Approaching a book that has influenced an entire sub-culture is a daunting prospect, and you don’t go into it open minded but armed with an arsenal of expectations and stereotypes. We think we know about Dracula – the coffin, the castle, the Gothic transformations, and his harem of sexy vampettes. He’s allergic to garlic and sunlight, cuts a striking thin figure and talks with a suave foreign accent. His reputation very much precedes him.
So imagine my shock when he makes his appearance several pages in as a creepy Count who is considerably un-handsomer than I’d imagined him to be. He’s perverted and kinda old. Plus, he has a mustache. Not exactly Gerrad Butler in Dracula 2000.
Dracula turns all your preconceptions upside down, and I think the power of the book is in it’s ability to surprise you, to unnerve you and leave you shaken. I’ll freely admit to having nightmares after I finished it, and this is coming from someone who has been knee-deep in vampire stories since Angel marched into my pubescent imagination and refused to leave. There is something creepy about being helpless in your sleep while this dark, dangerous, wild thing preys on you. This is a far cry from modern representations of vampirism as sexy and attractive and misunderstood. Dracula is actually terrifying.
Gothic elements are aplenty in the narrative. We’ve got an asylum, bats, rats, wolves, ruins, graveyards, and Castle Dracula. Also, the very way in which the story is told, through letters, newspaper reports and diary entries, lends strongly to a mood of mystery and suspense. Think of Frankenstein, another classic Gothic horror which is pretty much one big diary entry. This kind of narrative is frustrating for me as a reader because I prefer being given the story outright, instead of having it mediated through second-hand reports. But it is a successful technique for a Gothic novel where the fear lies in the unexplained, in your dreams, in paranoia. Nothing is revealed outright by the characters until it’s too late.
I could gripe about how the middle is too long, about how the men idolize the pure woman and condemn the sexual one, how there isn’t nearly enough of Dracula himself in Dracula and that the end is unexpectedly and disappointingly anti-climatic. But the sheer magnitude and potency of this book is enough to dispel any superficial criticism. Read Dracula to appreciate and remind yourself just how scary a vampire can be. But don’t blame me if you can’t sleep because of it.