Blog - A Year of Dracula, Part 1 - The Novel (+ Ballet)
December 17, 2023
He that can smile at death, as we know him; who can flourish in the midst of diseases that kill off whole peoples. Oh, if such an one was to come from God, and not the Devil, what a force for good might he not be in this old world of ours.
In the last year I've consumed a lot of Dracula media. In October 2022 I saw Orlando Ballet's amazing production of Michael Pink's Dracula.* This performance stuck in my mind and a few months later when I was deciding what to read, I thought i should revisit Stoker's 1897 novel. I read it when I was in middle school but the details were very faded. And 11 year olds are stupid, so I probably would get a lot more out of it now.
I think Dracula is one of those characters that everyone is familiar with via osmosis and pop culture depictions, but I really don't know that many people who have read the original novel. I like thinking about adaptation and how popular stories / characters evolve over time so I figured it would be very interesting to go back to the source. (Lindsay Ellis has a great video about some of these ideas re: Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.)
Dracula is an epistolary novel. The narrative is mostly diary entries and letters between the characters as they band together to fight Count Dracula. The broad strokes of the plot probably don't need to be recapped, but the novel kicks off with Jonathan Harker in Transylvania brokering a deal with the Count to purchase properties in London. Dracula imprisons Harker in his castle and makes his way to England. Vampire mayhem ensues and a group of friends, along with the eccentric Van Helsing, assembles to drive the him out of England. And spoilers: it's pretty good.
The first maybe 10% of the book, dealing with Harker in Transylvania, is a pretty straight up Gothic Horror novel. Once the actions shifts to England, though, it becomes almost like a detective story as the characters gather evidence and try to piece together what is happening and how to stop it. The last quarter or so becomes a chase through Europe with the ticking clock of Harker's wife, Mina, slowly turning into a vampire after being bitten. The group has to destroy Dracula before he gets back to his castle or he will just hole up for the next century and Mina will become one of the undead The hunters might otherwise have been content to let him go once they had driven him out of England.
I wouldn't say any of it is scary, per se, but there are some creepy parts, particularly Chapter 7, the log of the doomed ship Demeter that is transporting the Count to England. I also found the scenes where the men go to Dracula's London properties to destroy his boxes of earth genuinely tense as they have no idea what they're in for and whether they might actually run into him.
There are some pretty effective "Oh...no..." moments in it, which is kind of impressive for a work that has been popular for so long. (And that I've read before.) It's hard to gauge what the original audience would have thought of all of this, especially the detective novel aspect, since vampires and Dracula in specific were not a pervasive part of the public consciousness. For a modern reader, it definitely can be hard to remember that these characters don't know what a vampire is. When Renfield talks about the Count showing up as a cloud of mist, we say "Yep, vampires do be like that" but was that originally a huge "oh shit" moment? I don't know.
The epistolary structure of the novel is actually woven into the narrative, when Mina decides they should compile all of their accumulated notes and letters to hammer down the timeline and figure out clues as to what Dracula's intent and abilities might be. It gives the sense that the novel isn't a work by Stoker the author, but by Mina the character.
"The man himself"
The most surprising thing in reading Dracula is that the title character is not in it very much. After the action shifts out of Castle Dracula, you see him directly maybe 5 times? And all very briefly. He absolutely looms over the entire book but he's not physically present for most of it.
It's amazing then how much he caught on, with most adaptations making him essentially the main character.
It's also interesting that the "vampires explode when sunlight hits them" just isn't in the book. He can't shape shift during the daytime, but has no trouble walking around and the characters encounter him up and about in broad daylight twice.
I don't know when the sunlight thing was injected into vampire lore. Was it invented for the movies, or did it predate the novel and it was just something Stoker didn't bother with? At some point, I'll probably get sucked into a rabbit hole looking at which bits of vampire lore Stoker came up with, which were always kicking about, and which were invented later.
And while we're on pop culture vampire traits that aren't present in the novel: Dracula isn't framed as seductive at all. Mina is actively repulsed by him, even before she knows what he is. Princess Weekes in her excellent video essay "How Mina Murray Became Dracula's Girlfriend" talks about two precursors to Stoker's book, The Vampire (1819) and Carmilla (1872), which might have been syncretized with Dracula as the pop culture version of Dracula takes traits from the characters in those other stories.
Watch her whole video. It's great, and, as the title suggests, she talks a lot about the transformation of Mina over time.
Speaking of Mina...
In an ensemble novel with a fairly large cast, Mina Harker (née Murray) stands out to me as the best character. I would argue she, more than anyone else, is the protagonist.
The narrative bends toward her once she shows up. Jonathan, the protagonist in the first part, is almost a background character by the end. Mina is a driving force, motivated to stop Dracula for what he did to her friend Lucy, she is the raising of the stakes when she gets bitten, and so much of the dialog is about how much the men all love her. The last line of the novel is about Mina:
“We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.”
In a lot of ways Dracula is her story.
The three main POV characters are Mina, Jonathan, and Dr. Seward, the psychologist who runs the asylum near one of Dracula's properties. Seward is also a suitor to Lucy, Mina's best friend and Dracula's first victim in England. I'm not sure what the narrator breakdown is, and weirdly even in a time of obsessive fandom cataloging I didn't find one online, but a quick and dirty look shows Seward has the most entries, followed by Mina, then Jonathan. That's just entries, I didn't look up page count.
Mina, though, by impact sure feels like she has the biggest part. Maybe it's the nature of her voice. Her sections were the most engaging to me as Mina feels the most well rounded and relatable of the characters. She's up front about her worries and emotions and she's kind of the only one who gets to really react to things in any depth. Jonathan, while he dominates the first four chapters, is singularly focused on how screwed he is at Dracula's castle, and he takes a back seat after his return to England. Seward tends to be very clinical, appropriate for a Doctor who prizes empiricism, and is more of a tool for Stoker to deliver the plot.
The book definitely has some Victorian sensibilities regarding Mina, with the male character doing the "women are delicate creatures to be cherished and sheltered from things" bit, but at the same time the men aren't framed as being right and the narrative punishes them for excluding her. (e.g. Them keeping things from Mina gets her bitten by Dracula, among other things.)
She is definitely the moral center of the group. She's understanding and perceptive and even after she's been bitten, she shows a deep empathy. She has a sense of justice that goes beyond just vengeance. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she does end up managing most of the group's emotional load and keeps them focused. This is all pretty standard Victorian gender role stuff but where it get a little subversive is the injection of those Victorian ideas into one of the most active agents in the novel.
She's arguably the most capable character and things start to tilt in the group's favor when the men start including her. She's pretty much the brains of the whole operation. Compiling the diary entries as an investigative tool is her idea. Using hypnosis to track Dracula via their psychic link after he bites her is her idea. She never loses her shit either, even when facing the prospect of becoming a vampire.
In her relationship with Jonathan, she is an equal. And he's way more of a nervous wreck than she ever is. I guess it's understandable, as he'd been through the ringer, but it still was kind of a surprising inversion of expectations.
The other characters all are explicit at how awesome Mina is and how much they respect her ability. Towards the end Van Helsing says to Jonathan "Take heart afresh, dear husband of Madam Mina," reversing the usual practice by addressing him in relation to his wife. Van Helsing also says she has a "man's brain" with a "woman's heart," which is pretty yikes, but for a story written by a man in 1897 it's a high compliment.
The entire novel is surprisingly egalitarian, with regards to Mina, anyway.
She also has one of my favorite lines in the novel, re: pity for even a monster like the Count:
“Jonathan dear, and you all my true, true friends, I want you to bear something in mind through all this dreadful time. I know that you must fight—that you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter; but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.”
And she's right. As she watches Dracula be destroyed she says:
“I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”
Yeah. Mina rules.
"I knew him at once from the description of the others."
One aspect of the book that is odd after so many pop culture depictions is how Mina and Dracula only meet once, when he bites her. Mina having some sort of connection or attraction with Dracula is an idea injected in later adaptations with some going so far as making her the reincarnated lost love. (I really hate that trope, by the way, and was glad to not see it in the novel.) It's also extra icky because in the novel Dracula symbolically rapes her. He's the author of all her pain and trauma.
Princess Weekes's video goes into some of the reasons this might be as well as looking into how the characterization of Mina has changed and flattened over time, going from active agent to more damsel / prize to be fought over. I can't recommend that video enough. (Weekes also has a very interesting discussion on how Lucy's characterization has changed over the years as well.)
We always assume these olden authors are going to be the backwards ones, but the path of Mina through the years shows us regressing the character even as we get deeper into modernity.
Some Random Thoughts
The Indifference of Cities
There's a scene in central London that I thought was kind of funny. The men have only one more property of Dracula's to cleanse, but unlike the others which were abandoned, this one is in busy Piccadilly Circus. When formulating a plan, they worry about getting arrested breaking in to the place, and then they just kind of realize that London's a big city. If they just act confident, people are just going to go on about their day because "Surely these well dressed gentlemen aren't brazenly breaking and entering. Surely they're supposed to be here." And they have a Lord with them who can bullshit them out of it if needed. It doesn't come to that and they just get into the property with no issue (other than they stumble into Dracula there), but it was amusing that they had that realization about urban life. It felt...modern?
Van Helsing and Comic Relief
Van Helsing isn't the cackling maniac that Anthony Hopkins plays him as in the 1992 movie (a performance I do enjoy a lot, by the way). There's not much levity at all in the novel but Van Helsing, with his amusing malapropisms, sometimes provides some light whimsy.
However, ‘the milk that is spilt cries not out afterwards,’ as you say.’
There's absolutely no equivalent to the very funny smash cut in the 1992 movie when Mina asks how Lucy died. This video may not be up forever but here's the scene 1:27:49 already queued up. I absolutely laughed out loud at this scene when I rewatched it in December. It was a jarringly funny scene (in a good way) in a movie that was really heavy. (And gross)
Also I felt the writing of him as non-native English speaker was handled pretty well. It wasn't as dramatic as an eye dialect*, but he occasionally conjugated verbs incorrectly and had some odd sentence construction. It was enough to differentiate his dialog but I didn't feel like it was overdone.
*eye dialect - deliberate non-standard spelling to emphasise how a word is pronounced. Think Huck's speech in Huckleberry Finn or Magwitch's in Great Expectations.
Don't Mess with Texas
One of the vampire hunting group is Quincey Morris, an American. To quote Weekes, "His whole personality is "From Texas" and he loves guns."
I'm not sure if Stoker was making a point about Americans or not, but it's kind of funny to think he was.
The portrayal of the Romani in the book is a little.... well it's probably captures how shitty people were to the Romani in the 1890s, doesn't it?
The Plot Contrivance
There's one really big plot contrivance in the novel, and that's Dracula's ship happening to crash into the harbor at Whitby, where his prisoner's wife happens to be, and him deciding to feed on her best friend for reasons unclear. Lucy's involvement is what brings everyone into the plot but it is weirdly disconnected from the Jonathan stuff the novel started with.
It didn't bother me, but it is something that occurred to me.
The final defeat of Dracula is a little anticlimactic if looked at from an action perspective. Unlike the 1992 film, where the sun sets just as the group catches up to him and he bursts out to fight them, in the novel they catch him before he wakes up. But it is handled well and the framing, as the event is viewed from Mina at a distance, gives it a desperate voyeuristic feel. She can't affect what's going to happen now and just has to let it play out, and hope. She, and the reader by extension, is left with an "it's up to God now" kind of fatalism which brings its own form of tension. I think it's a similar desperate vibe the movie got through an action packed ending in a visual medium.
Would I Recommend?
Yes. Read it. Not just because it's seminal. It's also pretty good.
*Addendum - The Ballet
After I finished writing about the novel, I realized the ballet that inspired me to re-read it deserved more than a passing comment. And since it's a direct adaptation of Stoker's 1897 novel, rather than a pastiche on the character as seen in 100+ years of media, I can thematically justify talking about it here. (And forgive me, I don't know very much about ballet, so I don't have the lexicon to describe it in a way that does it justice.)
The ballet Dracula was created in 1996 by British choreographer Michael Pink during his time at the Northern Ballet in Leeds, England. (Side note: in 1989 he created "Strange Meeting" which is a one act ballet based on the works of Wilfred Owen. Wilfred Owen is one of my favorite poets; I would really like to see a production of this some time)
While it condenses some characters and the plot diverges pretty significantly from the novel in the last third or so, I think it is an excellent adaptation. A ballet is obviously very different than a novel and this version takes advantage of the new medium. It's intense, harrowing, creepy, occasionally scary. And the score is fantastic.
It opens with Harker in bed, tormented by his time in Transylvania. The stage is sparse with just his bed, but very quickly the stage fills with mist and as the music gets more ominous and intense, werewolves scurry onto his bed and the scene fills with nightmares. Eventually Mina's corpse is brought to him then comes alive in a perversion of a wedding ceremony, with corrupted clergy and all. The music and dancing get more and more frantic and it culminates in Mina taking a giant stake in the shape of a crucifix and plunging it into his chest as the lights go out and the title drops. It was four minutes in and I was completely hooked. Harker's trauma was palpable. It was probably the most intense thing I'd ever seen at the ballet.
Dracula himself is played... hypnotically? He's pretty ghoulish looking but his dancing, at least to me, was very otherworldly, almost serpentine, maybe? His movements are very different than the rest of the cast. The effect was amplified by Dracula, played by Jon Abenanty, being way taller than everyone else in the cast.
Dracula clearly has some hypno-mind powers, shown very strikingly during the ballroom scene with Lucy. It starts with a light, fun, ensemble dance with Lucy and her suitors, and then the atmosphere starts to change when flashing lights signal the storm that brings Dracula to shore. When he appears at the top of the staircase, everyone except Lucy goes into super slow motion and she, enthralled, slowly makes her way up to him. It was a very impressive and unsettling scene.
Another standout moment is the end of Act 2 at the asylum when Lucy dies. The characters gather around her dead body and as the music trails off, Van Helsing/Seward either goes to kiss her forehand or places a crucifix on her (I couldn't see from where i was sitting) and she lets out the most bloodcurdling scream, convulses, and then goes berserk and attacks them while the score thunders back in. It was genuinely shocking, I jumped in my seat. And bonus for Dracula suddenly appearing on the catwalk in the background, looming over them while it goes down.
The ending scene, while very different than the book, is also great. The music, the dancing, everything. It felt apocalyptic. Dracula has kidnapped Mina to the vault of Carfax Abbey. Undead are everywhere. The vampiric Lucy arrives with Renfield, who they tear to pieces and eat. Everything is fucked.
The ending is much more ambiguous than in the novel. Dracula is destroyed at the cost of Quincy, as in the novel, but the staging and the music had a bleak, sorrowful tone. And the show ends with Mina in spotlight, mournfully touching her neck where Dracula bit her. Is she free of the curse? Are the undead (and Lucy), who scurried away when the heroes burst into the vault in a blast of explosives and sunlight, still out there?
I don't know. Neither do the heroes.
And that's great.
One of the awesome things about live theater is that it exists in the moment. You're in the same room as the performers and the audience gives it an extra energy, especially in an incredibly tense show like Dracula. The downside is that while I cannot recommend this show enough, it's not something you can just go out and consume. So, if you ever see it's playing, go see it. Please.
The full thing seems to be on vimeo here, but it really doesn't capture the feeling of seeing it in person. But take a look if you're even a little curious.