Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review: Dracula

Dracula by Bram Stoker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to one of the several Librivox versions of this novel on my commute, and while one of the readers was notably incompetent (mispronouncing words and misplacing sentence emphasis), I enjoyed it very much otherwise.

It is a 19th-century novel, with all that implies. Firstly, it's a bit overwritten by modern standards. The description of the storm in which Dracula's ship comes to Whitby, for example, could have stood to be a lot shorter, and so could many of the speeches, but reading 19th-century fiction you expect this. If I'd been reading text, I would have skimmed; as it was, I tuned out for a while and came back when the details started seeming significant again.

The characters are also pretty clearly divided into the blackest and the whitest of hats. The description by Dr. Seward of his friend Van Helsing, before Van Helsing actually appears, is laudatory to the point of Mary Sue (and Van Helsing shares a first name with the author). Mina Harker, we are told, is very intelligent and brave, but to the author's credit we are also shown this, and she's the best and strongest character in the book - even hobbled by the sexism of her society.

My remaining criticism is that there's a great deal of coincidence that goes towards keeping the cast compact. Jonathan Harker goes to Castle Dracula in his role as a lawyer to do some conveyancing of a London property for the Count. The Count's ship happens to land at Whitby, where Harker's fiancee (later wife) Mina happens to be on holiday with her friend Lucy, who happens to sleepwalk and so fall into the Count's power. Among Lucy's rejected suitors (she's one of those characters who everyone's attracted to) happens to be Dr. Seward, who happens to run a lunatic asylum right next door to the property that Dracula has bought, and happens to have an old friend (Van Helsing) who knows what to do about vampires. If it wasn't for the large number of lower-class minor characters, mostly unnamed, who are bribed to give information or perform various services, I would have thought the population of Britain was approximately a dozen people.

It's a testament to the author's skill, though, and the power of the character, that even though the eponymous Dracula disappears offstage for most of the book, his presence is still palpable and his choices and actions drive the whole story. There's a genuine air of menace and tension that's well sustained throughout, and comes to a rousing climax at the end. This is a foundational novel for an entire genre (not the first vampire novel, but certainly the best-known of the early ones), and it deserves its classic status.

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