April 19, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Dracula," by Bram Stoker

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Dracula (1897)
By Bram Stoker
Book #13 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
To best understand the storyline of Dracula, it's important to imagine yourself as an actual citizen of 1897 when the book was written, and then imagine one of your friends positing the following question: What if some of the horrible monsters mentioned in old Gothic literature from centuries past were actually real, and what if one of these ghouls decided one day to move to your hometown? Because that's the entire premise behind Stoker's original plotline, something easily forgotten in our modern times when even the 1800s look quaint and historic; that the real thrill of this novel to his contemporary fans was not just the premise of a blood-sucking vampire living somewhere in the bowels of eastern Europe, but that this vampire decides to pack up and move to 1897 England instead, mostly because after hundreds of years of killing, the people of his section of the world have finally caught on that he's an inhuman monster. That's what takes young goofy lawyer Jonathan Harker at the beginning of the book out to the wilds of rural Transylvania; it's his firm that's helping this reclusive member of the aristocracy transfer property and money and the like into the English legal system, and as the most junior member Harker is the one assigned to actually transport all the finished documents out to Dracula's spooky family castle in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains, for his final okay and signatures.

Ah, but the Count turns out to not be exactly what he seems, with creepier and creepier experiences finally culminating with an attack on Harker's life, the stealing of Harker's information by Dracula, and a whirlwind sea voyage to the pastoral English coastal village of Whitby, where Harker is originally from and where his plucky fiance Mina patiently awaits his return. (All of this, by the way, is told not through a traditional omniscient narrator and standard dialogue, but through a whole series of written documents such as diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings and more, coincidentally making Dracula one of the best-known examples of what's called an epistolary novel.) As you can imagine, chaos soon ensues in Whitby, as the Count takes up residence at the local abandoned Medieval abbey on the edge of town and starts turning various young sexy girls into zombie slaves through repeated erotic bloodletting rituals, with no one there understanding what's going on because of course none of them living in a world yet where vampires are a well-worn cliche.

Thinking that his beloved has fallen under a rare disease, one of these Whitby residents calls in a friend of his from Amsterdam, the Indiana-Jones-like exotic-disease specialist and world traveler Abraham Van Helsing, who quickly realizes that this quaint seaside resort town in fact has a vampire on its hands. This leads to a whole series of action sequences, fight scenes, chase scenes, a trip back over to eastern Europe, and all kinds of other details I won't spoil; needless to say, things come to a "head" (ha ha) back at Dracula's Transylvanian castle, leading all to a nice old-fashioned "good guys definitively win" ending, perfect for the moralistic times in which Stoker lived.

The argument for it being a classic:
Oh, there are all kinds of reasons to argue for Dracula being a classic; just for starters, it's a fine example of the Romantic/Victorian novel, not to mention one of those projects in the 1800s to first help establish the so-called "weird" genre (eventually leading us to such modern subgenres as horror, science-fiction, goth and more). It's also one of the first books, fans claim, to present a truly complex and unpredictable main female character -- Mina Harker, that is, who it could be argued is much more the hero of this tale than the globetrotting vampire-killer Van Helsing -- although none of this should really come as a surprise, given that author Bram Stoker's mother was the famous early feminist Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornely. Plus, it's one of the most adapted stories of all time as well; according to the Internet Movie Database, for example, over 100 films now exist with vampires as their main theme, with close to 650 movies now at least mentioning vampires in one way or another, all of them single-handedly because of Stoker and this particular novel*. And if all this wasn't enough, fans argue, the book remains a surprisingly thrilling one to this day, and surprisingly scary for a story that is now 111 years old and counting.

The argument against:
Like many Victorian novels, critics claim, reading the 400-page Dracula anymore is bound to make you think of that line from The Simpsons, when Homer meets British comedian Ricky Gervais: "You take forever to say nothing!" That's not necessarily bad, just that it makes the book hard to enjoy as a simple piece of pleasure-reading; like many other books now reviewed for the CCLaP 100, it makes Dracula historically important and a book that genre fans should definitely tackle, but not necessarily a "timeless classic" that everyone should make their way through at least once before they die. Not to mention, there's that little matter of the 750 films that have now referenced vampires throughout the decades, the thousands of books and television episodes, the countless Dracula costumes worn to endless Halloween parties; when the details of a book become this much an ingrained part of our entire culture, critics claim, it makes trying to read the original book an exercise in frustration, in that you already know in your gut just about everything that's going to happen (not to mention every single surprise Stoker laid for his then-unsuspecting 1800s audience). Again, it makes the book no less important from a historical and scholarly point, but unfortunately just not a book that the general populace should feel like they need to tackle themselves.

My verdict:
So let me mention this before anything else, that after four months now of regular Victorian-novel consumption because of this essay series, how surprisingly more modern and complex Dracula is than many of its contemporaries; it is a much more readable book than many others written in the late 1800s, featuring characters that sometimes are much more complex than usual for a moody Romantic tale, and with a shocking level of gore that has been quietly excised from the Dracula legend over the years by Hollywood and others. (For example, in the original novel they not only would pound stakes through the hearts of vampires to kill them, but shove garlic down their throats and cut off their heads, not for any supernatural reasons but to simply make sure the stupid things were actually dead.) Now, that said, as a fantastical novel from the Romantic period, Dracula certainly does ramble on in overly flowery language a lot more than we 21st-century readers are used to, and especially that self-satisfied blowhard Van Helsing -- yes, we get it, ya Dutch freak, you're a vampire expert, now shut up shut up shut up! And it certainly will hold almost no surprises to the modern reader either, at least regarding the fact that Dracula is a vampire and what exactly a vampire is (a major point of suspense to Stoker's original audience, in that Dracula isn't revealed to be a vampire in the novel until halfway through). Still, though, all in all the surprising strengths of this book ended up outweighing the expected weaknesses, which is why today I'm confidently declaring Dracula a classic that is definitely worth your time and attention.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In two Fridays: Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
In three Fridays: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
In four Fridays: The Island of Dr Moreau, by HG Wells

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Project Gutenberg | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Now, that said, please be aware that the vampire myth itself existed long before Stoker wrote about it in Dracula, simply that it was an obscure legend little known outside of the academic community; like I said at the beginning of this essay, that was Stoker's entire point, to take a supernatural concept from old Medieval literature and transport it into the "modern" world. In that sense, then, you can see how such projects from our times like Interview with the Vampire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are actually a lot more faithful to Stoker's original premise than you might've realized.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:16 AM, April 19, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |