If place is important in creating the right mood for reading, few places could have been more appropriate than where I spent the first half of Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale (other than Transylvania of course). At my parent’s house in the Highlands of Scotland, I spent a week cocooned in thick Scotch mist. The weather completed the isolation of an already remote location and it wasn’t long before the shadow of the Count was drifting through the cloying fingers of fog.
The story starts with young solicitor Jonathan Harker already on his way to Castle Dracula. Having assisted the Count in buying a house in London through correspondence, he travels to the heart of the Carpathians to finalise the sale and transfer ownership to his mysterious client.
A sense of mystery and dread builds as Harker’s route weaves through small, huddled villages populated by hushed, superstitious locals, and towering, snow-tipped pine forests echoing with the howls of wolves. He quickly arrives at his destination, the eponymous Castle Dracula, finding it perched like a black vulture over the shadowy valleys and jagged cliffs. Welcomed into the castle by the Count, he quickly realises that Dracula is not so much his host as his jailer, and that to let this fiend travel to London would be the ruin of many a life.
The pace of the opening act is fast. Dracula’s web draws around Harker as preparations for his own departure gather pace. Soon the story shifts to England, where the Count begins to ensnare the friend of Harker’s fiancé, Lucy. So begins a trial of strength between Dracula and the protectors of his victim.
The narrative plays out in correspondence and journals of the main characters, giving the reader several points of view of the unfolding horror. The only main character not to contribute to the narrative is the Count himself. I wonder what his take on events would be as his centuries of preparation are constantly frustrated by the intrepid band arrayed against him.
While an engaging story (I devoured it in around nine or ten days) it does lag in the middle. Similarly, the pacing of the final act is uneven, first rushing forward and then settling back to a steady jog before a sprint to a blink and you’ll miss it finish.
The scares are timeless but at times the Victorian characterisation is grating. There is swooning aplenty from the women, despite the many attempts by their gallant male protectors to preserve their ‘gentle dispositions’. Likewise, servants and the lower classes are all either stupid, drunk, dishonest or unhelpful. It’s a good thing the heroes have an aristocrat in their number, or they might have been left paupers by all the bribes paid out to exhort information from the poor. In some cases the lower classes are looked on by the heroes as even more wretched creatures that their pointy-toothed foe.
These nibbles aside, the story is an enjoyable and genuinely frightening read. Next up is another Victorian classic: Frankenstein.