Warning: this post contains spoilers. By spoilers, I mean it contains information about the contents of the book I am about to review. Just how you’re meant to review a book without doing that is not exactly clear to me.
This is the first of what I hope will be at least three book reviews to be posted on this blog. There were no criteria applied in the selection of the book; I saw the First Tuesday special on monsters, in which this book was mentioned, thought, “I haven’t read that”, and bought it at the Co-op for the bargain price of $9.05.
I had some concerns on commencing the book that it would be what I like to refer to as nineteenth century trash: one of those horrid leering zombies that bludgeon their way through the history of literature and somehow find their way down through the centuries to prey on the better judgment of a readership that, blinded by a book’s antiquity, manages to remain ignorant of its utter lack of merit. It’s not limited to the nineteenth century, of course. Daniel Defoe, I’m looking at you. You too, Baroness Orczy.
It wasn’t an idle fear, either. As a child, I somehow managed to watch about half of Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, and even at the tender age of twelve managed to develop a half-formed impression of the shameless sacrifice of common sense and simple good taste being indulged in by Francis Ford Coppola.
So it was with some trepidation that I cracked open my orange Penguin classic.
Mercifully, my fear was unfounded. As a whole, I enjoyed this book. The story itself was engaging and good-natured enough to cover up the occasional lapse of concentration by Stoker. The documentary construction was irritating at first, but once I got used to it I think it managed to do its job without too many hiccups. The prose was unremarkable but inoffensive, and, importantly, didn’t get in the way of a good story.
What struck me most about the book was that it didn’t take anything for granted from its readers, and it made me wonder: what it would have been like to read this book in 1897?
We’re so culturally saturated with vampires that it’s difficult to imagine living in a time when they existed only as fragments of folklore drifting across Europe from the darkness of the East. For example: on the second page, I read that the young Jonathan Harker, en route to Castle Dracula, did not sleep well, had strange dreams, and found he had a thirst that not even a whole carafe of water could quench.
Even if you were somehow totally ignorant of the fact that there were vampires in this book, you’d be forming ideas in the back of your mind, and, a few pages later, when Dracula is not seen during the daytime and does not share meals with Jonathan, suspicions would crystallise into certainty. Today’s Buffy– and Twilight-initiated public would be on notice from the start about what was going on.
But what would a nineteenth century reader have made of this book? The word “vampire” is barely mentioned, perhaps three or four times at most. For that matter, I don’t even know whether it was a common word for a monster back then; it’s also used to refer to bats in the book. “Un-dead” is used more frequently. More than half of the book has gone by before anything approaching an explanation is given by Van Helsing regarding the strange phenomena taking place. Would the original readership have been in the dark that whole time?
As a child, my parents were Star Wars fans. They didn’t have t-shirts or Boba Fett figurines or anything (at least as far as I know), but whenever Star Wars was on TV they used to make my sister and I have a nap in the afternoon so we’d be able to stay awake and watch it. This was back in the days before we had a VCR, so I can only assume I was quite young. I loved Star Wars (possibly due to the association with being allowed to stay up late), especially the ewoks, and it wasn’t long before I knew all the dialogue off by heart.
As a teenager, however, I started to realise that I liked Star Wars, not just because I had always liked it, but also because it was good. It was a thumping good story with believable dialogue and characters it was easy to love, and it came from that golden age when movies could be created by Lucasfilm without the fight scenes and special effects pushing the real stuff out of the ring. Somewhere around the age of fifteen or sixteen, it dawned on me: I wanted to be able to watch it for the first time as an adult.
Well, I want to be able to read Dracula for the first time in 1897. I want to be uncertain. I want to be spooked. I want to be able to read a story about a young man going to Eastern Europe suffering from bad dreams and be carried along with the foreshadowing, not think, “that’s because he’s going to a castle with a vampire in it.” I want to be chilled by the slow, inexorable transformation of Lucy and be able to wonder what’s happening to her, not know in advance and be frustrated at the obtuseness of all the other characters. (NB: I realised on reading this over that I had written “all the other characters”, as if I were a character myself. Weird.)
On a more mundane level: I think Stoker could have made better use of his material. There were plenty of moments throughout the book where the band was warming up to his cue to throw in complex moral problems, or a bit more tension between the characters, but he didn’t bite (to use both a pun and a mixed metaphor). Although he had obviously researched the Eastern European aspects of the story reasonably well, including the folk legends he was making use of, they were often inserted somewhat arbitrarily into the story by Van Helsing. For that matter, who is Van Helsing? I can accept that his history, Wolverine-style (Hugh Jackman, if you’re reading, the comparison wasn’t intentional), might be shrouded in mystery, but if so, I expect at least a literary nod in the direction of a mysterious past. Instead, he just turns up, summoned on an apparent medical case but armed with an entirely coincidental and seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of vampires.
[Before you send me emails: I know there are a couple of references to Van Helsing having once had a wife and child, so maybe there IS a hint of mystery about him. But it didn’t seem like enough. Maybe I’m just over-Hollywoodised and need my mysterious characters to be constantly brooding in the shadows and saving delinquent teenag – oh, sorry, that’s Wolverine again.]
The denouement was somewhat perfunctory; which, after a commitment of 401 pages, over the entire course of which I already knew pretty well WHAT was going to happen and was just waiting for the HOW, was disappointing to say the least. No moral dilemmas, and, for me, very little suspense. I can see how he tried to create it, what with Dracula going missing and the sun starting to set, but the actual final scene came so much out of nowhere and was over so quickly that, even though I could see well enough that it was the second-last page of the book, I had to wonder whether that was actually it. There were so many “clues” throughout the book that I thought I’d picked up on that when none of them were actually used in the climax, I felt cheated. I was cheated.
But don’t let my negativity put you off. If I wasn’t negative I wouldn’t have anything to say, because really, it comes down to this: it’s a great story, and it’s told reasonably well. Hardly newsworthy, but perhaps, in the age of Twilight and its siblings, it should be?
PS After writing the above, I rented Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Blockbuster, just to see whether memory and the passage of time had made it seem worse than it actually was. I have now watched seventeen minutes of it, and I can say with confidence that my self of fifteen years ago was not lying to my self of today. The only good thing about it is the font in the opening titles. Watch it if you don’t believe me.