Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker (Group Read)

Published: 1897
My Edition: Penguin Classics, 2003
Group Read: Hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey; main link post is here.

Review: I have 9 1/2 sides of A4 full of notes I made while rereading Dracula; some are serious, some are downright silly and there's an entire essay on gender and sexuality buried in there somewhere.  My main thoughts on rereading were that this is not the book I remember, or which seems to exist in the popular imagination - the horror is less about Dracula and more about people's reactions to him.

Not that I can't see the origins of just about every vampire story in the book.  Pages 254-5 of my edition lay down almost all the rules of vampires.  The main rule 'missing' is the harmed-by-sunlight thing (which originated in Nosferatu) as Dracula is merely prevented from using his full powers during the day time.  And a major difference from modern fiction *cough*Twilight*cough* is that Dracula is not an attractive vampire - though the three sisters are beautiful and voluptuous (that is their main descriptor) - and he gets younger as he drinks more blood, rather than being a fixed age.  There are all sorts of elements that can be dragged out and changed to keep the vampire myth going.

In that sense, Dracula is as it is perceived, but the main concerns of the book seem to be less about vampires and more about gender, sexuality and madness.  It's not just Renfield: almost every character seems to be haunted by the idea that they're insane for believing in vampires despite the strange occurrences happening around them, and that they may even be imagining what's happening.  Jonathan Harker has brain fever (of course, you can't be in a Victorian novel without it) and thinks the things at the Castle can't possibly have happened.  Mina's dreams are put down to her mind being too active and troubled.  They even consider how they're going to explain to the police about the burglary and murder they're going to have to commit to rid the world of the Count - because "oh, this foreign dude we just stabbed in the heart and decapitated is a vampire, officer" doesn't really cut it.  There's even an acknowledgement of how weird everything is, when Seward says "I sometimes think that we must all be mad and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats" (292).

I'm actually finding this review a bit difficult to write, because I almost want to turn it into an essay and because a lot of the things I want to say are better expressed here by Cleolinda (as she says, Van Helsing talks like a lolcat; my personal favourite of his many bizarre speeches is "he fear time, he fear want!  For if not, why he hurry so?  His very tone betray him, or my ears deceive" (327)).  It is a horror novel and there are some absolutely terrifying bits - I had forgotten about the wolf breaking into Lucy's window and then her lying under her mother's corpse all night - but I think the greatest fear the characters feel is sexual, both the changes that will occur in the pure women if they become vampires, and in Dracula's own interest in Jonathan Harker.  The first four chapters in the castle are very homoerotic, and if the book hadn't been written in 1897 it could easily go another way. 

Which makes me wonder what it would have been like to read the book when it was first published.  Reading it now, not only am I reading subtexts into it that may not have been picked up on*, but I know Dracula is a vampire - and even if I didn't I know enough of the rules (laid down by this very book, if that isn't too circular a thought) that that I can spot what he is as soon as it turns out that he doesn't have mirrors in his house and all the locals are crossing themselves and giving Jonathan Harker rosaries to protect him.  But to read the book without any of that foreknowledge, to just think that the Count is a slightly eccentric foreigner...that could be interesting.

Rating: 8/10

* Although I think it's more blatant than The Picture of Dorian Gray and Victorians evidently found something there they didn't like.

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