With COVID knocking our usual travel plans on the head (jetting off to Greece) Hubby and I spent a week exploring the Northumberland and East Yorkshire coastline. We ended our trip in Whitby, which seemed the perfect excuse to brush the dust off my copy of Dracula. As you might know, Whitby is where the Count makes land in England, having sailed from Varna on a Russian schooner.
Whitby is a lovely town. It has two parts, East Cliff and West Cliff, lying on either side of the river Esk and joined by a harbour. All its main landmarks feature in the novel: the ruin of Whitby Abbey, St Mary’s church and graveyard, the harbour below, the steps from the town up to the church (“there are hundreds of them”). We were staying on West Cliff, a block away from the Crescent, the street where Lucy Westernra (who Dracula vampirises) stayed with her friend Mina Murray (the fiancée of Jonathan Harker, the young solicitor who goes to Transylvania). Even the long walk by the cliffs to Robin Hood’s Bay is mentioned. Hats off to Lucy and Mina for walking there and back. One way on foot was enough for Hubby and me; we caught the bus back.
The Dracula story is so well-known through numerous film and TV adaptation that there seems little point in outlining the plot. Van Helsing, a professor from Amsterdam, who is described as “a philosopher and a metaphysician…one of the most advanced scientists of his day…with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice brook, an indomitable resolution, self-command and toleration…and the kindliest and truest heart that beats,” has become synonymous with vampire hunting – so much so he even has his own spin off series!
So what makes this novel, first published in 1897, “the most celebrated tale of terror ever written” (according to the introduction of my 1994 Wordsworth Classics edition)? What gives it such an enduring hold in the popular imagination?
Possibly Van Helsing himself provides the answer. “It is…the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world; for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead become themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their own kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.”
The ripple effect means Bram Stoker’s creation poses a threat to the whole human species. The remedy – a stake through the heart – is visceral in the extreme. Plus there’s a heavy dose of religion, with crosses and consecrated hosts.
The name ‘Dracula’ apparently means son of the devil. What struck me reading the novel this time around was the characterisation of the Count as an anti-Christ figure. This is perhaps clearest when Dracula is vampirising Mina: “you…are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood” he tells her after drinking her blood. Then he opens a vein in his chest and compels her to drink his blood. It’s a perversion of the creation story and the Communion rite rolled into one, with Dracula as the new Adam / Christ re-making human-kind in his own image, except his purpose is destruction rather than salvation.
Dracula unfolds through the personal papers of the main protagonists, their diaries, letters, and journals. which lends the story verisimilitude. The horror is entirely compelling. And we just can’t seem to get enough of it…
Rating: ***** One of the best books I’ve ever read (still has me on the edge of my seat despite knowing the plot since, well, forever).
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!
(And don’t have nightmares.)