This October, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Few characters are as readily identifiable as Stoker’s titular count, who has now been featured in over two hundred adaptations. Walk into any crowded room in the country, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single person who has never heard of Dracula.
Interestingly enough, when Dracula was published in 1897, readers regarded it as merely a cheap horror novel—a fun read, to be sure, but never destined for greatness. Stoker, in fact, died dirt poor after making next to nothing on the book’s sales. This bit of history always blows me away—think of how much revenue has been generated via Dracula and its numerous adaptations, and yet the man who created the iconic vampire received almost none of it. Then, as evidence that even plagiarism has its benefits, Prana Film released an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula called Nosferatu, which resulted in a lawsuit by members of Stoker’s family. The resulting legal publicity increased awareness of the novel, and then in 1931 Bela Lugosi’s memorable portrayal did its part to further cement the count in popular culture. Vampires have remained a staple in fiction ever since: the 1990s saw the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire, as well as Joss Whedon’s television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1997-2003 (one of my personal favorites). Reading Stoker’s novel provided an opportunity to bring the vampire legend back to its roots, and an experience I enjoyed immensely, so much that I included a brief reference to Jonathan Harker in my short story Malichon Manor.
As to be expected, many adaptations of Dracula have royally screwed with the source material. This is perhaps most apparent in the relationship between Mina Harker and Dracula as depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film. Here, Dracula is portrayed as a tragic and mysterious figure, and Mina Harker the reincarnation of his lost lover. In the novel, however, Dracula is pure evil. He doesn’t love Mina, nor she him, and his only goal is to devour as many victims as possible. Interestingly enough, I think the contrasts between the 1992 film and Stoker’s book serve as a case study in how audience tastes have evolved over time. These days, we like our villains to be complex and relatable; an antihero we can sympathize with. However, while fiction is a great vehicle for allowing us to better understand the many layers within the human condition, I also think it’s important to remember the fundamentals: there is good in this world, and there is evil, and we need people who are willing to stand up for the former in face of the latter. That’s exactly what Dracula’s enemies do, led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing, culminating in a tense climax amid the snow-capped fields of Transylvania.
My favorite sections of the book are the opening passages depicting Jonathan Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula. These scenes build suspense in masterful fashion, starting with the numerous villagers warning Harker about the castle beforehand, followed by Harker’s arrival at the castle amid a pack of wolves, and finally his slow, deliberate discovery of the Count’s true identity. When reading classic literature, I occasionally skim the SparkNotes literary analysis. More often than not, these aren’t worth a tin shit, but I did find one observation to be particularly astute: readers of Dracula today will experience a different form of suspense during this section compared to somebody reading it when originally published. Now, readers are already aware of Dracula’s vampiric identity beforehand, and therefore the suspense comes from anticipating Harker’s eventual realization. A reader in 1897, however, would have experienced dread of a more revelatory nature, his or her own surprise mirroring that of Harker as more details are revealed about the vampire.
As for Dracula himself, I enjoyed noting how many original details have remained consistent in depictions of vampires through today. While it’s difficult to pin down exactly where vampire legends originate from, I can’t help but note similarities to rabies. Sunlight kills vampires; victims of rabies are sensitive to light. Holy water defeats vampires; those with rabies experience hydrophobia. Bats and dogs are known carriers of rabies, and it just so happens that Dracula assumes both of these forms. Last, but certainly not least—the disease spreads from a bite. Therefore, I have to think that victims suffering from rabies in the middle ages contributed at least in some part to vampire legend.
Ultimately, I think Dracula works because it is just plain fun: it’s fast-paced, it has mystery, suspense, romance, and an exciting climax. Without the legal controversy surrounding Nosferatu, and without Lugosi’s memorable portrayal in film, it’s difficult to say whether Dracula would have become the staple of literature it is today—but sometimes, as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. Ultimately, though, for those who only know the Count from film and television, it’s a fun and worthwhile way to bring this timeless story back to its roots.