Rhapsody in Penguins III — Fifth Movement: Dracula

Dracula (1897)
by Bram Stoker
edited by Maurice Hindle

This piece goes out on on the summer solstice of 2019: the day where the shadows do not reign for long, where the night has the least time to take hold of our imagination and have us imagine ghosts in the darkness. But unless you’re from Norway or (imprisoned in) the frozen wastes of Siberia, night will still fall for you, infecting your mind — however briefly — with whatever lies in the shadows. Either way, it is the perfect time to write about “Dracula”, a tale about two couples being terrorized by a Romanian monster who lives in a creepy castle.

First things first: I love this book. Honestly, I’ve read quite a few page-turners before this, and the Penguin Classics have their own highlights (our series ender is a good example), but this was the first one that I actually tore through. I’ve read better books before and since, but by God does Bram Stoker know how to write a good horror novel, a genre which I normally avoid. And as it’s a pretty solid horror story, I haven’t actually been able to do much (pretend) analyses with it: I’d originally planned to suggest that Bram Stoker warned us about the dangers of not paying attention to our surroundings (you know, like Jonathan Harker doesn’t), but I decided it was a crap idea after two sentences, and so I decided to have some fun instead. Treat this piece, then, as not so much as a reflection on its themes, but a celebration of how effective this book is as a damned good horror story.

What is there to love about this book? Perhaps it’s that the monster at its centre is so utterly horrifying. Even after countless portrayals by a bunch of actors with various skill (Christopher Lee just looks like he forgot to wipe his mouth after slurping ketchup) the central character remains one of the scariest things in literature, his blood-stained fangs haunting our dreams and darkest fantasies for generations. I particularly love the turning point where the very blunt Jonathan Harker finally begins to suspect something:

As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal. The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back; and with a grim sort of smile, which showed more than he had yet done his protuberant teeth.

It’s subtle, but Bram Stoker slowly shifts this amiable but slightly creepy old man further and further out of our favour. We’ve been told not to judge a person by how he looks, but you really can’t help feeling a little repulsed by how Mr. Harker describes the Count: his strange behaviour, the unknown source of nausea that comes with him, even his direct, domineering way of appearing “friendly”. Each thing he does makes him a little more unlikable, and you don’t know it, but by the time Jonathan comes round to his senses, you can totally believe without prejudice that he is a MONSTER.

It’s not just what he looks like, either, it’s also what he does. From his dramatic entrances (bounding onto the Yorkshire coast in the form of a hellhound) to his creepy behaviour (climbing down the straight wall of a castle HEAD-FIRST) to the repulsive things he says, it’s all calculated to be memorable, as if he’s weighed everything in his mind for maximum drama. The action culminates in the bit where he sort of forcibly breast-feeds Mina his blood. Words on a page are never enough and you’re invited to picture the scene: Dracula standing in the middle of the room, a black void against the dim moonlight beating into the room, his claw-like hands wrenched around Mina, forcing her cruelly towards his chest while pouncing towards his adversaries. Of all the cruelties we could have expected from Dracula, you could not have expected this. This tableau of horror, unprecedented in all of literature, sears itself — and the character responsible — right into your mind.

As with Frankenstein, the protagonist isn’t supposed to be the monster — it’s supposed to be the bunch of people fighting against the monster, a straight-up force of evil that we will never understand, much less empathize with. Although pitying the soulless monster has come back into vogue the past half-century or so, with Dracula it’s impossible to see him as anything else. As the scene described before shows, he is the gateway to large and unimaginable horrors, and so mysterious and surprising is he that you can only imagine him as the epitome of evil. After all, there can’t be many villains who manage to force their victims into unwanted drinking and ignores all concerns about blood types. So maybe it’s the monster at its heart that makes the book so effective.

Or perhaps it’s a celebration of how the people who never seemed like heroes turn out to be the ones who save the day. There are loads of privileged Englishmen in this book and all of them turn out to pretty instrumental in defeating the Great Transylvanian Horror (as Dracula should be called from now on), but the two most important people are conspicuously NOT privileged or Englishmen: Abraham van Helsing and Mina Harker are a goofy Dutchman and a woman, both of which were not really well-received in refined British society. (One might also add Quincey Morris, who is a Texan and therefore automatically commands disrespect, whatever he might have done afterwards.) But if not for these two (or three, whatever), Dracula might never have been defeated: between the two of them, van Helsing and Mina work out basically everything that’s happened to them until then, while the brash and rather-too-polite-for-a-Texan Quincey deals the fatal blow to Dracula WHILE BEING FATALLY WOUNDED. If that’s not heroism for you, I don’t know what is.

Now look, I know I’m attracted to characters who defy external appearances to become strong and/or central figures in a work of literature. But it wasn’t necessary for Stoker to put these forgotten people in the spotlight — in fact, he could have done just as well with replacing them with Englishmen and making this a gung-ho boy’s-own adventure. (The breastfeeding-of-blood bit would’ve had to be reworked, but the main idea could have stayed.) And yet he chose these characters to deal with Dracula, and the book is wonderful because of that. The brains of the operation don’t just belong to Englishmen whose main advantage is the amount of cash they have: given the chance and enough spare room, it’s perfectly possible for the more ignored people in society to shine as well. After all, Dracula does not only target privileged Englishmen — his plan is for world domination, and therefore it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight him to the bitter end. I love, therefore, how everyone gets a chance to prove themselves after Mr. Stoker in these people into the fold — with that kind of “representation”, it’s also a much more thrilling and diverse story. So there’s that.

But above all, I love the suspense this book employs while it’s trying to tell a good story. This is a horror novel, after all, and the whole point of being a Gothic horror novel is to frighten the CRAP out of your reader. Let me show you: the bit I’ve been most able to remember, after all these years, is a series of telegrams which John Seward writes to van Helsing after he’s seen Lucy Westenra. Bearing in mind that the latter’s just appeared to cure, we are then assured that Lucy is going to get better after van Helsing’s done his thingamajig. Let’s see how Lucy gets better in Seward’s telegrams, then, shall we?

4 September — Patient still better today.

Yes.

5 September — Patient greatly improved. Good appetite; sleeps naturally; good spirits; colour coming back.

Go on.

6 September — Terrible change for the worse. Come at once; do not lose an hour. I hold over telegram to Holmwood till have seen you.

WHAT THE HELL THAT MOOD WHIPLASH.

I confess that when I got there on my first read my stomach actually dropped when I read that succession of telegrams. Never mind that we already know that there’s still half the novel to go and Dracula has to announce his arrival some way, but the sudden change in Lucy’s status just makes your insides twist. Of course, you have no idea what’s happened to Lucy — in fact, it’s precisely the fact that we don’t know what’s happening to Lucy that’s frightening — but the mere fact of something going terribly, terribly wrong, coupled with the surprise it brings, is enough to have you fearing for the worst. What happens afterward — Lucy’s sudden illness, the idiocy of her mother (seriously, that woman is the stupidest lady one can ever find in literature) and her inevitable death — is not as gut-wrenching as that initial pulling of the rug from underneath your feet.

It’s this feeling of surprise that gives Dracula its oomph: with twits at every turn, and unimaginable horrors reaching towards you in the most unexpected of places, it’s not long before you’re on edge, waiting to see what unspeakable terror might jump out at you on the next page. (Horror movies have jump scares all the time these days, but can they do a jump scare — ON TEXT?) The suspense reminds us that things that terrify us can be found everywhere: not just in the deep, dark unknowable mountains of Romania, but also back in the genteel countryside of Whitby and even the staid placidity of London. This universality of horror, the feeling that there’s something bad just round the corner, turns in one stroke  the familiar world we know to become an unfamiliar, hostile, and unknowable one. And it’s this that leads to a sense of unease that penetrates us as we continue to read on, for Dracula comes where you don’t expect him, and he isn’t picky about who his prey is — as long as there are shadows and a lack of crucifixes, he could be there. He can be there. In fact, maybe he is there. (You peeing your pants yet?)

What I present to you, then, is a perfect novel where every twist of the mystery only adds to a novel which becomes more and more exhilarating — and more and more fun to read as it progresses. We have horrors lurking at every turn, threatening to jump out of the shadows and paralysing us with fear; we have strong characters all around, whether they be the protagonists or the antagonist, and most importantly: it’s a rollicking good romp that strikes straight through the heart of Victorian society, proving that horror can indeed be just as fun to experience as a good comedy or romance or even tragedy, and that just as those latter genres can apply to humanity — so too can this supernatural force of terror. Of all the Penguins I’ve talked about so far, this one is the only one I would scream at you to read — and small wonder, for this book is, first and foremost, a seriously scream-worthy horror novel.

Next time: Had enough of mystery yet? Unfortunately we’re still not out of the woods, for we turn our attention to “The Wind in the Willows” next.

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