Sunday, 26 May 2013

For the Blood is the Life

There was one great tomb more lordly than all the rest; 
huge it was, and nobly proportioned. On it was but one word:


116 years ago today (May 26th), Bram Stoker unleashed his masterwork upon an unsuspecting Victorian society. Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books; a cliché perhaps, given my love of the nineteenth century and chilling tales, but it’s an unashamed pleasure. Like the critics back in 1897, I think Dracula is note-perfect in its execution, and a wonderful example of the late-Victorian novel.

It’s strange to think, from a modern perspective, that Dracula was itself homage to an earlier style of writing. Stoker took inspiration from writers such as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and John Polidori (The Vampyre, 1819), to create a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. The pop culture part of my brain says it’s the Victorian equivalent of the movie Tombstone (the one with Kurt Russell), which takes probably all the best western archetypes and squashes them into something better than the sum of its parts. But I digress (again).

What I love about this book (aside from the fact that it’s still pretty creepy, and has one of the best baddies ever, and is everything that Twilight isn’t, thank Christ), is that it truly is a product of its age. The narrative hearkens back to an earlier style, but the story couldn’t be set before the late-Victorian period. Telegrams are integral to the plot in a way that the diary entries and letters of early epistolary writing could never be, lending urgency to a second-hand piece of information. The book features up-to-date (for 1897) medical procedures and psychiatric knowledge. It features social commentary from a perspective of ‘progressive’ Victorian morals (Lucy is punished for being so wanton and silly; her father is never around because he’s forever taking late night walks into town… ahem; and Mina is the true object of love for Harker and Dracula, because she’s a modern woman, a thinking woman, and a model of what Stoker saw as the future). It has subtle references to sexuality and secret desires (and the consequences thereof if you take the blood disease readings of the book to their obvious conclusion).

The rather lovely Barnes & Noble
leatherbound classic edition.
But for all of these subtexts, I think Dracula stands the test of time because it’s a genuinely good read. Sure, it shows its age in the language and characterisation, but nowhere near as much as early Victorian fiction like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. This book was written near the close of the Victorian age, and as such features modern language and, more importantly, modern ideas that might surprise today's reader. As the anniversary of its publication draws near, that lovely leatherbound edition is calling to me, like a wolf on the shore of a Whitby beach. The weather might be warming up outside, but the book never fails to transport me to a stormy winter’s night in 1897, when the doomed ship Demeter washes ashore, bringing with it a hellish cargo…

If you’ve never read Dracula, you’re missing out!

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