The One True Vampire Novel

I love Dracula (1897), number 72 on the BBC book list, by Bram Stoker.  It is one of my favorite books, and I have read it several times.  And I would read it again.  One of my favorite memories of these many readings is when I read it with my neighborhood book club in October.  It is the perfect month for such a read.  I am not sure exactly what I love about the novel, but I do love it.

dracula cover

It begins with Jonathan Harker visiting the count’s castle.  He does not realize the danger he is potentially in, but he unwittingly arranges for Count Dracula to travel to England.  There, the count wreaks havoc, attacking women and appealing to insane inmate Renfield’s connection to him.

I have heard several interpretations of the novel, which I am not going to research in detail for this post.  So if I get it wrong, please forgive me.  I have heard that there is some sexual innuendo in Dracula’s biting, particularly the women he preys on.  This is often interpreted as a metaphor for sex. This idea has certainly been taken to a new level with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Not only does she create “good” vampires, but she makes them marriageable and so good in bed, that they break it.  I think her use of sexual tension in the novels is quite brilliant, especially given the origins of vampire stories and the implied sexuality in Dracula.

In addition, I have heard that the novel reflects a sense of xenophobia at the time, when immigrants were coming to the country and “taking over.”  In some ways, this is a theme of any generation.  We all tend to shy away from those who are different, whether that be culturally or racially (or in any other way).  Dracula has applications in our own time.  I see both of these themes, xenophobia and sexuality, as valid interpretations of the novel, but I honestly just enjoy the suspense of the story.

This suspense is achieved through our knowledge of Dracula’s true identity and character, while his victims do not realize the threat he poses to them.  They are in danger but don’t know enough to escape it or prevent it.  That is the perfect recipe for suspense, because we know what might be coming, but the victims do not.  I always want to warn them or yell at the book, but it never does any good.

Mina may be my favorite character, and I love (in a funny way) what Professor Van Helsing says about her: “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina!  She has a man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and woman’s heart.  The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination” (p. 251).  It is a strange way to give a compliment, but certainly a product of the time.  I’d like to think that Mina has a woman’s brain, one that a man would be jealous of even if he were much gifted!

Renfield is an interesting and terrifying character.  He is in a mental institution and keeps flies as pets.  Then he eats them.  He also eats spiders and birds, and wants a cat, but can’t have one.  He’s pretty much the old lady who swallowed a fly.  As his behavior grows increasingly strange, we realize that he is under the vampire’s spell, and that when Dracula is in the country and prowling about, Renfield acts as a thermometer of this danger.

The format of the book is also appealing.  It takes the form of a diary, and includes letters pasted into that diary and other character’s diaries and musings as well.  It makes the first-person narrative believable and interesting.

I have also enjoyed the spinoff of Dracula called The Historian (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova.  It is a large book that seems short because of the excitement and suspense.  Basically, it is popular fiction at its best.  Kostova brings the Dracula story into the current day and creates characters who chase him all over Europe in order to put an end to his reign of terror.  The novel explores the historical and folkloric stories of Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, and has the power to make one believe that Dracula is really running rampant over Europe and that the characters must actually save the world.  The characters have done the research and have the knowledge necessary to stop him.  It is a gripping tale and promotes the idea that knowledge is power and can overcome great evil.  I like that.  Just a little research can change the world!

the historian

Have you read Dracula?  Do you have better insights on it than I do?  Please share!

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72 thoughts on “The One True Vampire Novel

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  1. Dracula is in my top 13 of favourite books (as I have 13 books I love equally and cannot rank them from 1-13). I certainly don’t have any insights to share, I too just know that I love it. The diary format worked so well to build tension. I didn’t know about The Historian, so I’ll have to add this one to my reading list 🙂

      1. I had just finished reading Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and found the monster pity-worthy, so I thought it couldn’t be so bad. Much better than the so-called vampires that have cropped up in recent years.

  2. If anyone wants to listen to it rather than read it (e.g.long journey etc) check out the craftlit podcast (www.craftlit.com) and its sister podcast of “just the books”. Last year Heather and a number of her actor friends did a recording of Dracula where it ended up as more than a straight narration. Little things like recording Van Helsing’s diaries with the background crackle as if you’re listening to the narration recorded to the wax discs – things like that.

    As an English Teacher, Heather gives some additional context around the chapters and what happens,including some phrases that are no longer used, but would have been common to people in Stoker’s time

  3. This post makes me so happy — I just love this book and I don’t think enough people give it a chance — they conflate it with modern vampire fic which is so not it. I love deep lit analysis AND reading for reading’s sake so I like to juggle both views — it’s a great gothic-y horror AND it is a Victorian response to sex (icky!) and immigration (unwanted!).

  4. I read Dracula a couple of months back for the first time and found that I havea love/hate relaionship with it. There were parts that gripped me completely (the first five chapters, for example) and then parts where I felt quite bored and like I was wading through treacle trying to read it.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation! For some reason I never thought to read this, even though I also love a good suspense tale. I’m intrigued that the issue of xenophobia/immigration is treated as well – all the more reason to give this a try.

  6. You know, I’ve never cared for Dracula (which I read in an undergrad lit crit class . . . lots to talk about there) — none of the characters interested me particularly (Mina came the closest). But it was an interesting text for analysis; what caught my attention then was the metaphor of contagion, the fear of contamination (which could certainly be linked with xenophobia). It didn’t put me off vampires entirely, though — I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I always will.

      1. Oh, do! It’s awesome. The first two seasons are a little campy (and sometimes a lot campy), but it’s so much fun. I wrinkled my nose at it for years, until my boyfriend (now husband) told me I should give it a try and I looked it up on wikipedia. Two episodes and I was hooked, especially since I was avoiding studying for my orals. We watched all seven seasons in 3 weeks — it was the only way I could motivate myself through the stress of orals.

  7. Emily, the original is the best, but “true?” I recognize your are being facetious, but there are some people who live in a fantasy world who take this stuff a little too seriously. I am off to have a glass of tomato juice and listen to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” :>) BTG

    1. Ha! Enjoy that tomato juice…. As to “true,” yes I was being funny and trying to come up with a catchy title. But as untrue as fiction inherently is, isn’t that where we find some of the greatest truths? So I would defend my choice and say that yes, this novel is “true” in the way that it explores human relationships and actions, especially in a time of crisis.

      1. Emily, you would have been a great lawyer. I agree with your point. Sometimes given the day and age, that was the only way to talk about things of import. Mark Twain using his novels to show how similar we are even if a different color. Or, the play “South Pacific” showing how you “have to be carefully taught” to be bigoted when it was written in the early 1950s. So, you have easily won me over with your “book smarts.” BTG

  8. I agree with everything you’ve said. Van Helsing is such a fun character and The Historian is great pop-fiction, I remember when it first came out with reviews saying it had the excitement of the Da Vinci Code, only it was well-written. There is so much people think they already know about Dracula (and Frankenstein too) that new readers will be surprised by how good both books are.

  9. I love that your post was on Dracula, which is one of my favorite novels. Did you happen to read the sequel to Dracula by Dacre Stoker? I think it’s called Dracula the Undead.

    I was more than a little disappointed. It’s the same thing that happens to sequels written by someone other than the original author. It’s hard to make the second book “fit.” But it was an interesting study in how the vampire has moved from a dreaded creature of evil to something not quite so horrific. Kind of like what you said about Meyer’s vampires.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed The Historian, too. 🙂

    1. I think both. The story is gripping and interesting and terrifying, but the first time I read it was surprised at how accessible and clear the prose was. I guess I expected something too dense to comprehend just because it is old, but that’s not the case.

  10. Great post – I hadn’t heard of the Kostova book, so will have to seek it out. Dracula is the definitive vampire novel, though by the time Stoker wrote his book the genre was nearly 80 years old – the first vampire story being Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819 (which was originally attributed to Byron) and others including the vast Varney the Vampyre from the mid-century (recently reprinted by Wordsworth Classics, though I’ve not yet read it). But Stoker’s remains the classic! Thanks for this excellent piece.

  11. Actually this novel is difficult for me to read because of its old properties. It needs a lot of background information. The gun, and the idea about woman. I agree with you on Mina, it was interesting in a funny way. Helsing thinks she has a man’s brain. It shows the way to think about a woman at that time. They think woman as a much inferior being than a man.

    And I think Renfield shows the psychological problem. It is not quite clear that those symptoms are correct for the psychological patients but the expression shows what they thought about patients who had psychological problems of the time. To eat bugs! What an idea! Bramstoker should have thought abnormalness of action is a sign for the madness.

    There is a swedish movie “Let me in.” The movie tells a love story between a vampire girl and a boy. One fact about this movie is quite clear. This movie shows the truth the evil cannot come into one’s mind without his/her agreement.

    You must notice Dracula is very rich. He always carry a lot of money. When he goes to London he has money and Harker finds a heap of money in his room on his castle. So, someone thinks Dracula signifies the capitalism it was still strange at that time.

    And the narrative style, you know the first novel in history starts from the epistolary style. Diary is similar to that. Both styles look like secret so the reader have an impression the content is frank, no lying.

    I love the movie of 1992. The interpretation about the relationship between Mina and Dracula is good. Coppola interprets bloodsucking is a lovemaking.

  12. I’m reading Dracula for a school project, and to be frank, I’m not normally into these sorts of books because I find them flat. I think it’s well-planned and interesting, yes – but not horrifying. The writing style is too matter-of-fact to inspire my imagination… I simply didn’t care at Lucy’s death. I don’t know.

    I’m only really managing to stick with it because I find the psychological interpretations fascinating, especially knowing a little bit about Stoker and his life. Is it just me? I feel like I’m on my own with this opinion.

    1. I’m sure you aren’t alone in that opinion. Do you think what you are seeing as flat has something to do with the time period in which it was written? And yes, it really isn’t too horrifying, depending on the context of the reader. I think a young reader would be more upset than an older one, or maybe an “innocent” reader versus a more jaded one.

      1. My boredom is probably due do with the time period it is from. I myself like to read (and write) simpler, more concise prose like John Steinbeck or Fay Weldon. So I can’t really relate to the Victorian proper-ness of Dracula. Add in the fact that the cast takes nearly 300 pages to decide to go hunt the bleedin guy, you can probably imagine how bored I am with it… Although I still find it more entertaining than modern ‘vampire’ novels.

            1. Oh man, I can’t choose! I love The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. I also loved The Pastures of Heaven, some linked short stories. All of his stuff is good. The Pearl. Tortilla Flat. I think my least favorite has been The Winter of Our Discontent. What’s yours?

            2. All of his stuff *is* good, yeah. It’s difficult to pick a single piece. Probably one of the most consistently brilliant writers of modern times. I think my least favourite is To a God Unknown, although it was still pretty enjoyable. Admittedly, I’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath, which is embarrassing, since I consider myself a Steinbeck fan – though I’m in the process of reading it.

  13. I love Stoker’s “Dracula”. It is genuinely creepy and it takes its time in building the suspense. Half the book is trying to save the poor girl. It is funny because Dracula himself actually plays a small role, and I think that adds to the disturbing aspects of his character and behaviors. Can you imagine reading this at the turn of the 20th century when it was written?

  14. This post has made me want to read the book again. I love the atmosphere of it – especially when Harker is travelling through Romania at the beginning and there’s all the description of the surroundings and the peasants. I also love the line where a woman gives him a cross and he makes an internal comment about being a protestant English gentleman and therefore not in need of such things.
    The Historian was very good too. It had that same feeling of slow building tension.

    1. What an excellent observation about the “slowness” of the novel being about tension. That is exactly how I feel about it, and thanks for articulating it for me. 🙂

  15. Wonderful review/discussion Emily:) I read this in college and, of course, loved it. I think an interesting theme up for interpretation is the alter ego. Mina Murray’s alter would be Lucy Westenra and Jonathan Harker’s is Dracula. Even though they are not characters hidden from the other, as is usually the case with an alter ego concept (I’m thinking of Fight Club as one example) it is still a connectable thread that runs throughout the book. I haven’t read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, but I plan on adding it to my Goodreads to-read shelf.

    1. Thanks! What a great interpretation. I like the concept. It is one I hadn’t heard of, and it definitely fits with Dracula. Thanks for telling me about it! And enjoy The Historian.

  16. Hi, thanks for recommending The Historian, I will definitely give it a go. I read Dracula years ago and loved it, but it was only when I studied it last year that I noticed the underlying messages. I have blogged about the colonialism aspect of Dracula but, as you rightly point out, there is scope for so many other themes (especially the sexual innuendo and the female confinement). Stoker himself stated that he was against any sexual innuendo in novels, but personally I think it smacks you in the face when reading Dracula so his claim has failed to convince me that the sexual tension is a mere coincidence!

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