This Hallowe’en, if you’re tired of Twilight and allergic to angst, go back a century or so and read Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula. It’s especially topical given the recent release of Dracula Untold, a film that explores what might have happened before the events of the novel, tying Dracula in with the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Stoker’s vampiric Count. See also our DVD review of one of the most faithful film adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Dracula is a story that’s so ingrained in our culture that everyone thinks they know it backwards, but how much of the story do you really know? Most adaptations take a lot of license (the same is true of Frankenstein), so the original story is often lost in Hollywood’s versions, let alone modern vampire novels: Dracula is the tale of a group of friends who find themselves forced to confront an ancient and monstrous creature, who drinks human blood, turns into a wolf, and can influence people’s minds. And he definitely doesn’t sparkle.
Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to help the mysterious Count Dracula buy land in London. Things get creepier as he is warned by locals to beware the Count and, when he reaches the Count’s castle, he slowly begins to realise that the reclusive aristocrat is not entirely human. Harker finds himself trapped in Dracula’s crumbling castle, fearing what each night will bring and powerless to stop the Count as he sets off for England. In Whitby, his fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy are preparing for Lucy’s wedding. The only problem is that, following the arrival of a ship from Transylvania, Lucy has grown ill and is getting weaker every day. She is falling under the spell of Count Dracula, and her friends must unite to try to stop him, before it’s too late. Jonathan almost dies in his attempt to escape the castle, but eventually makes it back home, traumatised and ill. Mina, Lucy’s fiancée and the two other men who are in love with her, as well as a scientist called Abraham Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, all work together to hunt down Dracula and destroy him forever.
We’ve all seen vampires in films, TV, books and even breakfast cereal, but Count Dracula still manages to hold a lot of his original power. Forget the Count from Sesame Street – Dracula in the novel seems like an old and eccentric aristocrat, the remnant of an old world, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s a predatory monster. The moment when Harker looks out of a window and sees the Count climbing down a wall head-first like a lizard is chilling. Stoker is brilliant at presenting his vampires as genuinely frightening, even to readers in a world where Count Chocula exists. Dracula has used his powers to magically enslave a man called Renfield, and the interludes where he starts to eat animals in tribute to his vampiric ‘master’ are deeply disturbing.
Dracula is a frightening character who seems far too strong and cunning to be defeated by the vampire hunters. He is adept at targeting the people they care about, but that just means the hunters have all the more to fight for. It’s one of the few vampire novels where the vampires are truly monstrous, and for all that Dracula has become over-used and easy to make fun of, any victory that the hunters get over him will be at a terrible cost.
Dracula is a bit slow to start with, but don’t be put off – all that talk of Harker’s journey across Eastern Europe just serves to slowly build up the tension, as the very best horror does. Forget the versions of the story you’ve seen in films and take a bite out of the greatest vampire story ever.
If you liked Dracula…
Try the Usborne Paperback adaptation of the novel (QUICK READS 823.91) or the graphic novel (BOOK ZONE 741.5973): all of the horror, none of the boring bits!
Read about Dracula’s legacy with modern vampire books that owe a lot to Bram Stoker: of course, there’s Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (EXPRESS FICTION 823.91 for the book or DVD LOBBY 791.43 for the film), but there are also Darren Shan’s Vampire’s Assistant books, starting with Cirque du Freak (QUICK READS 823.91 for the book and 741.59415 for the manga, LOBBY DVD AREA 791.43 for the film) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (find the DVDs in the LOBBY DVD AREA at 791.456 and the comic that follows on from the series in QUICK READS at 823.91). Dracula even made a guest appearance in Buffy at one point! One of the most successful recent versions of the vampire myth was John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In (BOOK ZONE 823.91), which features a decidedly creepy child vampire.
Dracula was part of the Gothic movement in English Literature, and the British Library in London currently has an exhibition on ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’ from 03/10/14-20/01/14. If you happen to be in London, have a look! Entrance is free for under 18’s and they have a real-life vampire hunting kit on display (probably originally meant as a topical souvenir for a collector). The British Library has online resources on Gothic Literature, including a video about key motifs in Gothic Literature (featuring, of course, Dracula!)