Since its first publication in 1897 Bram Stoker’s tale of mystery, romance and vampires, Dracula, has become ingrained in popular culture through not only the novel but plays, movies, comic books or re-versioning of the titular count in any media you care to name and, in going back to the source text, it is clear why.
Telling the story of the ancient vampire’s attempts to spread his wings to Victorian London and the efforts of a group of men and women to foil his plans, Dracula’s basis is a rather simple tale of good versus evil.
The evil is an ultimate one, in Count Dracula, who, having escaped apparent seclusion and exile in the mountains of Transylvania has his sights set on, seemingly, taking over the taking over the world by turning the general populace into vampires. At least this is what is hinted at by Dr Van Helsing, the stories defacto vampire expert and hunter (thankfully nothing like Hugh Jackman’s more recent take on the character).
The good is embodied, ultimately, in Mina Harker, backed by a group of men all intent on avenging the death of mutual friend and ridding the world of the vampire for good and it is here that the plot, for the most part, hinges.
The story could easily have come to be at any time – it’s this timeless feel that, in part, explains its longevity. The manner of its telling, though, firmly places it in its period and, for the most part, does so in a way that heightens the tension and drama while adding something different to the basic plot.
This device is a series of diary entries and letters between the main members of the ‘cast’ (for want of a better word) that really help in bringing the late Victorian world to life.
In this we see a busy western Europe emerging into a world of new technology but still fighting the older ways that were then (and in many ways remain) its foundation – something reflected in the story as a whole.
So we get entries supposedly in plain pen and ink, typewriter, telegram and even phonograph while speedy travel between Whitby, Exeter, London and Amsterdam is commonplace, which paints a picture of a bustling, connected world.
This is counterpointed by Dracula’s preferred (by conventional necessity) modes of transport of horse and cart and sailing ship that suggest Stoker was a fan of modern technologies but recognised they were not the solution to everything – something embodied by Van Helsing’s methods.
While the diary form is entirely plausible for most of the book, in its climactic scenes it stretches to breaking point as the characters make it clear they are writing as it goes, rather than after the fact. This helps keep up suspense, but is a little unbelievable even in context, though that is a small niggle in a genuinely riveting chase sequence that makes up the ‘third act’ of the book.
While there are a few points across the book where the style of language is a bit staid in comparison to modern styles, and reminded me somewhat of the way Dickens wrote, Dracula holds up well to modern comparison and some of the horror and the issues hinted at feel particularly current.
These issues, ranging everything from religion to gender to sexuality to race and more, depending on what the reader brings to the story, are another aspect that has kept the book alive in the popular imagination so consistently.
On top of everything the final triumph of Dracula is that Stoker used it to pull together centuries of fiction, myth and legend from around the world into something that, if the past century is anything to go by, won’t soon be forgotten.