Halloween is the perfect time of year to curl up on a couch and read Bram Stoker’s chilling novel, Dracula. (Other recommended Halloween mysteries are Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, Tony Hillerman’s The Wailing Wind, Ed McBain’s Tricks, and Leo Bruce’s Death on Allhallowe’en.) The figure of Dracula has become so familiar and memorable that he has entered into the popular consciousness. Stoker’s classic novel has spawned numerous films and plays. The Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time includes Dracula.
Bram Stoker graduated with honours in Mathematics from Trinity College. Once he became the acting manger for London’s Lyceum Theatre (a job he held for 27 years), he left Dublin and his civil-servant post for life in a bustling literary environment (Hughes 2009, 1-4). Although this man of many interests and talents was called to the bar in 1886, he never practiced law. Of the nine novels he wrote, four are read today: Dracula, The Lady of the Shroud, The Lair of the White Worm, and Jewel of the Seven Stars. And it is only Dracula that he is remembered for.
The story begins on a train en route to Transylvania. A British solicitor named Jonathan Harker visits his client, Count Dracula, in order to facilitate his London real estate purchase. Harker is puzzled by Dracula’s behaviour and eventually discovers that he is a vampire. Dracula detains and later imprisons Harker in his castle. He then travels to Britain, and begins stalking Lucy Westenra, friend and travelling companion of Harker’s fiancé, Mina Murray. The story that follows is one of suspense, chase, terror, and murder.
Readers usually think of detective fiction when looking for mysteries, but horror novels such as Dracula are also infused with mystery and suspense. The goal of horror novels is to produce fear and terror in the reader; these are the stories that keep readers up all night. “What is important,” Saricks observes, “is the feeling of foreboding that permeates the novels, the sense of unease, as we await the unexpected” (Saricks 2001, 107). Readers are kept in suspenseful apprehension as terror is about to strike. The major difference between detective and horror novels is the temporal direction of the narrative. The detective novel moves back in time to uncover events leading up to the murder whereas the crime is yet to be committed in the horror novel.
Where did Stoker find the material for his novel? Vampire legends emerged from Eastern European folklore and were used in English writing as far back as the twelfth century (Simpson and Roud 2000, 374). Stoker gathered information on vampire lore mainly through legends and two literary sources: Polidori’s Gothic story The Vampyre (1819) and Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) (Hughes 2009, 87; Roth 1982, 13, 94-95).
Like Wilkie Collins (see my posts on The Moonstone and The Woman in White), Stoker used a variety of narrators to relate the story; these narrators do so through a variety of formats (letters, journals, newspaper reports, diaries, phonograph recordings, and even a ship’s log). This narrative method has the advantage of drawing readers into the story as they weigh and sift evidence provided by various narratives.
At times the narrator records entries several times a day, creating a powerful sense of moment-by-moment immediacy. This ad hoc recording of events adds a sense of pressing urgency to the story. We see each new idea as it forms in the minds of characters. For example, when Dr. Seward tries to discover reasons for his patient’s bizarre actions, he writes:
Logically all these things point one way! He has assurances of some kind that he will acquire some higher life. He dreads the consequence – the burden of a soul. Then it is a human life he looks to!Like Stephen King, Stoker only gradually introduces horror into an everyday world.
And the assurance –?
Merciful God! the Count had been to him, and there is some new scheme of terror afoot! (351)
Stoker juxtaposes ordinary English locales with extraordinary Transylvanian settings, a technique that heightens the mystery and horror of the latter. Who can forget the ruined Castle Dracula sitting on the edge of a sheer precipice? “A stone falling from the window,” observes the narrator, “would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!” (39). A sense of profound mystery and gloom is evoked by these Gothic trappings (see my post about the Gothic influence on the mystery novel).
Although the novel is somewhat marred by sentimentalism, it is a powerfully evocative mystery story and a skilfully told narrative.
Hughes, William. Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Reader’s Guide. London: Continuum, 2009.
Roth, Phyllis A. Bram Stoker. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Saricks, Joyce G. Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. London: Penguin, 1993.