I’ve never been much into horror or “monster” stories, except for an afternoon TV program that was popular when I was a teenager (what is it with teens and vampires?)
But last spring, my oldest son told me about Dracula Daily. Dracula by Bram Stoker is epistolary novel, made up of dated notes, letters, telegrams, and journal entries. Dracula Daily sent out excerpts from the book on the dates of the letters, etc., so the reader got them in “real time.” There would be weeks with nothing, but then there would be several journal entries on one day when something major was happening.
I decided it might be fun to experience the novel that way, so I signed up. I didn’t think to mention it in my end-of-month posts where I listed my current reading, I guess because it wasn’t in my usual reading format.
The story begins with Jonathan Harker, a new solicitor, traveling from England to Transylvania with some paperwork for a Count Dracula, who has just bought property in England. After some weird and frightening occurrences, Jonathan finally makes it to Dracula’s castle. The Count seems nice enough, but the remoteness of the castle, the wildness of the land, the howling of wolves nearby, all seem spooky.
Over several days Jonathan notices weird things about the Count himself. He never eats. He sleeps during the day and is awake at night. He has very sharp, canine-like teeth.
Things just keep getting weirder and more horrible. And then Jonathan discovers he is imprisoned. When he finally escapes, he lands in a mental asylum for a time.
Meanwhile, back in England, Jonathan’s fiance, Mina, wonders why she has not heard from him. Mina travels to be with her lifelong friend, Lucy Westerna, whose mother is seriously ill. Lucy receives three proposals of marriage in one day, but she loves one man: Arthur Godalming.
But after a while, Lucy begins sleepwalking, and then exhibiting strange symptoms, and then becomes anemic.
Jonathan makes it home, and he and Mina get married. He doesn’t tell her all that has happened to him, but he writes it down. He tells Mina where it is and invites her to read if it she wants, but she decides not to—yet. And then one day while Jonathan and Mina are in town, Jonathan sees Dracula.
Meanwhile, Dr. John Seward, one of Lucy’s rejected suitors, is called to check on her. He calls in his friend, Van Helsing, who suspects he knows what Lucy’s problem is. He orders a blood transfusion and other measures, but doesn’t say why or what he’s thinking. Things might have gone better if he had, because people who didn’t understand accidentally sabotaged his efforts. But then, he probably would not have been believed.
Finally Van Helsing does tell the others about the Count, and they all team up together to find and destroy him.
As it happens, the Literary Life Podcast started doing a series on Dracula on Oct. 31 (appropriately). I’ve only listened to the introductory episode so far, but it was pretty fascinating and enlightening. According to those doing this podcast, in Victorian times (when Stoker wrote Dracula), monsters in stories represented the devil. (Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray were all written within ten years of each other). Stoker even chose the name Dracula because he thought it meant devil. These were classic good vs. evil stories in which evil must be defeated.
The podcasters say it wasn’t until after Freud that people began to sympathize with the monster, wondering what in his background made him like he was, seeing him as the victim instead of the victimizer. And in our day, people try to infuse modern sensibilities into old stories. But I agree with the podcasters that to truly understand what writer meant, we have to understand the context and times in which he or she wrote.
They also share some interesting tidbits that I would never have picked up on my own. For instance, Jonathan is traveling into Transylvania on the eve of St. George Day. That evening was something like our Halloween, and in those times, superstitious folks thought evil creatures were free to roam the earth that one night.
Then the meticulous record keeping later on is supposedly a nod to the Enlightenment–that even though this is a fantastic tale, they’re going to handle it in a very scientific manner. Yet there’s also a nod to Shakespeare’s quote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”–there are things that enlightened science and technology can’t explain or handle.
The podcasters (one of whom is a literature teacher) also said that Stoker was not the first to write a vampire story, but he established some of the tropes of vampire lore that still hold today. Yet the modern vampire story is very different from his. They said the idea of the mysterious sensual stranger vampire came from a story written by Lord Byron, which he wrote when he hosted a party in which the participants were challenged to write a scary story. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein then. Byron left his story unfinished, but his friend and doctor, John Polidori, wrote a similar one based on Byron. Byron was angry with him and terminated him, and then Polidori published his novel in revenge (You can read more about that here).
I thought Dracula was very well-written. It was both suspenseful and scary, yet with a thread of hope throughout.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
We learn from failure, not from success!
How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men—even if there are monsters in it.
Loneliness will sit over our roofs with brooding wings.
Though sympathy alone can’t alter facts, it can help to make them more bearable.
She is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist—and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish.
It is in trouble and trial that our faith is tested—that we must keep on trusting; and that God will aid us up to the end.
We believe that God is with us through all this blackness, and these many dark hours. We shall follow him; and we shall not flinch.
I’m looking forward to learning more from the Literary Life Podcast.
The text of Dracula is available at Project Gutenberg. Dracula Daily also has their missives in the archives.
I’m counting this book for the Mystery/Crime/Detective category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. Even though it’s both a horror and a Gothic novel, I think it fits as a mystery because who the Count is and what’s going on with him and then with Lucy, are all mysteries to the other characters. The Count does commit crimes. And then the measures to find him all fit with a detective story.