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 curricula 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.
Originally published in November 2012.