So, Dracula. Like Frankenstein, you know this story already. And unlike Frankenstein, the movies aren’t that far off the mark. But, they still are. Just a little bit.
Dracula the novel is interesting because of its big cast of interesting characters. There’s Dracula, of course, and Mina Harker – along with her husband Jonathan – but there’s also Lucy Westenra, Quincy Morris, Seward, Arthur Holmwood, Van Helsing, and Renfield. That’s a lot of people. None of these people are side characters, though they don’t all get the chance to narrate.
Let’s start with the obvious one: Dracula. He’s got his name on the cover! He also never gets to narrate. The book is about him, but he never gets to speak. There are a lot of gender, social, and racial readings to that – tl;dr is that he’s foreign, queer, and Jewish, so he’s a threat that proper English people shouldn’t actually listen to. But he’s also pretty awesome, as villains go. He controls creatures of the forest, especially wolves. The first time you run into him in the book he’s disguised as a carriage driver. He picks Harker up to bring him to his castle, because, being undead and all, he can’t really hire a staff.
Jonathan’s kind of a goofy nitwit who really wants to get in good with his bosses. He mans up, to use a dreadful phrase, by novel’s end, but for most of the time he toddles around, swooning after Dracula a little in a totally not gay way (actually, pretty gay). There’s a famous line where Dracula warns off his harem of vampire ladies, saying they can have Harker later, but for now he’s the count’s. Then Harker wakes up in bed with all his clothes off. Nice transition, Stoker.
Mina’s accomplished, no-nonsense, and maybe in love with Dracula too, who knows? Seriously, that’s a bone of contention. She also collates the entire book together from everyone’s notes, and uses the psychic link Dracula planted in her to track him down for the hunters.
You know Van Helsing. You might not know he speaks comically broken English, despite knowing half a dozen languages, and that he breaks down and weeps all the time because Mina and Lucy are “so good.”
Lucy is, uh, not as nice as Mina. They’re friends, but the book makes Lucy out to be the sort of person who would be nice and polite and still have a tramp stamp – it would just be tasteful. For tramp stamps. She’s stringing three men along trying to see which would be better to marry, and eventually picks the fancy – and very rich – Arthur Holmwood. Quincy Morris is a crazy American, and Seward is the director of an insane asylum. These were her three choices. Then she dies, but not before all the men, at Van Helsing’s behest, perform a creepy blood transfusion that’s described in very sexual terms. I think I read one critic once talk about how they’re “pooling” their blood like semen before putting it in her. I dunno if that’s exactly how I read it, but yeah, the blood is basically semen. So Lucy is a bukkake star, is I guess where Bram Stoker was going. She turns into an evil witch woman vampire, luring men to their doom and eating children – because all evil women hate children, because they’re the inverse of everything good in women! Ugh…
Arthur kills her, like in Dracula, Dead and Loving It, and Dracula turns his attention to Mina.
But wait, there are more cast members!
You know Renfield well enough, but what some movies don’t go into is his actual insanity. He wants to “eat” life. Yes, he wants to be a vampire, though he doesn’t put it in those terms. So he feeds flies to spiders, spiders to birds, birds to a cat, and then eats the cat. Or tries to. Seward catches on eventually.
All right. There’s some weird shit in this book. And I don’t mean vampires eating people.
Vampires make other vampires by cutting open their man-boobs and making people suckle the blood.
Van Helsing keeps Lucy out of her tomb once she’s dead by making a dough from communion wafers and rolling it up along the door’s edge.
The book spends forever detailing all the ways to kill a vampire from folk tradition, and then the characters don’t even bother doing those things to Dracula. They do cut off his head, but there’s no burning, or garlic, or burying, or anything. This has led a lot of people (and authors) to presume Dracula’s still “alive.” For my money he’s probably dead – there’s a thing about “a look of eternal peace” that settles on vampires when you kill them. Dracula gets that look when they decapitate him. Which means the latest Fright Night is the best film version of Dracula I’ve seen. And no, I’m not fucking with you.
Why you should read Dracula: aside from the obvious (it’s Dracula!), it’s great. There’s a section near the beginning, after Harker’s journal ends for the first time, that’s slow, but it’s just a typical setup after an act one hook, so just get through that and you’ll be fine.
A lot of people complained, when it was published, about all the modern references in the novel. They thought a Gothic novel like Dracula (notice I’m not getting into the argument about whether it is, that’s just what they said about it) should be old-fashioned, and that meant not talking about shorthand, stenography, train tables, phonographs, and the like. But Dracula and the protagonists are surprisingly modern in many ways. Mina’s often pointed to as a modern woman. Dracula learns English all on his own with no one to practice with, and Harker as a realtor doesn’t actually have anything to change about Dracula’s plans and purchases. So what does it mean, for so many characters to be so modern and to deal with such an ancient threat? Well, that’s the point of the book. It is interesting that many of our similar novels now have old-fashioned people dealing with new, modern threats. Dracula isn’t killed by a stake, but a Bowie knife.