Dracula, #98 on Daniel Burt’s original version of The Novel 100, gave us one of the best-known characters in all of literature, generated an enduring myth of the undead vampire (and yet another reason to love garlic), and provided enough fodder for sex-obsessed English professors to analyze for centuries. It’s also surprisingly uneven and even a little slow in parts, despite a strong opening chapter that is among the best pieces of horror writing I have ever encountered.
Stoker was apparently a hack writer before the publication of Dracula and didn’t produce much of enduring literary value afterwards, but that one book – in the public domain in the U.S. since its publication due to an error in its copyright notice – is one of the most influential works of fiction written in any language, spawning what Jasper Fforde has dubbed the “Sexy Vampires” subgenre and inflicting Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson on us all. There is some obvious sexual metaphor in Stoker’s work, with blood-sucking standing in as a symbol for sex, but it’s far less overt the modern glut of vampire-romance stories (I’m including non-literary adaptations, like the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – remember “When did the building fall down?”); I wonder if he had a more direct influence on D.H. Lawrence, who also explored religious and pagan themes with more frank depictions of human sexuality (especially that of women) that led to the banning of some of his works.
Stoker borrowed a narrative technique from one of my favorite novels, Wilkie Collins’ 1860 thriller The Woman in White, which told the story in a series of first-person narratives from various participants in and observers of the main story, resulting in a panoramic view by the end of the novel as pieces fall into place while allowing the author to add or remove clarity as he ses fit. Stoker’s version is more disjointed because so much of the novel is in diary form, with shorter sections that result in too-frequent changes of perspective and, for me at least, occasional confusion over who was speaking.
The more successful trick of Dracula is how Stoker builds up his antagonist early in the book, so that the villain becomes an ever-present force to the characters involved even though he barely appears in the novel’s final half. The opening segment, the longest from any single character, follows the young solicitor Jonathan Harker to Transylvania, where he is to meet a new client and help him with the purchase of an estate in London. Harker is unnerved by the locals’ apparent fear of the castle he’s visiting but is taken in by his host’s charm until he discovers that his host is keeping him prisoner, and that the castle is also home to three evil enchantresses (“the weird sisters,” which is itself a possible reference to the prophesying sisters of Macbeth, and a familiar term to the Harry Potter fans among you) who nearly kill him with their kiss. Count Dracula’s character is fully defined in this section, with some scattered details provided later with the appearance of Professor Van Helsing, but Dracula only physically appears in the text a handful of times after Harker’s escape from the castle. The fear of Dracula takes over the antagonist role from his incarnation, and if Stoker hadn’t used so many narrators to make the story internally reliable, he could easily have written a similar story where Harker hallucinated the initial episode and the characters are chasing a villain who doesn’t exist.
There’s a downside to that trick of Stoker’s, however. The final quarter or so of the novel involves a race against the clock as the protagonists chase Dracula around London and back to Transylvania to try to kill him (permanently), even though he only appears in the text via one character’s psychic connection to him. The novel suffers from his absence, as the characters seem to emphasize repeatedly the risks of failing to reach him in time rather than allowing him to demonstrate it – the narrative greed was lost for me. Where Collins managed to maintain suspense in his novel through mystery, Stoker built up suspense through fear and couldn’t hold that tension once the antagonist was on the run – or, more accurately, in a box.
One plot point I didn’t quite grasp, for those of you who read it, is how Dracula settled on his initial female victim, who is connected with Harker. I might have missed something at the start, but this seemed like an odd choice that never received any explanation; he just happened to target this woman, who just happened to be connected through a friend to a great expert on the undead. That worked out well for Stoker, but even in a book that requires substantial suspension of disbelief, those two coincidences jarred. I’m glad I read it for completeness purposes, but I think its presence on Burt’s ranking is more reflective of its popularity and historical importance than overall literary merit.
Next up: I’m almost through Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, #48 on The Novel 100 and part of the TIME 100 as well.