I’ve signed up for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge for 2012, and I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit but here’s my first review for the Challenge. The Challenge is to read the classic horror and science fiction novels that created the characters in the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which by all accounts is a pretty horrible movie). Mina Harker from Dracula is one of those characters.
I thought reading Dracula after all those years, I’d know exactly what to expect. Not so. Dracula grips you from the opening pages, where young, innocent solicitor Jonathan Harker goes to perform a job for the mysterious Count Dracula in the wilds of the Carpathian mountains. One of my favorite parts of the book is right at the beginning where Jonathan is traveling to Count Dracula’s home. On the way he goes through small villages where the townspeople shower him with gifts of small crosses and other protections. Of course he just thinks they are being strange and superstitious. Stoker builds the tension perfectly as Harker makes his way to the castle, then lets the horror gradually unfold. Then, just when our worry for Harker is at its peak, Stoker takes us to England and continues the story with a whole other group of characters.
The story is told in an unusual way, through a combination of journal entries, letters, and news articles. It works well to show the different character’s perspectives. At some times, as a reader you can see what they don’t necessarily know because you know everyone’s different perspectives. At other times, it builds the suspense because just because a letter from Jonathan reaches Mina (his fiancé) doesn’t mean he’s safe or even still alive.
Dracula is richly researched in terms of the folklore around vampires but it clearly is a commentary as well on the changing times of that era (published in 1897). The characters engage in long discussions about science, psychology, and belief in the supernatural, in addition to changing views of gender and sexuality.
There are two female characters in the novel, Lucy and Mina. In the beginning of the novel, we see through Mina’s letters that Lucy is the woman who has everything: beauty, love, fortune, and hordes of men falling over themselves to propose to her. Mina has Jonathan, as well as intelligence and her ambitions to become a female journalist.
Dracula uses Jonathan’s services to carry out a plan to immigrate to England. In the small seaside town of Whitby, a ship runs aground, an enormous dog is seen running into the wilderness, and large, coffin-like boxes are collected and distributed to various locations. The tale of the shipwreck is told eerily through the captain’s log and the observations of the townspeople.
The perfect, angelic Lucy soon falls prey to the mysterious Dracula; she is found sleepwalking and awakes one night in a cemetery with a tall, thin man bending over her and two puncture wounds in her neck.
Mina is a strong, dynamic character although like Lucy, she is idealized too much by the men around her to ever seem like a real person. Their encounters with Dracula actually make them more interesting, because they are forced to struggle with sides of themselves that are quite unladylike, like a growing appetite for blood, which can be translated into sexuality and power. Maybe that’s why women like vampire stories so much; after all, who wants to be helpless, adored, and pure when they can be powerful and assertive and sexual?
Somewhere around the middle of the book the characters come together, compare all their information, and begin to fight Dracula as a team. It’s at this point (for me) that the suspense and atmosphere that Stoker has built so well begins to dissipate. We are subjected to lots of long speeches by Van Helsing, and the story is told by too many characters (Dr. Seward, Quincy Morris, Lord Godalming) whose letters and journals are hard to distinguish.
The most interesting character in the book may be Renfield, Dr. Seward’s mental patient. Renfield is clearly enslaved in some way to Dracula. He sits in prison capturing flies and spiders and eating them to absorb their “life forces”. Dr. Seward tries all his scientific psychological treatments on Renfield, but to no avail. It’s unclear whether Renfield is an ally to the men but he does provide cryptic information about Dracula, if the men are smart enough to understand him.
Dracula is an exciting book and an interesting reflection on the late 19th century in England. It dragged in parts for me; but only because the first half of the book is so exciting and suspenseful. Above all, Stoker excels at creating the mood of a gothic horror, from the dark castle in the mountains surrounded by howling wolves, to the seaside cemetery in small town Whitby, to dusty basements and a dark, damp mausoleum. This book sets a standard for horror, and creates much of what we know today of vampire mythology.