Over the years, I've grown fond of describing Dracula by Bram Stoker as “the greatest novel ever written by a hack.”
Brother, you should see the looks I get. To some (especially those of uncritical "fannish" inclination), this is another of those Elitist Slurs from a Brainwashed Canon Snob. Maybe, but nothing else I’ve read—or have tried to read--by Stoker is nearly as good, nor has had as such a creeping influence on both western literature and culture, as has this haunting and enchanting novel. (The exception: his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter cut from the final manuscript for Dracula.)
Bram Stoker was no literary genius in the strict sense. Nor was he a pop culture, Dan-Brown mastermind because Dracula has never really been a blockbusting bestseller. (In fact, I’m always struck by the number of people who know Dracula like a next-door neighbor but have never read the novel. Really, if you read no other horror novel in your life, do read this one; and if you read genre fiction and horror, but haven’t read it . . . Good Lord . . . .)
But, somehow, it is a novel with genius in it, a sinister brilliance that lives separately from its author. Dracula is a novel of unintended vision. A hundred years and thousands of movies, sequels, parodies and post-modern takedowns later, Dracula still stands tall to me, roaring midnight lightning caught in a bottle.
Sure, maybe it has no business being a Member of the Canon, but there it is: a scruffy, baggy, disreputable cousin you have to include in the family photo, maybe just because people still admire him after so much time. Dracula is one of the fundamental texts in genre fiction.
By my eyes, there are four strokes of genius in Dracula, two of which I’ll address in this posting.
The first stroke of unexpected genius—or ingenuity--is the novel’s structure. It’s an epistolary novel--a collage of diary entries, ship’s logs, letters and newspaper articles; a literary kaleidoscope, dream shards shared through different points of view, linked nightmares from which a reader can’t awaken until Stoker the dream maker is ready to let go. These shifting points of view create a somewhat impressionistic air that enhances both the mystery and power of its unifying central character.
The second stroke of genius is the bursts of energy and color that Stoker splashes across his sprawling lumpy stage. Admittedly, this is not always apparent. The story slows for a while after those four rip-roaring opening chapters, when we abandon Jonathan Harker alone with Dracula’s wives on moon-haunted windswept castle ramparts and fly to England for a little sunshine normalcy to set the stage for the invasive terror about to come ashore.
At this point, Stoker’s weaknesses as a writer become exposed to sunlight; for one, his clumsy way with characterization: Many of his characters seem to make little sense—Quincey Morris, the man of action who accomplishes zip; the grossly entertaining, but equally useless Renfield. (That Dracula would pick a mad man locked up in an insane asylum as his daytime cat’s paw and assistant reflects poorly on the Count’s hiring practices.); Lucy Westenra, the prattling, manipulative bubblehead; and Dr. Seward, a man I wouldn't see for a hangnail.
Possibly the silliest of all is Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, one of the most irritating literary conceits I’ve ever encountered. Van Helsing is a mishmash of unrelated traits who pontificates in a childish Euro-English. Sometimes he’s a Dutch Catholic, sometimes a Dutch Protestant; sometimes noble; sometimes merely crass and always ham-fisted, stiff and lugubrious. For a wise old hero-guide in Joseph the Campbell mode, Van Helsing is a terrible vampire hunter; he even gets at least one character killed.
Stoker also indulges the Victorian tendency to flood the pages with rivers of sentimental turbidity (though after having recently been trapped with Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I now feel much more forgiving--at least Stoker’s book is shorter).
Stoker also has certain of his supporting characters speaking in exact dialect. Writing phonetic speech to match a dialect tends to make a character distant and flat, into someone clown-like and infantile. This is why so many readers find this kind of dialogue offensive, no matter how well intentioned. As an example, the monologue of Mr. Swales, an old salt of the sea who befriends Mina Harker and Lucy, is unreadable without translation (First-timers can find one in both the Leonard Wolf and Leslie Klinger annotations.)
Still, Stoker compensates with bursts of great narrative writing throughout. He has a great eye for setting here. He traveled far in his eventful life, but never made it to Transylvania and so gets the geography wrong. Still, his imagined Transylvania is magical—more accurate renderings might well have flattened his tale. He also describes Whitby, the Count’s first beachhead, with pleasing color and homey elements that contribute to the suspense.
Still, for awhile, Dracula’s shadow threatens to fade away and take the novel with it. But mercifully, before too much time has passed, we find ourselves aboard the freighter The Demeter, and Stoker’s passion for his titular character rises again with the storm, as Dracula slowly, teasingly, turns the vessel into a ghost ship.
From here, vivid feverish episodes from unease to full horror roll and blaze across the page: Dracula’s slow stalking of Lucy and the deaths of Lucy and her mother; the tracking of Lucy to the cemetery and her destruction; and though Renfield’s role makes no sense, the episodes with him manage to thrill, disgust, and chill anyway.
(To be continued)
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
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Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.