy fun… well. There was never really a better Dracula, to my mind, than the wonderful Christopher Lee 🙂
Author: Bram Stoker
My favorite quote: ‘I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.’
Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova