Review: Dracula

Dracula is the stuff of myth. That this one saturnine, irresistibly purple novel has had such a remarkable impact on the fabric of our literature—and our popular culture—is fascinating when we consider its humble origins as just another piece of sensationalized Gothic melodrama destined to thrill the appetites of a fin de siècle public largely desensitized to the notion of terror fiction. Consider its rival for best-seller status in its time: Richard Marsh’s equally compelling The Beetle. How many of us have encountered, or even heard of, that wonderful novel outside of the cognoscenti of the Gothic movement? And yet Dracula is a novel many of us have never even read, and yet remain entirely familiar with; like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula has become so paramount within our culture’s perception of the ‘Gothic’ that approaching it without any bias, completely objectively, is nearly impossible. And what is there to say about this novel, really, that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? It is, after all, exactly what we’d anticipate it as being: suspenseful, erotic, full of the kind of tenebrous gloom that has, for a long time, remained deeply ingrained in our understanding of what is (and is not) Gothic; it is not a masterpiece, in that it is an exceedingly flawed piece of fiction, but its status as the germ of an entire movement within our literature—the vampire mythos—is impossible to ignore, and given its near-epic trajectory, to call it a failure, despite its many flaws, would be a kind of blasphemy.

Bram Stoker is not a good writer. Dracula, his opus, suffers from a deep decay in its construction that becomes more glaring as the novel reaches its dubious ‘climax’ (which is one of the more anticlimactic finales in all of the genre); Stoker’s other fictions run the gamut from the decent (The Jewel of Seven Stars) to the plodding (his short fiction) to the absolutely dreadful (epitomized by the gruelingly awful Lair of the White Worm). Dracula, on its own merit, is enough to secure him his lasting fame, however—and one has to admire his brazenness: Dracula was, like many of the now ‘classic’ fictions of the fin de siècle, a bit of a scandal from the very beginning. It plays off of the glossy, eroticized fears of a Europe that was beginning to drown in the notions of decadence that, at first charmingly invective and iconoclastic, had become, in no small way, prophetic: the political ramifications of the ‘New Woman,’ the idea of foreign infiltration into a rapidly permuting Britain, the suggestion of sexual liberation—these fears, the skittish neuroses and obsessions of a distending empire, had become more than just speculative notions: they were rapidly developing realities. That Stoker was able to consider them within the context of parable—an industrialized London suddenly haunted by the most ancient terrors of European myth—was no slight stroke of genius; but, the thing is, I simply cannot believe that Stoker intended this. The subtext of Dracula seems to brood largely within the more unconscious layers of Stoker’s narrative: it is an undercurrent, a suggestion, never an outright examination.

There is no need to outline the plot: we are all entirely familiar with it. Most of the more delicious, and deliriously powerful, of Stoker’s images play out towards the beginning (which is, I think, a flaw): the initial imprisonment of Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula, the captain’s log from the doomed Demeter, the dream-haunted dissolution of Lucy Westenra; this parade of lusty, phantasmagoric scenery is powerfully haunting and sets up what is to become, as I said, a kind of an epic. The epistolary format of Dracula lends the novel, at times, absolutely genius narrative conceit: consider, for example, the wealth of perspectives as our naïve vampire hunters close in on Castle Dracula before the ‘climax.’ If said climax were not a wooden exercise in falling flat on one’s face, the novel could, I believe, be forgiven every other flaw; but unfortunately, the epistolary format also renders some of the more ‘sentimental’ content (the love story, etc.) rather insipid—even, at the worst of times, almost comically maudlin—and this is at odds with much of the novel's general dexterity.

To call Dracula the high-point of literary Gothicism would be taking a great liberty: other texts—Melmoth the Wanderer, The Turn of the Screw, Frankenstein—are better deserving that appellation; it cannot be argued, though, that in the popular imagination Dracula is the beginning and end of the entire movement. Its seminal place in our literature is so inarguable that it remains one of the few ‘horror’ novels universally read in the study of the Anglophonic canon. On a personal note, despite my criticism, I consider myself an avid admirer—even a devotee—of the novel. This, too, is a testament to its power: despite its haphazard construction and wealth of genuinely maddening inconsistencies, at its highest moments Dracula possesses a grace uncommon to such baroque, sensationalistic themes as vampirism, sex, and moral decay; it is only with the publication of Dracula (although one can argue a case for Polidori or Le Fanu) that the notion of ‘glamour’ entered the world of vampirism in our literature, and this is due in no small part to Stoker’s almost uncanny knack for suffusing the repugnant with a more than potent dose of the exotic, mysterious, and darkly beautiful.

Dracula will live on, like the archetype it has constructed, in our popular imagination for a long, long time, though whether it will be rediscovered or simply reappropriated by the generations which follow us is open for debate: its impact, however, is entirely inarguable, and its place in the literature of the fin de siècle is both poignant and fitting, for it is the final breath of a century of madness, poetry, and decay.