This is a very good book and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Given the saturation of Dracula and vampire-related material in pop culture, I fully expected to be underwhelmed by the book, but the opposite was the case. It’s a page-turner front to back, and undoubtedly better than any movie rendition that may have been made. (Which, full disclosure: I’ve never seen one.)
Bram Stoker starts with a gripping first person narrative in the form of a journal of a man, Jonathan Harker, traveling from London to Castle Dracula to help finalize a property purchase on the part of the Count who lives there. It’s moody, and creepy, and builds very nicely. Our hero is first just sort of weirded out, and then is mildly alarmed, and then is pretty much panicked at his situation, and Stoker doles it out to the reader with beautiful momentum. The whole first section of the book gets you in its grip and then proceeds to tighten that grip.
Section one ends with our narrator’s presumed escape, and then the book explodes out in many different directions made up of various people’s journals and correspondence. We have Mina, Jonathan’s fiance, we have Lucy her bosom body and object of several men’s affections, we have Dr. Seward, who presides over an insane asylum, we have Mr Holmwood, who is indiscriminately rich, we have Quincy, a good old boy from Texas, and then we have Dr. Van Helsing, the most bad-ass vampire hunter Holland has ever produced. After the tightly focused beginning, it’s nice to see things spread out a bit, and wonder where things are headed. But eventually, we start to see the relationship between these people and our original narrator, and the thing that unites them all, a certain blood-sucking monster.
We have just a bit of social drama, as three different men fall in love with Lucy, and she is forced to break two hearts—Quincy’s and Dr. Seward’s—but as it is Victorian England, the chaps all meet this with a stiff upper lip, and pledge their undying friendship in any case, which seems awfully nice of them. But this social drama soon segues into horror as Lucy begins exhibiting strange behavior, and then contracts some sort of inexplicable illness which causes her blood to disappear from her body on a nightly basis. Shortly, Van Helsing puts it together, and does what he can to save her and outflank the beast.
Sadly for Lucy and all of her admirers, she dies, and then is turned into a vampire herself, rising from her tomb each night to drink the blood of various children unlucky enough to be drawn to her beauty. After some pretty elaborate sections where Van Helsing convinces Shelby and Holmsworth (who is Lucy’s widower by now) that what’s happening is really happening, Holmsworth drives a stake through her heart, which was frankly just awesome. I was expecting the book to be fairly reserved on these matters, and look discretely away at the key moment, but nope: Stoker wants you to see undead Lucy’s writhing body as the stake is pounded into her undead torso. Rough stuff for old Holmsworth.
Following this turning point, our various narrations more or less come together, and the remainder of the book follows our band of characters as they attempt to track down and defeat Dracula, first in London and then eventually in the very shadow of Castle Dracula itself. Along the way Mina is bitten by the Count, in what is probably the most gruesome scene in the book. The several heroes burst into her room to find Harker passed out on the ground, and the Count forcing Mina to nurse blood from the gash on his chest he made for that purpose. I mean, damn. This turns her into his undead slave, and she slowly begins her transformation into a vampire. She takes it all very stoically, as befits a good Victorian woman.
Eventually, after multiple turnarounds, the fearless gang tracks down Dracula back in Transylvania and is able to take him down. Quincy doesn’t make it, but since he’s one of the characters who didn’t keep a journal or write letters, we don’t mind too much and sort of see it coming. But everyone else survives, Mina has the curse lifted from her, and they all live happily ever after.
I came to this with an inevitable fluency in vampire lore, and Dracula’s story specifically, but the book still managed to thrill and surprise me. I can imagine how it must have landed with readers who had no idea what was coming, and who faced the dark doings of the Count with no expectations or grounding: it must have scared the hell out of them, of course, which is why the book has been successful all these years. Its reputation is quite well deserved.