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Book Review - Dracula

I wasn't particularly impressed with this book, but it is a classic. Although there were vampire legends going back to prehistoric times, and vampire stories and novels that pre-dated this one, Bram Stoker's Dracula is the book that gave rise to the modern vampire genre and cemented many of the features now associated with vampires, though later film and stage adaptations have modified the image a bit.

The story starts off with a young British solicitor, Jonathon Harker, traveling to Transylvania to help provide legal support to Count Dracula in an international real estate transaction. Specifically, the Count is looking to buy property in England. It doesn't take Harker long to realize that Dracula is not merely a rich nobleman, but by then Harker has been imprisoned in Dracula's castle. The Count does complete his purchase of property in England and relocates there. Once mysterious goings on begin happening in England, it's up to a group of men led by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing to stop Dracula before he can become fully entrenched in his new locale and cause untold suffering.

The book was written in what Wikipedia tells me is an epistolary format. In other words, it was written "as a series of letters, diary entries, ships' log entries, and so forth." Personally, I'm not a huge fan of that type of writing. At times, it can feel contrived, when the author has to include details that wouldn't normally be included in the type of document supposedly being quoted. For example, the description of Dr. Van Helsing from Mina Harker's journal seems much more specific and detailed than something that someone would actually write in a journal.

a man of medium weight, strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest and a neck well balanced on the trunk as the head is on the neck. The poise of the head strikes me at once as indicative of thought and power. The head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy brows come down and the mouth tightens. The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart, such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possibly tumble over it, but falls naturally back and to the sides. Big, dark blue eyes are set widely apart, and are quick and tender or stern with the man's moods.

But even with those portions aside, these types of epistolary stories to me just seem distracting and don't flow as well as stories told by a more traditional narrator.

The story also contained an irritating characterization of a scientist that has by now become the stereotype in movies and TV - despite the overwhelming evidence that something strange is going on, the scientist is skeptical of a supernatural explanation simply because scientists dismiss the supernatural out of hand. I'm not the only one who noticed the digs at science. Here's an excerpt from The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History by Richard Daniel Lehan. I suppose that this is just part of my general problem with Romanticism being a backlash against the Enlightenment.

Warning: Excerpt contains slight spoilers

Dracula's savagery takes on pagan intensity; it is restrained only by religious devices like the crucifix and garlic leaves (connected with the divinity of Christ). Stoker seems to be suggesting, as Richard Wasson has pointed out, that technological progress has cut humanity off from dark knowledge, making civilization increasingly unaware of and hence vulnerable to demonic powers (Wasson, 24-25). As the novel moves toward its conclusion and the death of Dracula, Seward becomes more open-minded and more aware of a balance between the power of cult forces and science, recognizing the limits of the latter. He has seen how vulnerable modern institutions are when viewed through the prism of cult primitivism.

I could go on listing my annoyances with this novel, but instead I'll just link to the Dracula page on TVTropes.org, which lists quite a few of the bad plot devices and tropes used in the story. One of my favorite tropes from that page is something they call the "Idiot Ball", described elsewhere on the site as:

This is generally not a compliment on the writing because the person carrying the idiot ball is often acting out of character, misunderstanding something that could be cleared up by asking a single reasonable question or performing a simple problem-solving action, but that he isn't doing solely because the writers don't want him to. It's almost as if the character is being willfully stupid or obtuse rather than that being the character's natural default character.

I won't include an example here of someone from Dracula carrying the idiot ball because I don't want to spoil the plot for people who haven't yet read the book, but the TV Tropes page gives a good example.

The book wasn't horrible, but I certainly didn't think it was great or worthy of its reputation, either. I suppose it's worth reading because of the influence it's had, but don't expect a masterpiece.

Update 2013-03-06 - Added the Idiot Ball example from TV Tropes, to give an example of what to expect on that page.


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