Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, remains the most influential vampire story ever written; in spite of a few Victorian conceits that date the novel, it is still one of the greatest horror novels ever published. Written in the first person through the medium of collected journal entries and letters reflecting the perceptions of its mortal participants, it tells the tale of the Transylvanian vampire’s effort to claim London as his new hunting ground. The story is nothing less than an abortive invasion of the rational and comfortable world of the fin de siécle by a shadowy champion of superstition left over from the Middle Ages.
The novel begins with the final leg of Jonathan Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula at the frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Harker, an employee in a London law firm, has been sent to complete a business transaction begun by Renfield: a local nobleman known as Count Dracula has undertaken to purchase some land around London. Renfield had served as Dracula’s agent, but in the wake of the man’s sudden psychological collapse, the law firm sent Harker to finish the purchase.
Harker’s arrival begins a descent through the uncanny into the truly horrifying. The local peasants view Dracula with undisguised dread. A sinister coachman arrives to convey him by night into Castle Dracula, where Harker meets his host and completes his business, always by night. Dracula induces Harker to linger for a while, playing on his late Victorian sense of propriety. Unable to refuse gracefully, Harker remains, becoming witness to an escalating sense of the darkness at Castle Dracula: his host seems like a man, but in important ways he is not, possessing strange powers and strange moods. Nor is Dracula the only being of his kind at the castle; three females also lurk there, and would have consumed Harker if not for Dracula’s intervention. The crowning horror is that Harker’s life was spared only by the substitution of that of an infant.
Dracula has collected a series of boxes containing Transylvanian earth. These boxes were to be shipped to England and delivered to his properties, providing him with havens all around the city. He would be making the journey himself inside one of them. Harker stumbles upon this fact at last, ensuring that he would not be permitted to leave the castle freely.
Back in London, Harker’s fiancee, Mina Murray, awaits his return. Significantly, her friend, the wealthy socialite Lucy Westenra, has been courted by three men: successful doctor Jack Seward, Texan of leisure Quincey Morris, and British nobleman Arthur Holmwood, soon to be Lord Godalming. These three are already friends, and their friendship survives despite Lucy’s culturally correct choice of Holmwood. Seward will provide the final links in the chain centered around Lucy: he is the doctor in charge of Renfield’s perplexing case, and he is also the protege of famed speculative physician, Abraham van Helsing.
Dracula sails for England through the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, feeding on the crew of the Demeter along the way. The vessel eventually arrives at Whitby in a sudden storm as a veritable ghost ship, with the crewmen all missing, save for the helmsman, who was found dead, lashed to his post. The only ostensibly living thing on board was a large dog, which bolted from the ship as soon as it made landfall. In this way, Dracula got past human witnesses.
Fatefully, Dracula has chosen to do more than simply to feed on Londoners and hide in well-chosen spots at the city’s periphery; he has also chosen to cultivate more vampire brides to attend to him in his new domain, and the first is Lucy Westenra. In Stoker’s vision, the creation of a new vampire is not a rapid transformation, but a slow and agonizing process easily mistaken for chronic anemia. Mina and Lucy’s three former suitors attend upon her in her mystifying illness, but nothing they do helps her.
Mina is summoned to Transylvania by an Hungarian nun, who sent word of Jonathan’s sudden reappearance. Jonathan had managed to escape from Castle Dracula, but he was found feverish and confused. Mina rushes across the Channel to be at his side, and they are married.
Meanwhile, Seward calls in his old teacher, Dr. van Helsing, to help him with Lucy. Van Helsing quickly exhausts conventional medical options and begins to suspect a supernatural agency at work, but not before Dracula finally claims Lucy as his own. To all appearances, Lucy has died, but not long after her burial, a shadowy female figure known as the “bloofer lady” is seen preying on local children. Van Helsing understands that this is Lucy, returned as a vampire, and persuades her erstwhile suitors to aid him in putting down this vampire.
The double death of Lucy brought van Helsing together with several strong men capable of fighting against a vampire, and with the return of the Harkers, with important information about where Dracula has laid his havens. Renfield, increasingly agitated by the proximity of his vampiric master, is even the source of some useful information. Van Helsing set about the destruction of each of Dracula’s havens; unbeknownst to the men, Dracula has simultaneously set about the transformation of Mina Harker into a vampire. The process was already well underway before the men discovered it. Once discovered, it was too late to do anything else but to concentrate on destroying Dracula.
They succeed in driving Dracula from England, but not yet in killing him, and only that would do if Mina were to be saved. Dracula returned home by the same shipping route by which he came; van Helsing and his supporters meant to take advantage of modern technology, from the telegraph to the locomotive, to catch him before he found safety at Castle Dracula. Even so, this proved no easy task to accomplish, because Dracula’s Szekler servants were fierce and clever foes.
Van Helsing, accompanied by Mina, preceded the rest in reaching Castle Dracula, and there he slew the vampire Brides while they slept by day. The younger men pursued the Szeklers with Dracula’s coffin, hoping to destroy it before night fell and Dracula was again free. The final confrontation came by the last rays of sunlight, in sight of Castle Dracula. The effort cost the life of Quincey, but together he and Jonathan manage to kill Dracula just before the sun left the sky.
With its theme of an ancient evil invading the modern, rational world, Dracula is an important model for all supernatural horror fiction. It is no less important, however, for the use of brave moderns to combat that ancient evil, alternately calling upon forgotten lore and modern technology to win that fight. Most importantly, however, this novel presents one of the most compelling supernatural villains in its title character. The opening chapters, set in and around his castle in Transylvania, succeed in making Dracula a vivid and fascinating monster that propels the rest of the novel forward, even though he recedes into a distant menace for most of the book.
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