Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first vampire story but certainly the most memorable. It starts out as Jonathan Harker records his trip to visit Count Dracula about property he has purchased in London. We are given fascinating details of the journey but foreboding as well. Although welcomed warmly by Dracula, he begins to suspect things are not right. And that leads him to discover Dracula is not at all what he seems but a monster that will spread evil into the heart of Europe.
Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him to stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice–more like the hand of the dead than a living man.
Readers then and now are surprised at how Stoker did not hold back in what Dracula does. Perhaps the most horrific–and rarely seen in film or miniseries adaptations–is when the three vampire women at his castle are given a baby by Dracula as a meal. It shows what truly a monster he is and those that serve him as well. Stoker builds on that horror as Dracula arrives in England to begin spreading his evil. The strange illness of Lucy Westenra brings us the character of Van Helsing who suspects a vampire is at work. And Jonathan’s return helps the group that forms that they are dealing with an evil creature that must be destroyed.
But they also fail to see he is already working against them by feeding on Mina, Jonathan’s wife. They get the upper hand though by tracking down all his hiding places to sanctify making them unusable to him. He taunts them at one point and then flees across the ocean back home. The chase to get there before he does is perhaps the most thrilling part of the book. In a dramatic ending, they catch him as the sun is starting to set and he is about to have full command of his powers. The end is quick with a dagger in the throat and the heart. And then he is no more. Unlike some depictions, he goes to dust with just a momentary sight that his soul was at peace now. The evil is vanquished never to rise again.
Dracula spawned other books and movies both inspired or based in some way on the book. The famous 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi cemented a certain image of Dracula that stood out for a long time. Yet except perhaps for the Coppola movie, few show what Harker saw:
Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.
Most depictions have no moustache and Dracula neither appears old or young (somewhere in between). They also rarely show the trip to the castle (quite long as Dracula was looking for blue flames to find hidden treasure and his command of wolves). Dracula in the book can get about by day. The myth that sprung up was that vampires had to walk at night. Not so in the book at all. Dracula could get around in daylight but it constricted his abilities. At night be could use his full range of abilities but daylight limited him to whatever form he had at that time (he also had to be careful about running water).
Dracula was not conflicted nor concerned about what he became, like vampires in some modern novels are sometimes depicted as. Dracula was a creature of evil that served evil. He had no qualms about killing anyone who got in his way but despite all that, as Van Helsing observed, he was not without weakness. He could live centuries but he could be killed by staking through the heart or kept at bay with a crucifix. And when confronted with a determined group out to destroy him, he fled back home to live to fight another day.
Dracula stands out as masterful horror fiction because it reveals a story slowly, deliberately, and then like a hammer hitting anvil hits you with full fury. Reading it today is still gripping despite all the movies inspired from it. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot follows a similar pattern of building the story up slowly until it reveals what the horror is. And it appears Stoker did his research well for he based it on a real historical figure (Vlad the Impaler) who for a time brought fear to Turks who tried to dominate central Europe. He was so ruthless that he made sure that lands were burned, wells were poisoned, and many of their soldiers were found impaled on stakes as they approached his lands.
It is debatable how much Stoker really knew about Vlad the Impaler but learned enough from the information he had to craft his vampire story. And a great one it is that stands the test of time while other vampire stories remain forgotten on library shelves.