By Bram Stoker
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The beloved novel was a bestseller in Britain when it was published in 1897 and has thrilled readers ever since. One of the most famous novels in the history of English literature, Dracula is the unforgettable story of the aristocrat Count Dracula, a vampire living in a castle in Transylvania, and the men who risk their lives to kill him.
"'I am Dracula; and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house.'" With these words the Count presents himself to Jonathan Harker, primary hero of Bram Stoker's classic story. They have become one of the most famous self-introductions in the history of storytelling, repeated endlessly not only by a century of readers—Dracula hasn't been out of print since its first publication in England in 1897—but also by dozens of stage and film actors. It's impossible to read that sinister invitation without conjuring Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, or Gary Oldham, or to avoid hearing, mentally, the creak of a heavy castle door. The Dracula who invites us in is already easily recognizable, with his thin, aquiline nose, his "lofty domed forehead," and above all his "peculiarly sharp teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years." As poor Harker has yet to learn, his host is not simply a sinister nobleman but actually a four-hundred-year-old vampire.
Stoker's tale, however, has a life of its own that solidly predates the interpretations of Hollywood. In fact, one of the great delights of Dracula is the guilty pleasure of reading other people's letters and journals—the story is told entirely through fictional documents. The longest of these are journal entries, and the shortest are telegrams, with some tongue-in-cheek newspaper articles to leaven the mix. We get the novel's constellation of main characters through their own words and their perceptions of one another; even the villainous Dracula provides a letter. In the early sections of the book, Stoker cleverly lets one character at a time carry the plot before he begins to alternate voices rapidly, so that we read Jonathan Harker's chilling journal of his experiences in Transylvania for a long stretch before turning to other documents. Through his journal we learn not only about his bizarre errand to Dracula's castle and the terrible reality he finds there but also about his love for his fiancée, Mina, who later becomes a focus for Dracula's evil intentions.
Then Harker's journal ends and we begin to read Mina's innocent correspondence with her friend Lucy Westenra (whose name, by the way, makes her the first line of defense of the Western world, which the ancient and mysterious "East" is about to prey upon) and Mina's own diaries. Mina wonders what is keeping Jonathan silent in Transylvania; why is there so little news from him? We, the privileged readers, the snoopers among documents, know perfectly well why, and the hunt for truth is on. Soon we find ourselves reading the journal of one of Lucy's several suitors, Dr. John Seward, whose scientific skepticism gives unfolding events a new veracity. It is Dr. Seward who first recognizes that Lucy has something more than an ordinary illness.
For roughly the first half of the book we are—frustratingly but flatteringly—always a step ahead of the characters, who have yet to realize the need to communicate with one another. Little do they know, yet, what a castle in Transylvania could have in common with a ship coming into port in Whitby, Yorkshire, or with a mental patient in London, or with a young woman's sudden return to sleepwalking. When our heroes finally begin to read one another's written records, however, they show a great deductive intelligence, sometimes even leaving the reader in the dust. The increasing alternation among documents and subplots fuels the growing suspense of the story, so that we have to resist the temptation to skip ahead to the continuation of a particular voice.
The catalyst for all this fruitful communication among characters is the mentor-hero who is called onstage in chapter 9, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing of Amsterdam. Stoker bestows on Van Helsing his own first name—and clearly intends him to be the brain of the piece. When Dr. Seward summons Van Helsing, a professor of medicine "who knows as much about obscure diseases as anyone in the world," to attend on the strange case of Lucy Westenra, Stoker is invoking a powerful tradition of science (and before that, alchemy) that reaches back to the late Middle Ages. Holland was the setting for some of the great scientific discoveries of Western Europe, including the invention of the microscope (which Seward uses in one scene to examine Lucy's blood). For English readers, Amsterdam had the advantage of being traditionally Protestant as well. Van Helsing brings with him to London both Old World intellectual prowess and religious beliefs that Victorian English readers could sanction.
As soon as Van Helsing walks onstage, it's clear that he's going to have pride of place in the story because Stoker goes to the trouble of describing his appearance in detail; he is the only character apart from Dracula to receive this honor. In fact, Van Helsing looks remarkably like Stoker himself as he was described by his contemporaries: ". . . the head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large, resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils. . . . The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back over two bumps or ridges wide apart. . . ." From this moment, we know that it's Dracula versus Van Helsing, the "large domed forehead" of the wily fiend versus those two formidable brain bumps on the scientist's skull. In an age when Victorian England had not yet recovered from the craze for phrenology—the study of personality through ridges on the skull—these aggressive protrusions were especially reassuring. Dracula may be four hundred years old, but his opponent is equally hardheaded.
It takes Van Helsing only a brief examination of Lucy Westenra's mysterious symptoms to understand what may be at stake: "'This is no jest, but life and death, perhaps more.'" The extraordinary thing about Van Helsing is that he is not only a man of science and of faith—two potentially narrowing qualities—but also a man of remarkably open mind. "'Do you not think,'" he questions his doubting friend Seward, "'that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? . . . Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says nothing to explain.'" Van Helsing's willingness to look beyond both science and conventional piety is the quality that allows him to identify the attack of the vampire, to use garlic and crucifixes as well as blood transfusions in his struggle to save Lucy. He is also a man of enormous energy, humor, and compassion, weeping, laughing, and joking in his comical but eloquent English. Stoker's intellectual hero is at least as compelling a figure as the dark prince he hunts.
Abraham Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847 to William Stoker, a civil servant at Dublin Castle, and Charlotte Stoker, a social crusader. By his own account, he was an invalid in early childhood, unable to walk until the age of seven, although in later life he never explained what his illness had been. He seems from this time to have feared death, abandonment, and the helplessness of the sickbed, themes that are abundantly reflected in Dracula. Stoker was born into an Ireland struggling under famine introduced by the potato blight that began in 1845, and his mysterious illness may in fact have been one of the fever epidemics that accompanied the famine. Bram's parents highly valued reading and education, using their modest means to buy books for the family library. Bram's mother told him stories: Irish folktales, but also accounts of the horrors of the cholera epidemic of her own girlhood, a devastation that arose in the East and traveled to the British Isles.
By 1863, when Stoker entered Trinity College in Dublin, he had left his illness, if not his dreamy, imaginative childhood, completely behind; an energetic six foot two and 175 pounds, he won awards at university for his athletic feats. At Trinity, he acquired two new passions—the poetry of Walt Whitman, with whom he corresponded, and the acting of Henry Irving. In 1870, Stoker became a clerk at Dublin Castle, following his father into the Irish civil service, but he left the profession in 1878 to become Henry Irving's manager. He had his first literary success of sorts in 1875 with the publication of a horror story entitled "The Chain of Destiny." Soon after becoming Irving's manager, he married Florence Balcombe and in 1879 the couple settled in London, where Stoker assisted Henry Irving in the management of the famous Lyceum Theatre. In Irving, Stoker found a sometimes tyrannical friend, a mentor, a study in creativity, and a cause to which to devote his life.
Stoker's London career brought him into contact with a number of great writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle, and his American tours with Irving in the 1880s allowed him to meet, among others, his idol Walt Whitman. In spite of a complex and demanding career in the theater, Stoker managed considerable literary output during these decades, including A Glimpse of America (1886) and two novels, The Snake's Pass (1890) and The Watter's Mou' (1895).
Dracula, Stoker's third novel, was published in 1897. It was a departure from his first two in an important sense: he devoted far longer to its composition (six years), doing research in the British Library and the library in Whitby, Yorkshire (the setting in the novel for Dracula's first attack on Lucy), and plotting it carefully along the way. Stoker's research yielded an inspired name for his vampire-in-the-making; "Dracula" was the title of Vlad T¸epes¸, a prince, or voivode, in fifteenth-century Wallachia, a region now part of Romania. The historical Dracula was born in Transylvania and rebuilt at least one fortress there, and his name was redolent of battle with the Ottomans and torture of his own people. For the purposes of his novel, Stoker changed Dracula's family heritage and located Dracula's lands in Transylvania rather than Wallachia, but the name gave Stoker's monster a bond with history and nobility. Strikingly, in the course of his research, Stoker did not go to Eastern Europe, although he studied such works as The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), Englishwoman Emily Gerard's account of Transylvania and its folk superstitions, and An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia by William Wilkinson (1820). One of the most astounding accomplishments of the novel is its Carpathian setting, which remains vivid to this day despite the occasional geographical error or fictionalization. Stoker evoked with skill a landscape he had never seen, including details of peasant dress, architecture, language, and terrain. Dracula is a testament to the power of armchair research.
The novel was an immediate critical success. Even the master of the detective story, Conan Doyle, praised Stoker's creation: "It is really wonderful how with so much exciting interest over so long a book there is never an anticlimax."
Dracula owes much as a work of literature to the novels of Victorian mystery writer Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, The Woman in White); it owes much as a work of terror to the Victorian fear of unbridled sexual longing. Stoker poured into Dracula his longstanding interest in the literary occult, his personal fears, and his passionate, occasionally ambivalent sexuality. The story's climaxes are always as erotic as they are gothic, many of them revolving around Dracula's corruption, both moral and physical, of the women he stalks. Men are vulnerable to this ancient curse as well; at Dracula's castle in the Carpathians, Jonathan Harker is exposed not only to three female vampires but also to his own unfaithful longing for them. The fairest of these supernatural women introduces him to a passive pleasure he has never known before: ". . . I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart."
When Lucy is vampirized, she becomes horrifying, but also voluptuous, the chaste girl transformed as much by sexual knowledge as by a thirst for blood. In a diabolical version of the wedding-night ritual, Lucy's living fiancé must penetrate her undead body with a wooden stake in order to send her tortured soul to its proper resting place: "The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut. . . ." Dracula, with erotically refined taste, preys mainly on dainty young women, while the women he vampirizes prey on children and attempt to corrupt the men who love them. (In an interesting gender twist, the gallant men in the novel inadvertently put Mina Harker into Dracula's clutches by refusing to let her participate in the adventure of hunting him down.) The soft-porn subtext of the novel seems to have been accepted with complacency by its Victorian public, probably because it was neatly clothed in the gothic tradition.
For all its Victorian horror of and fascination with unbridled sexuality and its talk of ancient superstitions, Dracula was and is a modern novel. Van Helsing and Dr. Seward urge the novel's other characters to consider both the powers of and the limits of science. Faith and logic are equally invoked in their fight against the historic fiend, but technology plays an important role, too. Harker snaps photos of Transylvania with his Kodak, characters send and receive telegrams, Dr. Seward records his journals on a phonograph, and Mina Harker diligently types up documents on a typewriter. These gadgets, which seem quaint to us now, would have had the same effect on the late-Victorian reader as a Dracula hacking into e-mail or getting in touch with his victims by videoconferencing would today. Stoker cleverly removes the fiend from his Carpathian setting and places him against a London background that his first readers would have known from their daily lives. In our era, when terror has acquired new technological trappings at every turn, we may well find ourselves less impressed by the familiar sexual mayhem of the Dracula story and more struck by Stoker's insistence that the evils of history can reach forward into modern life.
Ultimately, however, Dracula is simply first-rate entertainment, as it has been for generations. Stoker died in London in 1912. In the years since the publication of Dracula, he had written other books, including novels and a reminiscence of Henry Irving, but none had achieved the success or longevity of his famous vampire. Fellow author Hall Caine wrote in an obituary, "The big, breathless, impetuous hurricane of a man who was Bram Stoker had no love of the limelight" (The Daily Telegraph, April 24, 1912). In spite of this assertion, Stoker has kept the limelight for more than a century; his courtly, appalling, tragic monster will probably be undead for centuries to come. But as Van Helsing notes in the novel, Dracula must be invited into our midst: "'He may not enter anywhere at the first, unless there be some one of the household who bid him to come; though afterward he can come as he please.'" As you begin Stoker's story, beware, dear and unfortunate reader, and prepare to be freshly terrified. The castle door is creaking open.
July 14, 2005
Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
To My Dear Friend Hommy-Beg
How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.
JONATHAN HARKER'S JOURNAL
(Kept in shorthand)
3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8.35 P.M. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most Western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.
We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called "paprika hendl," and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here; indeed, I don't know how I should be able to get on without it.
Having some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a noble of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.
In the population of Transylvania there are four distinct nationalities: Saxons in the south, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are the descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the west, and Szekelys in the east and north. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Attila and the Huns. This may be so, for when the Magyars conquered the country in the eleventh century they found the Huns settled in it. I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem., I must ask the Count all about them.)
I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty. Towards morning I slept and was wakened by the continuous knocking at my door, so I guess I must have been sleeping soundly then. I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was "mamaliga," and eggplant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call "impletata." (Mem., get recipe for this also.) I had to hurry breakfast, for the train started a little before eight, or rather it ought to have done so, for after rushing to the station at 7.30 I had to sit in the carriage for more than an hour before we began to move. It seems to me that the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?
All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods. It takes a lot of water, and running strong, to sweep the outside edge of a river clear. At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets and round hats and homemade trousers; but others were very picturesque. The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course petticoats under them. The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who are more barbarian than the rest, with their big cowboy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.
It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier—for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina—it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.
Count Dracula had directed me to go to the Golden Krone Hotel, which I found, to my great delight, to be thoroughly old-fashioned, for of course I wanted to see all I could of the ways of the country. I was evidently expected, for when I got near the door I faced a cheery-looking elderly woman in the usual peasant dress—white undergarment with long double apron, front, and back, of coloured stuff fitting almost too tight for modesty. When I came close she bowed, and said, "The Herr Englishman?" "Yes," I said, "Jonathan Harker." She smiled, and gave some message to an elderly man in white shirt-sleeves, who had followed her to the door. He went, but immediately returned with a letter:—
My friend, —
Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina: a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and will bring you to me. I trust that your journey from London has been a happy one, and that you will enjoy your stay in my beautiful land.
4 May.—I found that my landlord had got a letter from the Count, directing him to secure the best place on the coach for me; but on making inquiries as to details he seemed somewhat reticent, and pretended that he could not understand my German. This could not be true, because up to then he had understood it perfectly; at least, he answered my questions exactly as if he did. He and his wife, the old lady who had received me, looked at each other in a frightened sort of way. He mumbled out that the money had been sent in a letter, and that was all he knew. When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further. It was so near the time of starting that I had no time to ask any one else, for it was all very mysterious and not by any means comforting.
Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a very hysterical way:
"Must you go? Oh! young Herr, must you go?" She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what German she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all. I was just able to follow her by asking many questions. When I told her that I must go at once, and that I was engaged on important business, she asked again:
"Do you know what day it is?" I answered that it was the fourth of May. She shook her head as she said again:
"Oh, yes! I know that, I know that! but do you know what day it is?" On my saying that I did not understand, she went on:
"It is the eve of St George's Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?" She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. It was all very ridiculous, but I did not feel comfortable. However, there was business to be done, and I could allow nothing to interfere with it. I therefore tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative, and that I must go. She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me. I did not know what to do, for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind. She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck, and said, "For your mother's sake," and went out of the room. I am writing up this part of the diary whilst I am waiting for the coach, which is, of course, late; and the crucifix is still round my neck. Whether it is the old lady's fear, or the many ghostly traditions of this place, or the crucifix itself, I do not know, but I am not feeling nearly as easy in my mind as usual. If this book should ever reach Mina before I do, let it bring my goodbye. Here comes the coach!
5 May. The Castle.—The grey of the morning has passed, and the sun is high over the distant horizon, which seems jagged, whether with trees or hills I know not, for it is so far off that big things and little are mixed. I am not sleepy, and, as I am not to be called till I awake, naturally I write till sleep comes. There are many odd things to put down, and, lest who reads them may fancy that I dined too well before I left Bistritz, let me put down my dinner exactly. I dined on what they call "robber steak"—bits of bacon, onion, and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks and roasted over the fire, in the simple style of the London cat's-meat. The wine was Golden Mediasch, which produces a queer sting on the tongue, which is, however, not disagreeable. I had only a couple of glasses of this, and nothing else.
When I got on the coach the driver had not taken his seat, and I saw him talking with the landlady. They were evidently talking of me, for every now and then they looked at me, and some of the people who were sitting on the bench outside the door—which they call by a name meaning "word-bearer"—came and listened, and then looked at me, most of them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd; so I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out. I must say they were not cheering to me, for amongst them were "Ordog"—Satan, "pokol"—hell, "stregoica"—witch, "vrolok" and "vlkoslak"—both of which mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire. (Mem., I must ask the Count about these superstitions.)
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2007
- Page Count
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- Back Bay Books