A retrospective of a titan in the Gothic genre
When Bram Stoker began writing Dracula, I am sure that he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams the success it would go on to bare. One of the most circulated novels in the English Language – or any language, for that matter – Dracula has become an icon of both Gothic horror and literature as a whole. In no small part, thanks to the novel’s ability to be interpreted in so many ways, adaptations of Dracula have been plentiful in the decades since its release and these works have ranged from the superb to the downright baffling. Furthermore, Dracula also gave rise to our collective fascination with vampires, while not the original vampire in Gothic literature, Dracula certainly is its most prominent export.
We have seen Bella Lugosi and Christopher Lee provide iconic, suave and respectable performances as the caped Count Dracula, then Gary Oldman turned on the style with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaption. The furore over Dracula has continued well into the twenty-first century also, with some artists choosing to focus more on Dracula’s adversary, Van Helsing, who got his own movie starring Hugh Jackman in 2004. Then there are others who have taken the mythos of the text and – literally – dragged it into the new century, with Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat’s 2020 adaption for the BBC bringing the Count out of Victorian London and into the modern metropolis.
Propping up all of these adaptations, from the weird to the wonderful, is Stoker’s original text. Dracula is an exercise in hybridity, with the ability to engage the academic or casual reader alike. While it can be read as just a horror story about a vampire, terrorising those around him, it can also be read in many other ways, as an allegory of the age of enlightenment, as an exploration of the fears of immigration and disease or as a continuation of the Gothic tradition.
Central to the novel’s success is its narrative. Filled with mystery and memorable characters, the story of Dracula draws the reader in early on with intrigue. The native Transylvanians, their superstitions and their reaction to Jonathan Harker and his correspondence with Dracula all perfectly set the tone for what is to come, with the opening chapters of the text being some of the most quintessentially Gothic in all of literature. From the eerie castle set in the isolated Carpathian mountains to the encounter with Dracula’s three brides, the novel begins with straightforward horror. From there the novel evolves into something more akin to a mystery, with our characters trying to discern what ails the sickly Lucy Westerna who has fallen victim to Dracula’s insatiable hunger.
Herein lies one of the most agonising yet satisfying elements of the text, its dramatic irony. While the section with Lucy lasts for the majority of the novel – too long, it could be argued – during a reading of this, the reader can only continue as a helpless bystander as our heroes come to learn what we already have from Jonathan Harker’s prior experiences. Lucy is doomed to a fate worse than death, but a necessary fate, so that our heroes may be made aware of the dangers that lie ahead.
Indeed, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the novel is the conclusion, as our antagonist is portrayed not as a brutish monster, but a creature of patience, intuition and guile. Dracula schemes and teases, he doesn’t rip and tear despite having the strength of twenty men, as Van Helsing so often informs us. But by the end of the novel, he is sent running back to Transylvania with our heroes giving chase in a tense race against time to save Mina Harker’s soul and quell the undead threat forever. Yet, when the time comes, Dracula is killed in his sleep, with no great conflict to heighten the tension of the climax, instead only a minor skirmish between our heroes and Dracula’s servants culminating in a largely anti-climatic ending to a thrilling narrative.
I would argue that the strength of Dracula comes from its early chapters, from which most of the iconicity originates. The secrecy and mystery surrounding the Count creates much of the early tension and is only complimented when we learn of his true nature, as he crawls, lizard-like along the castle walls. We are then treated to clippings of a ship’s log, detailing Dracula’s travels to England as he feeds on the crewmates of the Demeter. It is moments such as these that thrill and fascinate in equal measure and keep us reading so avidly, eager to learn more about an exotic and perplexing antagonist.
While the narrative is excellent in engaging the reader, the characters give the novel its staying power in equal measure. With a diverse cast of characters, the novel is able to examine the same events from different perspectives. For example, Doctor Seward and Van Helsing provide much of the scientific and philosophical passages through the text, Jonathan Harker provides a more straight-laced perspective and is the closest thing the novel gets to a central antagonist, whereas Mina Harker provides a feminist lens through which the vampire can be explored. Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are the two weak links in this band of heroes, with both men feeling interchangeable and there just to do our other heroes dirty work, the wealthy Lord Holmwood, at times, feels like a financial tool used to pay for the fight against the undead.
I would be remiss in reviewing the novel without recognising its epistolary nature, a form that has been in use since before Dracula and continues to be employed in writing through to today, the miasma of diary entries, letters and various other documents that come together to form the narrative of the text, giving the novel a verisimilitude that enables us to take it seriously, suspend our disbelief and not become too preoccupied with the more fantastical elements of the novel. This epistolary nature is similar to a found footage movie and allows us to buy into the story we are being told.
At the heart of Dracula is a conflict not between the living and the dead, or man and vampire, rather it is an ideological battle between science and superstition, the old world and the modern one. Dracula sees two worlds collide and, ultimately, it is modernity that succeeds. Dracula, in the end, is defeated with logic and reason rather than crosses and holy water, blood transfusions, phonographs and scientific reasoning are all pivotal in the fight against the Count and help the characters to banish him from his Earthly bounds. This juxtaposition is perfectly summarised in the adversary between Dracula and Van Helsing and is perhaps the reason for the enduring rivalry throughout the years since the novel’s release.
To conclude, Dracula has an atmosphere of tension and mystery, created wonderfully through Stoker’s language and descriptions of setting while the format of the text forces us to take the novel seriously. Most of the characters are memorable and only a few fall flat in places, the story itself, however, is – much like Dracula himself -unrelenting in its ability to captivate and mesmerise.