Our book reviewer Scott Southard gives his take on the classic horror novel "Dracula."
“Welcome to my house! Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!”
With those words, Count Dracula has been welcoming readers into his castle in Transylvania for over 100 years now. Dracula was not the first vampire in literature, but he is easily the most important. The count has flown like a bat out of Bram Stoker’s classic novel and into our cultural imagination. The vampires of today’s fantasy fiction all owe something to the dark count. Yet, when contemporary readers turn to Stoker’s original novel, they might be surprised because, pardon the pun, it is easy for reviewers to take a bite out of this imperfect horror.
The Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book is not the vampire you might expect. Movies and other pop culture interpretations usually miss the mark when it comes to the novel’s central character. Even the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not really Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The original Dracula is not a romantic hero. He’s a monster, driven by his hunger for blood and his uncontrolled lust to take what he wants.
There are three things that will surprise contemporary readers when they pick up this classic novel. The first is how little horror there really is in the book. It may seem strange to say it, but the body count is surprising low. There’s only a few moments of real white-knuckle terror scenes. My favorite one is the sea journey Dracula takes to London. During the trip he takes out members of the crew one by one, and you can feel the desperation and fear grow with each new entry in the ship’s logs.
It’s also surprising how little we see of the vampire. While the book is called "Dracula," the infamous count only makes a few appearances in its pages. Yes, he is the focus of all of the main characters’ discussions. But beyond some conversations with his English broker Jonathon Harker in the beginning of the book, he is nothing more than a dark and haunting shadow lurking in the background. He is the mystery to be solved, and then becomes the focus of the heroes’ hunt for justice.
The third, and the most surprising for me during this recent reading is how religious the novel is. The friends of Dracula’s first victim spend the book seeking revenge for their deceased friend. Each member of the team views their work as something spiritual, part of a great battle between good and evil. Honestly, it can get a little heavy handed.
If you have the ability to turn off everything you know about the count and just experience the book as Stoker intended, it’s actually a good story with some interesting high points. For example, the narrative is told through a series of diaries, journals and letters. This gives us an interesting first hand insight into all of the characters as they discover and experience the horror of Count Dracula’s actions. While we go in knowing exactly who Dracula is, the characters have to be convinced of the monster. We expect the fangs, they don’t.
"Dracula" by Bram Stoker might not be the book you believe it to be. And like Harker standing at the doorway of the castle in the beginning, you have to decide for yourself if you wish to enter or not. Go on. It’s Halloween. What do you have to lose?
Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream." You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.