The horror genre isn’t my normal genre of choice. I spent my teenage years working my way through Stephen King’s (then existing) back catalogue, dabbled with some Dean R Koontz and a little James Herbert, before giving Anne Rice a shot. I read Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned and that’s about the sum total of my exposure to horror/vampire fiction.
But Dracula was always one of those books I intended to read at some point, if only because I wanted to understand how one nineteenth-century novel could have such an influence on the popularity of vampires in modern-day literature and films. I put it off for years and years, but during a visit to Whitby, on the northeast coast of England earlier this year, I finally decided it was time to read the book.
I had been to Whitby before, but this time around its connection with Dracula seemed to resonate more, perhaps because I’d seen a BBC TV production and recognised the Abbey and the Yorkshire coastline on the screen. (In truth, during my first visit in 1998, I was more interested in the “Australian connection” — Whitby is where Captain James Cook embarked on his famous Pacific voyages.)
Whitby is, of course, the fishing village where Bram Stoker sets some parts of the novel — where one of the main characters, Lucy, meets Dracula for the first time, in fact. But it’s also the place where Stoker began taking notes for the book while on holiday in 1890. It is a beautiful village nestled by the River Esk — and Stoker’s description, told through the eyes of Mina Murray, remains unchanged more than a century later:
This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, though which the view seems, somehow, further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green and is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town — the side away from us — are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes […] It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.
The story is told as a series of diary entries and letters from a divergent cast of characters — and there are a few “news clippings” thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-rounded and fast-moving narrative that feels incredibly modern, almost as if the book had been penned in recent times and not in 1897.
The storyline is a familiar one, but for those who don’t know it, it begins with Johnathan Harker, a young English solicitor, travelling to Transylvania to meet a client — Count Dracula — about a property sale he wishes to undertake in England. Despite Dracula acting as a gracious host, Harker soon discovers he is being kept prisoner in Dracula’s remote castle and makes plans for escape.
Some time after a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, but all on deck — save for a dog, which leaps onshore never to be seen again — are presumed dead. The ship’s log reveals some uncanny experiences on board during the journey, and the hull is found to be carrying a strange cargo of earth from Transylvania.
Harker’s fiance, Mina, and her friend, Lucy, are in Whitby at the time. Lucy is a sleepwalker, and during one of her nocturnal strolls meets a strange man — Dracula — on the cliffs overlooking the town. Shortly after she mysteriously begins to waste away.
Dr John Seward, who has proposed marriage to Lucy, is very concerned by her deteriorating health. He calls in his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam, who begins administering blood transfusions — all to no avail.
Eventually — and I don’t think this is much of a plot spoiler — Lucy becomes a vampire, and the finger of blame is pointed in Count Dracula’s direction.
The action then moves to London, where the Count has been seen out and about. It turns out — by a strange twist of fate — that his house, on Picadilly, is next to Dr Seward’s. A band of vampire hunters is then brought together, including Harker, Mina, Seward and Van Helsing among others, to put Dracula’s rampage across London and England to an end…
The story of Dracula was a familiar one to me, but genuinely thrilling in places. Some of Stoker’s descriptions were also incredibly vivid and chilling, such as this scene in which Harker, trapped in Dracula’s remote castle, sees the Count’s head coming out of a window:
I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards and with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
The book also poses some interesting questions about science and faith, religion and folklore, topics that were been debated at the time in which it was written.
Interestingly, the role of women in society is another theme, with Lucy representing the “traditional” weak-willed woman who succumbs to Dracula’s charms, and Mina, who is strong enough to fight him off and plays a pivotal role in his eventual destruction, representing the “new” female.
On the whole, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Dracula. The prose style was easy-to-read and apart from some clunky elements — Stoker’s inconsistent depiction of Van Helsing’s Dutch vernacular, for instance, was woeful — felt incredibly contemporary.
And there was plenty of suspense to keep me turning the pages long into the night. A truly great read and one I’d recommend, even if your tastes don’t usually venture into classic literature or the horror genre.
‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, first published in 1897, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “true horror novel, as firmly rooted in the reality of the world where it takes place as it is in the forces of the supernatural that invade it”.