Book Review: “Dracula” by Bram Stoker

Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.

That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.

One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.

Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.

Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.

But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.

Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?

I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.

Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?

On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.

Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?

My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.

But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.

As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.

This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.

17 Comments

  1. I have a beautiful leather bound volume that collects both Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula suffers from the natural comparison. It is a very good, if not great, book, but it pales beside Frankenstein. I do like Stoker’s original vision of the vampire and his powers and wish more contemporary vampire fiction would hew closer to it.

    1. What a cool book to have! I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never read Frankenstein. I should do that.

      Hmm, I think I have an idea for next October’s blog post series… 🙂

  2. Hi Berthold. I haven’t read Dracula, but as you said, I do know the story. It’s too bad you didn’t like it too much. You raise a lot of good questions about books and art and our perceptions and the meanings in stories. I was surprised at how good Frankenstein was, written in 1818. Have you read it?

    1. No, I haven’t read it. You’re the second person today to tell me I should! 😀 I guess I know what I’ll be reviewing for next Halloween season. 🙂

  3. Interesting, as always, to read your thoughts on one of my favourite books and my favourite vampire novel. 😊 You’re right in that “most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés” yet that doesn’t stop me still getting caught up in the story. To be honest, I’ve never analysed the story, just enjoyed it for what it is, so can’t add to that discussion.

    It’s been yonks since I’ve read ‘Frankenstein’ but I remember enjoying it. Looking forward to seeing what you think of it… might even read it again sometime next year 😊

    1. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to read a book for the first time without knowing anything at all about it? I’m sure Dracula would “wow” me more if I hadn’t already been familiar with the basic plot.

      Sounds good. I hear a lot of good things about Frankenstein. 🙂

  4. Victorians loved good ‘spooky’ stories, in the UK it was a custom at Christmas tide at some stage of an evening’s social gathering for folk to hive off to one room and tell each other such tales.
    Go back to the Georgian and it was over-heated ‘Gothic’ themes. So I guess ‘unreality’ and the ‘disturbing’ side of Nature will always have their appeal.
    I’ve never read ‘Dracula’ and never felt the urge to, thus sympathise with your reaction.
    And of course, there will always be proliferation of reactions by readers to many works. There’s the interesting time factor as the years pass one, what might have held you fascinated years ago now does nothing (even irritates) or the reverse.

    1. I love the idea of telling scary stories at Christmas! (But then *I* would, wouldn’t I? :D)

      1. You indulge! Keep the old traditions going.
        Here’s a summary of one for you, to think on an embellish for a suitable occasion. I heard this as a lad as a radio short story. Two things to bear in mind this was told in the aftermath of WWII when war stories were common and that in the UK there were some strict and often quirky licencing laws in pubs.
        Anyway, the narrator is a sailor on board a British warship, it is sunk in a battle, he is a survivor, although his memory is muddled. He was aware of being in hospital. He was aware of being, he supposes discharged. Still confused he decides as a good sailor would, is what he needs is a convivial pub and a stiff drink.
        He finds one, it is a fairly quiet part of the day, which suits him. He decides on a whiskey will suit the situation.
        He walk up the the bar and says to the bar tender ‘A whiskey please’, the man ignores him; he tries again, still no response. He tries a third time, nothing. In exasperation, as you do he looks upwards and sees the reason why.
        The sign on the wall says ‘No spirits are served here’

  5. Have to agree with you. The story is highly interesting, and the method of telling it through letters is unique, but the story never did it for me. I do have to confess, the Keanu Reeves remake really did it for me, it was so fantastically weird and off-kilter that it felt more unique to me than the book ever did. Blasphemy they say! Bring out the pitchforks! Oh wait, that’s a different monster…

    1. Glad to hear that. I was worried Dracula fans would be upset with me. 😀 And I definitely didn’t dislike the book; it just didn’t dazzle me. Maybe that says more about me than the book…

  6. I know I read it, but honestly don’t remember much about it, apart from the stuff everyone knows. My vampire book of choice is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. And I did read Frankenstein–pretty much had to, because of Herbert. I wrote a couple of blog posts about my impressions of it, comparing it to HPL’s “Herbert West, Reanimator.” And of course I had to mention my own book too. This was in 2010, when my main purpose for blogging was to publicize my book. Ironically, it appears not one person read either of those posts.
    But Frankenstein is definitely worth a read.

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