It’s time you met the real Dracula

If you haven’t read Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, go out and find a copy now.

My friend had been recommending it stridently for many years, but only recently did it catch my eye in an airport bookshop. I was looking for a romp that would keep me distracted on a long flight, which pitted it against the plethora of domestic thrillers with girl or wife in the title, the growing number of dusty crime novels set in rural Australia, and the glut of action man books with a silhouette walking towards a city skyline on the cover.

I’m so glad I chose Dracula over that crowd. Here’s why.

Dracula is as gripping as a modern thriller

Dracula has earned its place among classic literature. Today you will find it clad in the orange of the Penguin Books classics range, next to Wuthering Heights and Charles Dickens. But make no mistake: Dracula is not literature—it is commercial fiction.

Unlike many of the books it is sharing dusty shelf space with, it was an immediate bestseller upon publication in 1897. It’s a page-turner. Fast-paced, exciting, eerie and original as all get out. It builds tension expertly but doesn’t get bogged down. Bram Stoker was the Stephen King or Michael Crichton of his day.

I wish I could have read the book without having first experienced the derivatives. I shudder to think how the book would have frightened me if I had not already known so much of the Dracula legend. When it first came out readers must have found it enthralling, genuinely creepy and deeply unsettling. Psychiatric patients eating live birds. Three female vampires playing with their aroused male food. And this description of a Russian cargo ship crashing into port during a violent storm:

A shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and from at each motion of the ship.

The writing hasn’t dated

Dracula was first published in 1897. It can be difficult to read books that are over a hundred years old. They often require interpretation, explanations about the world at the time. Words used then are now out of circulation, or they carry a different meaning today. It is an intensive effort to work your way through.

Dracula does not suffer from these issues. The descriptions remain as vibrant and evocative as they were a century ago, drawing a rich, disturbing world while never sacrificing pace or tension.

And the format is fantastic. Dracula is written as a series of journal entries, letters, and newspaper articles, each in the first-person perspective from a variety of character’s viewpoints. It is a brilliant device. We meet the Count early, but he is so often seen out of the corner of the eye, his menace and influence all the more unsettling because it is only shown obliquely. And it allows his minions to occasionally borrow centre stage, each as chilling and unnatural as the man himself.

Compare this to today’s thrillers. There is something a little shallow about the first-person perspective in modern commercial fiction. The viewpoint is narrow and claustrophobic. Protagonists come across as abrasive rather than edgy, and the popular device of unreliable narrator leaves many seeming weak-minded and unsympathetic.

Dracula’s many players do not suffer from this fate. Each is unique and richly drawn, each builds the legend of the real showstopper: Dracula himself.

Which leads me to…

Count Dracula is an amazing character

I was put off reading Dracula by the modern (and not-so-modern) depictions of the titular character. Today he is little more than a caricature, a costume. His portrayals in movies, kids shows and on cereal boxes are of a limp-wristed, wan old man who lisps past his cumbersome fangs and wears a ridiculous cape.

Leave such impressions at the castle door.

Bram Stoker portrays Count Dracula as a strong-willed royal from warrior lineage. He is from the wilds of Eastern Europe, a vigorous outdoors man who is at the same time eloquent and intellectual. He is physically strong, commanding, and has the decisiveness of nobility. He is not merely a monster: there is menace, meaning and pride in everything he does.

Here’s a snippet. The protagonist, Johnathon Harker, arrives at a massive, crumbling castle in the dead of night to find Count Dracula has had his servants make supper for his guest. Each day and night is the same—but Harker never even glimpses a servant. He contrives to watch the servants in action and discovers it is Count Dracula himself who lays the table and sets out the meals. More than this, Dracula cleans Harker’s room and makes the bed, too! This is a complex man: bursting with vitality, but prideful, perhaps ashamed that he is a noble lives in a castle in which no servant could survive.

I have been careful to avoid spoilers. To some degree you will know what is coming, which does diminish, but Dracula seems so much fresher and more shocking in Stoker’s own words.

Grab a copy today.