by Peter Fernandez
What is it about Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel that possesses countless readers to peruse Dracula again and again? Is “the mystery and magic of vampirism” behind its enduring popularity? Or Is it the exciting malevolence of the title character’s profane profundity? Do we despise or envy the vampire nobleman? After all, Dracula has reigned formidably for over five centuries, and with dread and awe, he has amassed great knowledge, power, wealth, and discipleship. In acquiring immortality, His Excellency has easily cheated and outlived generations of enemies.
Held against his wishes in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor sent to finalize the count’s purchase of English property, escapes from his locked room. He searches for a way out during only, of course, the daylight hours: “June 25-The only thing I found was a great heap of gold in one corner-gold of all kinds, Roman, and British, and Austrian, and Hungarian, and Greek and Turkish money, covered with a film of dust….”
But it is the Victorian Women of Dracula, both protagonist and antagonist, who orbit around the male characters in antique devotion to fiance, husband, social caste, employer, master or even vampiric appetite. Consider Miss Mina Murrray’s letter to Lucy: “I have been simply overwhelmed with work. The life of an assistant school-mistress is some- times trying…I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand…When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan.”
A robust and resilient character, Mina Murray deserves our attention because, during a male-dominated age, she is steeped in personal power. After Jonathan escapes Castle Dracula and is found by nuns to have “brain fever,” she alone travels from England to the Romanian convent to nurse and marry her traumatized love. Mina transcribes her husband’s diary, passes it on to Dr. Van Helsing, and the nightmarish mystery of Dracula unfolds.
Bram Stoker’s unnerving narrative unravels through the various characters’ points of view as told in their diaries, letters, telegrams, and other personal documents. Known as “epistolic narration,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde employ this popular literary device. Stephen King’s break-out novel, Carrie, and Feyador Dostovesky’s Notes From the Underground are also examples of epistolary exposition.
In Harker’s journal, we first encounter the Count’s three vampire brides: “I was not a- lone…In the moonlight opposite me were three young women…eyes like pale sapphires …though the moonlight behind them, they threw no shadow… They whispered together, and then they all three laughed- such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on.”
This unholy trinity is dominated by their more powerful lord, yet they seem to have more “coquettish fun” than their compeers, the proper English maidens. This begs the question, ‘Is the vampire a sexual creature?’ By furthering the storyline, Stoker avoids such conjecture, but other questions arise. Who were the vampire brides before their “turning?” Were they simply humble Transylvanian villagers? Or centuries before, per- haps one was a Roman tribune’s wife, or a Turkish caliph’s raven-haired, almond-eyed princess-daughter taken by the spiteful count from the Ottoman invaders.
The author establishes early the count’s evil by inventing the minor character of a country mother to appear outside Dracula’s castle. With raised hands, the disheveled and kneeling parent cries out in the courtyard: “‘Monster, give me back my child!’ ….I heard the voice of the Count in his harsh, metallic whisper. His call seemed to be answered before many minutes…by the howling of wolves…a pack of them poured, like a pent-up dam when liberated… into the courtyard…Before long they streamed away sing- ly, licking their lips. I could not pity her, for I knew now what had become of her child, and she was better dead.”
Much later, in chapter 21, Mina is attacked and bitten by Dracula. She feeds upon his blood which bestows a psychic bond, but this is soon turned against the count. Hypno- notized by Dr. Van Helsing, she acts as the very first human GPS for locating fugitive vampires. Mina, of course, is doomed to become “the devil’s concubine,” unless the Count is murdered. In the nocturnal forest not far from Castle Dracula, the Vampire Brides call to her.
Part One in a series to be published this week
Categories: Book Review