Thu
Nov 8 2012 10:20am

Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker! Everyone’s Still Re-Writing Your Book.

Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker! Everyone’s Still Re-Writing Your Book.I’ve never had a reading list; if I created one I would have a list of 500 books before I’d even started in, and I don’t like having my reading patterns pared down to a queue. So I have a general idea in my head of what I’m going to tackle next with the understanding that I can change that ephemeral inventory any time and pick up something completely different if the mood strikes me.

With that in mind, I felt properly spontaneous when I decided that it was time to read Dracula a couple months back. I already had a copy available to me, so I cracked into it excitedly and prepared myself for what was to come. It’s Dracula, after all. Everyone knows Dracula. He’s the man, the one you brag about hanging out with to all your friends. Spike, Edward, and Lestat are those poor relations that people disown when they’re not around on holidays.

Unfortunately, I ran into trouble in the very first chapter of the book. Jonathan Harker is traveling to the Count’s castle by train and coach while the Romanian population looks on nervously, fearing for his safety. There’s a lot of description of the land and clothing and all the people making gestures of protection and weather patterns and Harker wondering what could possibly be wrong and could we please just make it to the castle to see the Count?

I felt terrible, primarily because there is absolutely nothing wrong with Stoker’s narrative or pacing. In fact, were I in the right frame of mind, I would have probably enjoyed all the asides about Romanian culture and history and funny hats. I would’ve appreciated the slow burn leading up to the reveal of the Count’s home and absorbed that lingering concern that Mr. Harker is so desperately trying to rid himself of. On the other hand, I know what I’m in this story for, and it’s not to empathize with Jonathan Harker’s plight. I’m in it to imagine the heavily accented intonations of a poiny-toothed, noble-born murderer.

I’m in the story for Dracula because I’ve spent my entire life barraged by images of him, trained to recognize his unsubtle influence on every vampire tale I’ve ever come across. I’ve seen this story on film at least three different ways, and all the funny relations that came after it. I know who Dracula is; in point of fact, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know who he was.

And that’s what made the book so difficult to get through.

For whatever reason, I did not have the same problem with Frankenstein (detailed here), but it is a victim of the same tragedy. I can’t begin to count the number of people I know who proclaim their aggravation with Shelley’s best known work, citing annoyance with the framing device (the doctor’s diary entries), the slow pacing, the fact that the book is more about Frankenstein’s debilitating guilt and fear than his unlucky monster. It’s easy to understand. Even if you haven’t seen the original Frankenstein film, you can’t get away from that culturally embedded moment in blurry white and black, the doctor in the white lab coat spinning around with wild eyes and shouting “IT’S ALIVE!” You probably saw it in another film, or several other films—it’s homaged every year somehow.

This is not an indictment of pop culture and its tendency to appropriate great literary tales for its own nefarious purposes. After all, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula contains a creeping, subtle pacing that would drive most modern viewers crazy within the first half hour, and it’s a frankly brilliant film. But it raises an interesting question: has modern horror altered our perceptions so much that we have a hard time remembering why the old master strokes of the genre were scary at all?

Remakes of horror staples are always action packed and occasionally full of camp (The Mummy, Van Helsing, I’m looking right at you). Even Interview With A Vampire had it’s fair share of mansion fires and fight sequences. And now that vampires have become the darlings of the urban fantasy genre, we’re getting more reconstructions of the vampire myth than we can count on all our fingers and toes. They run at super-speeds, they don’t care about garlic or crosses anymore, they might be able to survive on the blood of animals if they’re feeling nice or guilty, they come from all over the world and are probably, like, a thousand years old.

Who else feels a little dizzy?

It didn’t used to take that much to make us jump. When the original film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was released (both movies are horrible, please don’t watch them), Gray’s decrepit, grotesque portrait was put on display at a gallery; it was so frightening to the public that women were reported to have fainted at the sight of it. Years ago we only needed to see the man, the moon, and then the werewolf, but now we want to witness the transformation in all its bone-crunching agony. And even that’s not particularly terrifying—if anything, it allows us to feel some sympathy for the creature.

Thinking of all these things, I tried to clear my head and forge onward in Dracula. It was time to pretend I’d never heard of this story before, to try and let my sense of dread build as though I had no idea what was coming next. I’m sad to report that I was not entirely successful, but I became keenly aware of the problems created by “pop culture bleed.” Is that a term? It should be.

And you know what? Dracula was scary. Perhaps not in the current Hollywood sense, but in a lasting one. There’s a reason why his caped figure constitutes a granddaddy narrative that all of these vampires yarns ultimately hang on. It’s something we should talk about. Often I think that school curriculums avoid titles like this because they think these figures are covered well enough in the public domain. They’re wrong; having seen Young Frankenstein doesn’t mean you know a thing about Mary Shelley’s classic. Seeing a musical based on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde doesn’t make you an expert on Robert Louis Stevenson’s vision. These are complex tales detailing our most basic fears, and a group of peers might help us extract more meaningful conversations from them.

In fact, the book itself might be more enjoyable if you know someone else reading it. Have a party and watch vampire movies on the side. Drink sanguine cocktails. Dress in black and keep the shades drawn. Getting in the mood certainly can’t hurt.

Because whether or not you’re into lengthy descriptions about the Romanian countryside, Dracula occupies a very special place in our collective consciousness. It’s time we give Bram Stoker’s creation its due.


Emily Asher-Perrin is part Romanian, so she supposes Dracula was relevant to her ancestoral education. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

12 comments
Chris Long
1. radynski
I read Dracula last year over Christmas break and I did not exactly enjoy it, but for the opposite reasons. I went into the book already knowing most of the story and characters (and what their roles in the story would be). So my problem had nothing to do with waiting for the monster to show.

In fact, I LOVED the first half of that book. I could immediately see why this book became so embedded in our culture. The atmosphere that he creates with Harker's journey to the castle (and subsequent adventures/escape) are done brilliantly. If I had no idea what Dracula was ahead of time, I think I would have been thoroughly creeped out.

Equally good is the story of Mina and her poor friend (Lucy?). Their experiences continue to provide an amazing narrative balance and keeps the reader on their toes. And let's not forget Renfield and Dr. Seward. The irony in those scenes is so great that it makes you almost want to scream at the characters.

So what didn't I like?

For me, the book hits a brick wall once all of the characters finally gather together and beginning talking to each other. This seems so counter-intuitive, but I got really bored. For the second half of the book, they spend FAR more time talking about their plans than actually doing them.

I was so bored with the book by the end that I really struggled just to finish it. And on top of that, there's no satisfying conclusion at all. They chase down Dracula, catch him before he makes it to the castle, and kill him in his coffin. After forcing myself to make it to the end of the book, this was incredibly disappointing and anti-climatic to me.

But the first half of that book? Amazingly creepy and well-done.
Alex Bledsoe
2. alexbledsoe
I re-read this every year before Halloween. Clearly I don't have Emily's problem with "pop culture bleed," but I do agree it is a problem, and that's an awesome name for it.

But like those students who don't like Hamlet because it's full of cliches like "To be or not to be," Dracula simply requires a leap of imagination by the reader before s/he even gets started. You have to read the book that's there in front of you, and block out all the media permutations of the last century or so. When you do, you find that you don't really know the story, that there's more here than you expect, and that if you open yourself to what Stoker did, rather than what a hundred years of pop culture mutated it into, your experience is much more rewarding.

In my opinion, that is. Your mileage may vary.
Lauren W
3. laurene135
I just finished reading Dracula for the first time a few weeks ago. I did not have the problems you faced, but not because of lack of pop-culture bleed. I get drawn into stories really deeply and have a pretty okay time taking the story on as its own.
Pop-culture bleed is a big problem, but I think pop-culture with all the fancy effects and face pased plots is a bigger problem. We seem to have settled on startling and gross horror and avoid the slow burn of a creepy horror that really sticks with you.
Oh, and I _loved_ the way the Vampire Sisters entered a scene. Brilliant and creepy. I loved how slow but inevitable it was. To me, the powerlessness off seeing something terrible coming and not being able to really stop it, is creepy.
Aimee Powalisz
4. longhairedspider
I love this book - I'll say it flat out. I love the framework of the story, the creepy vibes, everyone's diaries, all that jazz!

But I can understand how it could be problematic to read without thinking about all other vampires you might know. I bought it as a present for my younger brother (born 1985) and he thought it was the most boring thing in the world. I gave a copy to my husband, and he's been trying to read it for the past two years. It's just not everyone's cup of tea.

I remember that the first time I read it, I thought it was horribly boring and not scary at all. The second time I read it, I was 14, in the basement at night, and I was so scared I had to read it with my back against the wall so no vampires could sneak up on me.
CatBookMom
5. CatBookMom
I highly recommend listening to the multi-cast audiobook of Dracula, starring Simon Vance, Tim Curry, Alan Cumming and several other outstanding narrators. There are no sound effects added, but listening rather than reading definitely adds another, terrific aspect to the story.
CatBookMom
6. Mary Beth
I fell in love with Jonathan Harker on the first page, when he enjoys a dish of chicken paprikash and takes a memo to get the recipe for Mina. (When members of my family go on trips, most of our correspondence involves luxuriously described menus of the dishes we ate and how we plan to recreate them for the next family gathering.) After that, Dracula was really a side-note for me; I wanted to read more about these two awesome people who are smart and funny and very much in love.

I was very amused to get to the description of the Count, though, and to see how much pop culture has changed our image of Dracula. Guess hair on the palms is more silly than scary these days!
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
I think the problem for modern readers with reading Dracula is that, Dracula being forever enmeshed in the victorian period in everybody's mind, most people fail to realize just how modern it is.
I read Dracula for the first time not very long ago - perhaps 3-4 years ago. At the very outset, on page two or three, the word vampire is already mentioned. Strange move if Stoker was attempting to hide the nature of Dracula from the reader - so I have to assume he didn't . And it's clear, reading it, that vampire lore was already known to most readers, and that it's not the novelty of the vampire concept in itself that captivated readers.
So, what was it that made Dracula an instant classic? It was the clash of the old world monster and the modern world. The story uses every conceivable gadget that existed at the time - voice messages recorded on phonogrpah cylinder, cameras, fast transportation, blood transfusions, and typewriters.
There's also the rational treatment of classic vampire lore - a large part of the novel is devoted to Dracula's ingenious plan of how he's going to move to England and overcome the restrictions forced upon him by his nature (he is bound to his original burial ground, for example, something more recent vampire stories disregard) - and the group's later use of Mina's psychic connection with Dracula to chase him across Europe.
So, forget about the Dracula you think you know. Forget the old-world charm, the cape, the theatricals. This is not a gothic horror novel. It's a modern thriller that portrays a game of wits between a very smart and capable monster and a team of monster hunters.
That said, Dracula is not without its creepy moments. Renfield's strange obsession with consuming the "life force" of animals. The captain's log of the ship that brings Dracula to England. Mina's trances. Lucy's post-death excursions. the brides. Some of it has been seen in other works since then but some images can still creep out a modern reader.
CatBookMom
8. WOL
I think one problem modern readers can have with both the Dracula and Frankenstein books is that they were written in a time when there was no TV, radio, internet, film, or recorded music to compete for people's leisure time. The pace of life was slower. (Transportation methods were much slower, and time en route translated to days of enforced waiting time -- Compare weeks on an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic to a 5-6-hour plane ride.) People had time to read, and reading a book aloud to others was a form of entertainment frequently indulged in not only by families but at gatherings of one's friends. The books were slower paced, which can be aggravating to antsy modern readers who want the author to "stop messing about and get on with it!" A different narrative style was used that was rich in detail and description because the reader is expected to use his/her imagination to" make their own movie. " Yes, Stoker gets all travelog - y and goes into detailed descriptionions about the Rumanian countryside and people. His readers did not have the "visual vocabulary" that modern readers have acquired through TV, films and videos, and the internet so he could not take any "shortcuts" like modern authors can. We forget that Frankenstein was published (1818) before photography was invented (1826). While the Victorians had photography, they did not have recorded music or motion pictures ultil late in the period. Which points up the factor of context. The context -- that which the author can assume is "common knowledge" to the reader -- of everyday life has changed a great deal. The stuff of everyday life in Shakespeare's time is so different from our own that what Shakespeare assumes his contemporary audience knows, his modern audience has no clue about any more. Even in Shelley's time, the context of daily life is different enough from our own that we still get caught in the trap of the author's assuming we know things that we don't know. And the flipside of that coin is that authors can also assume that certain things would be strange to their readers and that they would not know about some things which we modern readers do, in fact, know about. Consequently we find the author's descriptions boring. Reading books written before the "modern" era can be tricky for modern readers. We have not only to put our heads into the book, but into the time period the book was written. Even so, what contemporary readers took away from a book is sometimes very different from what modern readers take away from it.
Maitrey Deshpande
9. LittleWolf
I loved this article. I'd been grappling with similar thoughts ever since I recently read Dracula (and Frankenstein) for an online SciFi-Fantasy Lit course. Pop-Culture bleed defintely sums everything up nicely.

I agree with Michael_GR@7, Dracula is more of a thriller containing the cutting edge technology of those days, than a horror novel per se. Not to say there are some definite horror scenes in the book --the wolf which visits Lucy is a favourite-- but most of the book contains plotting and planning which can easily bore a modern reader.

Overall for literary merit, Frankenstein outscores Dracula.
CatBookMom
10. a1ay
So, what was it that made Dracula an instant classic? It was the clash
of the old world monster and the modern world. The story uses every
conceivable gadget that existed at the time - voice messages recorded on phonograph cylinder, cameras, fast transportation, blood transfusions, and typewriters.

And shorthand! Write your diary in shorthand, and vampires won't be able to read it.
A lot of the new technology is central to the plot, too. (Exception: voice recording. There's no reason for Seward not to just write up his notes in longhand... but it's cooler if he uses the latest 19th century high tech.)
With its emphasis on teamwork and cooperation, and its generally optimistic outlook, Dracula is more of a monster story than a slasher story. The message isn't "Only one of us will survive the encounter, let's split up!" it's "If we band together and forget our differences, we can beat this thing."
alastair chadwin
11. a-j
There's also a class/religious thing going on, I suspect. The protestant, middle class professionals versus the catholic aristocratic vampire.
CatBookMom
12. GuruJ
Wow, great article ... but the comments are blowing me away!!!

Thanks all, some nice extra perspectives.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment