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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dracula, the Bram Stoker novel: A View from a First-Time Reader

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

As much as I enjoy Bram Stoker's short stories, (The Squaw is one of my favorites) I was sort of dreading this book.  First of all, I've seen so many different adaptations of the book I felt sure that none of this would be fresh to me, and it might possibly bore me simply from my familiarity with the story.  Add to that my aversion to the epistolary form of writing: segments of journals, transcriptions of audible journals as recorded on wax cylinders, newspaper clippings, letters.  I can only imagine what Stoker's story would look like today--blog entry, e-mail, telephone answering machine message, text, faxes.  Yikes.  So basically, I embarked on a book I had little hope of enjoying.  Why?  

I was never a fan of Dracula.  But like all kids, I was intrigued by his mystique.  One day, as a young lad (and I have no idea how old I was when this happened), I came across a movie version of Dracula on a Saturday afternoon.  (More than likely it was Creature Feature.  Anyone remember that?)  So I caught one of those  versions wonderfully desaturated right about the time the Count was running from one side of his stone castle to another, cape swinging with him, as he advanced upon Van Helsing, until finally Van Helsing yanks down the curtains as daylight creeps in and using crossed candlesticks forces Dracula into the sunshine where it hits him like a death-ray and turns him to dust, leaving only a few hairballs that sort of float off in the morning breeze.  This, I discovered later in life, was the 1958 Dracula.  It seemed sort of cool, but I didn't become a fan.  He was, after all, evil, and that didn't appeal to me.

Christopher Lee, in Count Dracula, a film by Jesus Franco, in which
he attempted to portray the Count as he was described by Bram
Stoker.  Something that Hollywood never seemed to get right.
I tried to read the book about twenty years ago, and maybe I was distracted, who knows, but I couldn't get into it.  I put it aside and just forgot about it.  I eventually saw the 1979 Dracula with Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing and Frank Langella in the title role.  Though this was one of the more egregious uses of the "sexy" Dracula, the Van Helsing portrayal is one of the more faithful to the book.  And speaking of the book, let's get back to it.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed this novel.  I became accustomed to the epistolary style, though I did not grow fond of it.  I kept wondering how it would read if someone just took the darn thing and rewrote it in third person.  In fact, I would suspect that after all these years someone has.  I may look it up one day.  But the story itself really caught me by surprise.

Laurence Olivier (left) as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979).  This was
one of the most faithful portrayals of the character as Stoker wrote
him that I have seen.
There is so much to be admired in this book that it would take too long to list all of the elements that fall under this category.  Some of the highlights would be Renfield's story, Van Helsing's characterization as set forth by his accent and poor syntax, the fact that Dracula could be listed as a missing person for most of the book (which just made him that much more potent--something to be avoided at all costs), and even the exhaustive travel details of the 1890's.

Having seen the gory, modern Dracula movies, and the more discreet movies of the early days of cinema, I had this idea that the novel, written just before the turn of the 20th Century, would be so sanitized as to be dull.  However, I was surprised at how graphic a few of the scenes were.  It must have been quite a shocker for readers at that time.  But as one reviewer noted, it is not a story that glorifies evil, as most of the modern day vampire books do.  Instead, it truly vilifies the vampire, making him something to loathe, and hate, and something that must be destroyed as a sacred duty to God.  In no way did I ever pick up the completely audacious, Hollywood notion that Dracula has this inner, impossible-for-women-to-ignore, sexual attraction.  What a bunch of rubbish.

Need I say spoiler alert, when so many know the story?

The men are solid characters, all noble and willing to stand up to the horror that assails Lucy and Mina.  And these two women are strong characters in themselves.  Mina especially, despite the idea that Dracula has infected her against his will, is not just a doormat female cast member.  She even gets a Winchester rifle in her hand by the end of the book.

Leslie Nielsen in Mel Brooks' 1995 Dracula: Dead and Loving It, not a
faithful adaptation.
Speaking of spoilers, let me address the adaptations just a little.  Though no movie out there seems to have used all of the original story, I was surprised at how much of Stoker's novel has been used in the various films.  So much of it has been sprinkled over the various Dracula movies.  Yes, most of the movies never come close to filming the entire book, but many of them are quite accurate in what they depict from the novel and there was little in the book that I did not recognize from the many films.  I was quite impressed.  Still, Stoker's style kept it fresh and I never felt like I was going over stale material.

Though this is a long novel, clocking in over ten hours of reading for my reading-speed, I did not think it ever really dragged on slowly, and I found all of it interesting.  But if you decide not to read it, allow me one more spoiler:  never, at any point, will you read/hear Dracula say "I vant to suck yoor bloood."  Okay.  Now you know.  You won't be disappointed.

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