Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books or classic speculative fiction books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. I won Dracula in a Twitter competition from Oxford World Classics.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic shocker introduced Count Dracula to the world, an ancient creature bent on bringing his contagion to London, the very heart of the British Empire. Only a handful of men and women stand between Dracula and his long-cherished goal, but they are vulnerable and weak against the cunning and supernatural powers of the Count and his legions. As the horrifying story unfolds in the diaries and letters of young Jonathan Harker, Lucy, Mina, and Dr Seward, Dracula will be victorious unless his nemesis Professor Van Helsing can persuade them that monsters still lurk in the era of electric light.
The most famous of all vampire stories, Dracula is a mirror of its age, its underlying themes of race, religion, science, superstition, and sexuality never far from the surface. A compelling read, rattling along at break-neck speed, it is a modern classic. This new edition includes Stoker’s companion piece, ‘Dracula’s Guest’.
For all my having a BA in English and having mainly read speculative fiction since I was fourteen, I’ve never actually read Dracula before. Yes, that is appalling, I know. It gets worse… I did see the film featuring Gary Oldman as Dracula. And I didn’t really like it that much, convincing me that I probably wouldn’t like the book that much either. Yes, I’m deeply, deeply ashamed of my teenage self. Luckily, I grew up and decided I wouldn’t let myself be scared of creepy films anymore and even more luckily I won a copy of Oxford World Classics’ new Dracula edition, so I could rectify the situation. After reading it, one thing is sure, this vampire does NOT sparkle, though his girls might!
The introduction to the novel by Roger Luckhurst, who also provided the footnotes, was excellent, very entertaining and informative. It was a pleasure to read an introduction that was written recently, as most of my classics have somewhat dated introductory material. The material gave a good overview of both the author and the work, touching on themes such as sexuality, gender roles, politics, race and science. The author concludes the introduction by looking at what came after Dracula and it was interesting to see in how many directions the vampire mythos has travelled and how it hasn’t really ever gone away.
Most interesting to me were the themes of sexuality and science. Not so much the Dracula as a sexual allegory angle, but the way Lucy and Mina rather mirror Dracula in their harems of men. Dracula has his trio of weird sisters and both Lucy and Mina collect a group of men about them, who are completely devoted to them. Actually, I found that rather creepy, the way the men all but put the ladies on a pedestal and adore them in not quite the old-fashioned chivalric way. In the case of Mina, it is both more and less disturbing as the men aren’t as overtly amorously drawn to her as they are to Lucy, as she is already engaged to Jonathan. But it’s exactly that which makes it disturbing; she’s engaged to someone and here are all these men ready to lay down their lives for her. This might just be due to Gothic conventions or it might just be that I’m just not as much of a romantic as I thought, I mean I didn’t get the obsessive Heathcliff/Cathy attraction in Wuthering Heights either. However, what I did like a lot was the scientific approach the party takes, led by Van Helsing, and the details Stoker included. My favourite of which was Mina’s gathering and collating the information from all the sources, as it’s both a narrative ploy and such a valid scientific method. Both the scientific approach and the details made the narrative feel very modern in its own context. They also illustrate the mental split Victorians found themselves in with regard to science and religion and the superstitions of an earlier ages. Though the fact Van Helsing just went back and forth between Amsterdam and London kept somehow surprising me, I kept forgetting that they’d already invented steamboats at this time.
What does Dracula mean for speculative fiction? Everything vampire related seems to spring from him. Stoker might have collated everything that has come before, the folklore and superstitions, but also earlier literary works which used the vampire myth, but his Dracula is a creature all his own and has fathered, figuratively speaking, all that came after him. So do we rejoice that it brought us Buffy and Lestat or do we mourn because it brought us Twilight? I don’t know, everyone will answer that question differently, but I think Dracula has given us an archetypal monster, which has inspired many authors to reinvent it and the vampire mythos and which doesn’t appear to be vanishing soon.
I loved this book. I hadn’t expected to love it, but I did. Once Jonathan entered that coach leaving Bistritz, I got swept along right up till the end. Dracula is a classic, important both to speculative fiction and to Gothic and Victorian literature. It’s a story any speculative fiction reader should at least read once and in this case watching the film doesn’t count! If you won’t take my word for it, take Mark Charan Newton’s, as he insists on the same, albeit in a much more eloquent fashion.