No 23: Dracula by Bram Stoker
What’s it about?
It is almost impossible for anyone to be unaware of Dracula, the fang-toothed flying frightener of gothic legend and numerous creaky film adaptations. This novel, first published in 1897, is the origin of our modern image of the vampire and all the now-familiar strands of the story are here. Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells the story of a young lawyer, Jonathan Harker, travelling from London to Transylvania to attend to some legal requirements of the mysterious Count Dracula, the Count’s subsequent arrival in England and his pursuit of the victims that sustain the vampire’s immortal existence. Harker and his associates seek to ensure the permanent demise of the Count with the assistance of the celebrated vampire-hunter, Professor Van Helsing, encountering, suffering and tackling the Count’s evil powers along the way.
What’s it got to do with leisure?
Stoker’s novel did not originate the vampire legend but it did establish its place in English literature and gave rise to the persistently popular image of Count Dracula as the most celebrated member of the undead. The story of the Count’s arrival in Whitby to prey upon the young women of late-Victorian England struck a chord with the era’s appetite for the dark extravagances of gothic imagery and this taste for the gothic has proved extraordinarily persistent. The eyeliner industry and a significant slice of the British music industry owes much to Stoker’s storytelling, while twice-yearly gothic weekend festivals have kept the Whitby tourist industry filled with good-natured darkness since the 1990s.
Why should I read it?
For a modern audience long-exposed to the Dracula myth and its many pastiches, the whole idea of the vampire is likely to be discarded as over-familiar and hackneyed. However, Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes us back to the source material and leaves the clichés of a myriad interpretations and retellings behind. From the opening pages Dracula proves surprisingly gripping and captures the unnerving elements of its settings, whether a storm-ravaged Whitby or the remote foreboding of a testing journey into the Carpathian mountains. The prose is spare and direct, drawing the characters and the reader into the story.
Told in the format of extracts from the journals and letters of the main characters, the novel builds the mystery of Dracula slowly but builds towards a breathless chase through the dark shadows of Transylvania in pursuit of the final blows that will rid the Earth of the curse of the Count. In its language and plotting this century-old work has maintained a contemporary feel but in its detail and references to it remains of its time. The last years of the 19th century is a time when even a moderately well-off household had staff and the word of a member of the British aristocracy was sufficient to enable our protagonists to break into a property on Piccadilly via the front door in the middle of the day with the connivance of a police officer. The novel tells of an age in which the status of the United States of America was still being debated (as Dr Seward comments of the dynamically energetic Quincey Morris, “If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed”) but also of a world, not least in its depiction of London, that is still familiar. Here London is city in which a decent lunch is to be had at Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead even if one had to rub shoulders “with a little crowd of bicyclists”; plus ca change.
As we race from Transylvania to Whitby, and from London back to Transylvania (with the odd diversion to Holland), we learn of the vampire’s powers and the limits placed upon the undead by God and nature. As Van Helsing explains, the nosferatu grows stronger from his victims’ demise, “can, within limitations, appear at will when, and where and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direction the elements… he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat.. and he can at times vanish and come unknown. How then are we to begin our strife to destroy him?”
Van Helsing’s experience and research provide the answer that will ultimately enable the thwarting of evil. As Van Helsing explains, the vampire’s powers are limited by nature. He cannot enter a place first and “his power ceases, as does that of all evil things, at the coming of the day”. If he is not within his own realm – his coffin or an unhallowed place – he can only change his form at midday, sunset or sunrise. Running water can only be passed “at the slack or the flood of the tide” and garlic, the crucifix or an item of the sacrament robs him of his powers. Death comes to the vampire only by a sacred bullet, a stake through the heart or decapitation.
The pursuit of evil and its defeat is a thrilling tale, and the scenes that are now familiar – the midnight graveyards, the transformations into bat and wolf, the attacks and mutilations – still prove unnerving. This is a great tale of good versus evil that holds up well more than a century on from its first publication. Along the way we discover that both Van Helsing and Count Dracula have Christian names (perhaps not a Christian name in the case of the Count), and that it was both possible and practical to travel from London to Amsterdam and back within 24 hours.
Find a copy of Dracula, unfold a map of Whitby and settle back for a great read. Eyeliner optional.
the leisure manager’s library
An occasional series offering a guide to leisure-related literature