Friday, 12 March 2010

Suckers In The Nighttime - Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula's been bastardised, parodied, pastiched, adapted, used, abused and stretched into so many fictional shapes that it's easy to think you know everything about him. For all that I've been exposed to Dracula via Hammer, Hollywood, the BBC, Kim Newman and innumerable other authors I'd never actually read the source material that inspired it all. A sale in the Local Capitalist Branch of Walmart's World Takeover (aka the local Asda supermarket)changed all that. A meaty classic I'd never read for a quid? Irresistible.

I'd expected the inevitable pacing issues that 113 years since publication might bring; I was right but they weren't anything like I'd expected. Part of Stoker's genius with the novel is telling it in short, epistolary bursts. Not only does this give the novel an immediacy an omniscient narrator lacks, it makes the novel feel pacy, even when there's little actually going on. Stoker's very good at finding individual voices for his characters too, having read no other Stoker I'm convinced the author's hidden himself very well - the downside there is he occasionally resorts to dialect, and it's usually as annoying as when Dickens resorts to Chas n Dave Cockernee. The other element that keeps the novel fascinating is Stoker's flair for the lurid, the feeling maintained throughout the novel that something shocking and dramatic could happen at any moment. Stoker also uses the length of the book expertly, using it to emphasise Dracula's cunning and capabilities, and build him into a terrible, formidable opponent for the book's heroes.

Actually that's not strictly true - the turning point comes around the three quarter mark when the heroes begin to fight back. It's an expertly executed strategy from Stoker - the more we learn about the Count, the less fearsome he becomes. As in the myths that have accreted about them, vampires crumble in sunlight, literally and metaphorically.

The trouble with Stoker having created such an alluring title character though is that of the heroes only Van Helsing is anywhere near as memorable, more energetic and vital than any of his male compadres, Harker, Seward, or Morris, despite being far older than any of them. Similarly, Mina seems to have more fibre than any of those others, being unafraid to face death if the late chase across Europe fails and frankly less wet than her husband, whatever Stoker has others say about his strength.

The ending's not particularly satisfying, but then if Dracula is to be vanquished it can't be - he's near invincible if he gets back to his lair or can change form, and therefore has to be taken at his weakest. Stoker attempts to introduce some jeopardy with a gypsy guard for the sleeping vampire, but it's still something of a fizzling out rather than a grand finale. It's still an enjoyable, powerful novel though, one that could almost pass for one of the holiday read blockbuster novels of today. Sadly for his chances with that market, Stoker made the mistake of having some depth and actual writing skill.

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