I'd never read Dracula before so it made a fun Halloween treat. I tried to read it "fresh"…to shun what I "knew" from all the media and pop-culture references that are nearly impossible to avoid.
While it was difficult (impossible?) to fully forget all the things that culture has thrust on me, I did try to envision what this book would have been like if I'd read it 100+ years ago when it was originally published. While it shares many elements of the graphic novels and general horror writing of the time, it is certainly more "terrifying" than much of the other horror writing I've read from that era (which isn't saying a whole lot since I haven't read a ton). For the era, this novel seemed to me startlingly graphic in terms of describing the horrors encountered by the main characters. Compared to the gothic novels I've read, this is definitely more creepy. It reminded me a lot of the eerie, creepy horror of some of Poe's works.
The writing style was a little different than I imagined. It's set up as an epistolary novel with the narrative coming from multiple points of view as written after the fact in diaries, letters and even some newspaper clippings and commercial documents (ships logs, etc). Thus, we are somewhat distanced from the action of the story, but we also get it from a variety of perspectives and with multiple different voices. Some of the voices were very similar to one another and hard to distinguish. The most distinguishable was Van Helsing who was actually written with a very strong dialect that sometimes annoyed me.
I definitely applaud the attention to detail in this book. The descriptions of Dracula's castle and (later) the various homes/parks/streets in England were very vivid and easy to picture. Even more engaging were the details brought to life through the emotional turmoil of the characters. Reading the diary of Jonathan Harker, I could completely envision his growing terror throughout his stay at the castle. I also really liked the detail and interaction in the letters between Mina and Lucy.
There were a number of times where I wanted the story to "hurry up" but when I sat back and read the novel without the cultural baggage of a world that's grown up with the vampire/Dracula mythos, I felt myself very content to move along at a slower pace. Not only did I find myself enjoying the methodical unraveling of the mystery and the descriptions of the Undead, but I also found that the slower pacing created a greater sense of anxiety and apprehension.
I only had a couple of minor complaints that stayed with me after finishing the book.
First and foremost, I wanted much more interaction with Dracula. There was a ton of build up and a lot of "off stage" action implying what Dracula had done and what he was doing. We saw him with some regularity early on but in those instances he was still more of an enigma than a source of horror. There were only a very few scenes in which we actually came face-to-face with him as evil antagonist. Furthermore, each of these confrontations was usually over very quickly. Even the final confrontation was concluded quickly. I appreciate that the novel's form makes it impossible for us to see things from his point of view or actually observe his actions off-stage (unless perhaps he had left his own journal), but I would have appreciated more encounters or perhaps lengthier encounters. Instead, most of what we learn about his power and abilities come in short snippets followed by explanations from Van Helsing.
My second complaint had to do with Dr. Seward and Renfield. We have Deward's diary which provides information as to Renfield's strange behavior and his unusual outbursts. While I will grant that the chronology of things makes it difficult/impossible for Seward to piece together what's going on, it seems that there were a number of times where Seward should have sought more information but didn't (such as when Renfield escapes and runs to a certain home…even with his rantings and ravings and the strange workmen hauling boxes of dirt, Seward doesn't bother to investigate the owner of the home…I would think that it might be worthwhile to see if there was a particular reason why an escaped lunatic ran to a very particular home after escaping). In spit of Seward's education and experience, it seems that he let a number of threads fall away. Perhaps this is part of the nature of working in a sanitarium in the 1800s.
All in all, I really enjoyed finally reading this book. With it's huge influence on modern culture, I definitely recommend checking it out and getting to know this original and exciting work. Be prepared for a bit slower pace but if you put yourself in the mind of a reader in the early 1900s and try to distance yourself from the cultural baggage, I think you'll be in for a very creepy ride.
5 out of 5 stars
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