I'm a great big nerd, so I get excited about things like Sarah Reads Too Much Back to the Classics Challenge. And I was even more excited to get started when I came across the delightful illustrated Penguin Classic hardcover edition of Dracula. I'd never read Dracula and I'm kicking myself for taking so long to read it. It was incredible.
Dracula is one of those books you've heard so much about that you think you know it, but when you actually get down to reading it, it still has plenty of surprises left. For the first hundred pages or so I just knew the narrator was going to be sucked dry by the evil Count; I kept wanting to scream, "ARE YOU NUTS? HE'S GOING TO KILL YOU!" and then I shut up and kept reading because it's quite a nail-biter.The story is strung together through a series of diary entries letters, telegrams and memorandums from several characters. Jonathan Harker is a young solicitor called from England to the wilds of Transylvania to help Count Dracula close the deal on a new house he's just bought on the outskirts of London. The local people try to warn him about going to Dracula's castle. They give him rosaries and garlic but he has no idea what kind of danger he's in until the people he cares about are involved--and it's too late (are you scared yet?).
The commonly-known vampire lore is all here. Dracula is really strong and fast and has been alive (undead, rather) for hundreds of years. He has to be invited into your house before he can start killing you. He and his vampire brides tend to sleep during the day in coffins, they can't pass things surrounded by crucifixes, the Host or garlic and don't have reflections. And of course they suck blood. Here are some things I didn't know: vampires can't eat human food at all; Dracula controls wolves and rats; he can turn himself into dust, wind or fog in addition to a bat or a wolf; and he can only change his shape at night. That whole melting in the sunlight thing at the end of Nosferatu? Not true, at least in Bram Stoker's world.
Despite being written in 1897, it doesn't feel terribly dated. Yes, there's plenty of talk of carriages and phonographs, but it's really gripping. The 400 pages fly by because the pacing is fantastic. And Stoker really committed to realistic portrayals. Dr. Van Helsing's passages are written with the halting grammar of a native Dutch-speaker speaking in English and there's plenty of British dialects (I loved those). Stoker's brother was a top surgeon in Ireland and according to my edition's notes, he consulted his brother on important medical details like exactly how a blood transfusion worked.
Of course, this being a book of the 19th century, the female characters were kind of simpering and annoying. "Oh, I just want to be of use to my dear, sweat husband!" cries Mina Harker. "Professor, I feel I know the answer but you mustn't think me an egoist!" But Mina's tiresome female tropes end up adding an interesting dimension to the story because she's the only character that manages to feel even the tiniest sliver of sympathy for the monster whose soul has never been laid to rest.
One thing that surprised me: Dracula wasn't nearly as erotic as I thought it would be. The female vampires are beautiful and entrancing, almost enough for male characters to let them "kiss" their necks (Stoker's word, not mine) with their full, sensual lips and are described over and over again as being voluptuous. Poor Dracula is just a tall, thin, pale brute with bushy eyebrows and pointy ears. It's interesting that the female vampires are charged with being voluptuous and sexual as though that's the very worst sin a person (or monster) can commit. Not to give too much away, but blood transfusions stand in for another less artificial, um, swapping of fluids: "No man knows till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves." Love that quote. On the whole, it wasn't the sexy Victorian adventure I expected but it was plenty of fun.
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