Bram Stoker’s classic tale, a pillar in the vampire genre, a “study of evil,” terrifying work of horror–
And it’s boring?
Frankly, I’m not sure what this says about me as a person. But over the roughly 18 hour duration of the audiobook, the only constant thought I had was please get on with it already. It’s not even the fact that it’s a dusty old book and uses archaic language. I am fond of dusty old books (Oliver Twist, The Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein) and archaic language is my native tongue.
But Dracula is boring.
Brace yourselves then, for a rantish review of the famous novel about a demented Transylvanian lord who just wanted to buy a London townhouse.
Book: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Genre: Horror/Folklore/Fantasy/Science-Fiction/Vampire fiction
Content for the Sensitive Reader: Mild language, death, bloodshed (frequently a bit gory), contemplated suicide and euthanasia, vampires (naturally), sacred/demonic vernacular/possession, murder, murder, murder. Should be safe for most PG-13 audiences
Format: Audible edition read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves
BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10
I think I read this out of spite. I knew that it was supposed to be dreadful, that the Count was one of the most infamous characters in literature, that most people from Transylvania are annoyed by the historical inaccuracy (the castle is actually on the other side of the river and miles away from the tourist trap) and the fact that outsiders only know their home as “vampire country,” and I had even heard rumor of Van Helsing. Other than that, I knew very little.
I certainly didn’t know the horror novel has a happy ending. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first mistake was probably reading this immediately on the heels of Frankenstein. Ah, yes. The story of a monstrous human being and his emotionally scarred, deeply human monster, versus Dracula, the story of outstandingly average human beings and their entirely inhuman monster.
I am aware of the difference. But when Mr. Harker, only a few pages into the book responded with “He has freaky eyes and weird hands, must be evil,” you can imagine how I reacted.
Yeah. Thanks to Mary Shelley, my instinct was to side with Dracula.
And of course there is that moment when the description is only “cold hands, nocturnal, doesn’t eat in front of others,” that I can feel non-writers giving me a very wary side-eye.
I am not, in case you were concerned, a vampire. Even if I am typing this at 2:00 a.m.
The characters didn’t help my siding with Dracula. If you are a diehard Dracula fan, forgive me, but everyone else was so annoying.
Lucy Westenra, who is the object of a love triangle, sleepwalks, and has apparently no interests except taking sunlit walks and getting married,
Lord Arthur Godalming, Dr. John Seward, and Quincey Morris, the three gentlemen in love with Lucy who can’t be expected collectively to know how to button a waistcoat on their own, let alone responsibly kill a vampire,
Mr. Jonathan Harker, businessman kidnapped by Dracula and the obligatory Victorian-era character to suffer from “brain fever,”
Renfield, the madman with a strange connection to Dracula, who seems like a promising character, and then fails to be little more than an exposition vessel and red herring,
Mina Harker, the brains and heart of everybody (I will go down with her as the most redeemable character), wife of Mr. Harker and Lucy’s bestie, and
Dr. Van Helsing, who tries (and fails) to be the Vampire-Slaying Fellowship’s Gandalf by acting mysterious and brooding without ever actually explaining himself.
If the list seems dry and without characterization…that’s how they felt in the book. Right. Nine main characters, if you count Dracula, and none of them are particularly outstanding. I confused Dr. Seward and Mr. Harker more times than I should have. Mina, again, wins this contest with her interest in journalism and active participation in the plot.
Why do the characters annoy me, you ask?
Probably the first reason is because a book about evil vampires and an epic struggle of good and evil abandons its titular character early on for two gossiping twentysomethings and a love triangle? What do we think we are, this week’s Victorian YA book club?
Okay, to be fair, it starts with Mr. Harker’s kidnapping and leaves you wondering if he even survives. But still–are we serious, Stoker? A love triangle? Really? You promised me monsters.
And do note, if you intend to read it–
The book isn’t even really about Dracula the vampire. He pops up in a handful of scenes, makes trouble, and disappears. But I guess Mina Harker and the Five Idiot Housebreakers didn’t have the same ring to it as Dracula.
And if you’re expecting high action ninety percent of the time, think again.
There is so much dialogue. Can’t we kill the undead and move on already?
No. Nope. Not happening.
What does happen? Dr. Van Helsing says “Every hour is of the greatest importance.”
(eats breakfast, smokes cigars, goes shopping, disbelives in vampires, talks for several hours, eventually meanders in the vague direction intended, takes a nap).
Yes, you read that right. The characters literally forget about vampires being a problem and stop believing they exist hours after driving a stake in one.
I also didn’t get a real feeling of tension through the whole thing. It’s literally a process of “No I won’t,” talk it out, and then “Don’t want to but I will” every time something comes up. What if one of them struggled? Where is the tension when you always know what you have to do and know that you will do it? Isn’t doubt the greater terror than any hate they could have?
I am in danger of workshopping Dracula now. But it does some of the things that drive me bonkers most often in workshop (besides proofread your own stories before I scream like the Bride of Frankenstein at six tense changes in a page!). Aside from the tension, the really interesting parts of the story sit in the background. Even after the end, we’re left wondering how Dracula became a vampire, what it really meant for him, why the three maidens in the castle said to him “You do not love,” why he was an old man at the beginning when the constant intake of blood kept him young, why garlic and wild rose have anything to do with it, how on earth Renfield got mixed up in the whole thing, if anybody cared to take care of that last vampire the Count made in Transylvania or not–just to name a few.
Again. The story isn’t about Dracula. It’s about Mina Harker and her five idiot housebreakers.
But moving on to my biggest complaint of the book?
It’s not scary. Gory and dreadful, yes. Horrific, definitely. Heart-pounding with excitement and terror? No.
Probably this is because I had zilch emotional connection to the characters. I know, I cruelly called them idiots…but they are.
They have such a hard time realizing “Hey! It’s a vampire!” when it is so overwhelmingly obvious to the reader. I find when I read classics like Ivanhoe the experience is refreshing because certain things are rarely explained, left for you to follow along behind the protagonist and figure it out for yourself. These characters, on the other hand, are idiots. Careless idiots. Why does Dr. Van Helsing tell us to use garlic? No clue! Why is our friend so remarkably pale just like our friend who died weeks ago and probably has visible puncture wounds on the throat because no high collar or necklace is mentioned? I mean, seriously! You know a vampire is out there, you know what the signs are–think about it. Weren’t you checking your friends for the slightest sniffle during the beginning of the recent Plague? Terrified and overreacting at the slightest symptom?
Idiots. All of them. I finally understand the horror trope when everyone is screaming at the characters for walking right into an obvious trap.
Can I be kinder about the book, say anything at all nice?
It’s nice to have a record of all the superstitions regarding vampires in that area. It’s a good start if you plan to write in the genre (which, regrettably, has come up for me a time or two as I plunge elbow-deep in high and urban fantasy. I avoid it when I can).
The format is clever. Epistolary has largely fallen out of fashion in modern fiction, so it’s rare if you see something told just through journal entries, letters, and the like. As it is, it lets the reader see the story from each of the eight vampire-hunter/victims POVs and creates a much more interesting experience. It also makes it open to speculation who the main character is, or if all eight of them are at once.
The characters show emotion. This shouldn’t need stating, but it does. If you’re on an adventure like this, you’re going to get emotionally jangled. With hope, you won’t get “brain fever” like so many people in Victorian novels, but you’re going to process, grieve, get angry at nothing. And so it’s marvelous to me that the male characters cry.
A lot. Like to the point I was getting distracted by it. More than both the female characters combined. But since they are not following the “hardened warrior” trope to the letter, I’ll resist complaining.
Mina is, again, the best character. She is the brains of the vampire-slaying operation and every one of them knows it. She writes in shorthand, types in triplicate, knows the train timetables for everywhere, pats the boys’ heads when they cry, and is present for almost the entirety of the adventure. I have nothing against “boy books,” or those with almost all male characters. But it was so refreshing to have her along for the whole trip. It doesn’t happen often in novels of that era, so it’s worth noting.
Did that make up for the novel’s weaknesses?
No. Not recommending it. Not sure why everyone is so fond of it (though if you are, please, do tell what I missed).
In the meantime, I’m off to read The Weirdies and cheer myself up with something totally different.
Until next time, happy reading.