Details: Originally published 1897; Pub 1994 Penguin Popular Classics; ISBN 0-14-062063-X; Gutenberg Text
Verdict: Dracula surprised me by just how bad it is.
Reasons for reading it: All kinds of people in my circle have been going on about vampires for various reasons, so I thought I should probably read the original text in order to be able to participate in such discussions.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man found me a copy.
Dracula definitely comes under the heading of a book you want to have read more than you want to read it. I don't generally mind prosy Victorian stuff, but this is really over the top. And you really would think it would be pretty hard to make a novel about being pursued by vampires dull, but Dracula manages it. I really struggled to get through it, to be honest.
It rambles all over the place, spends forever describing the scenery, repeats the same dramatic scene with only slight variations until it becomes the exact opposite of dramatic, and generally, the pacing is a complete and utter mess. Of what should be the two climactic scenes, Harker's escape from Castle Dracula happens offstage and never gets more than a passing reference, and the final confrontation with Dracula happens in a single short paragraph, most of which the monster spends asleep, for heaven's sake. The characterization isn't much better; it tends to rely adjectives trying to be epithets, with a smattering of national, gender and class stereotypes.
To be fair to Dracula, I think it is spoilt partially by over-familiarity. I've seen far too many parodies of the whole gothic setup to take the real thing seriously. And the book also chooses to spend the first two thirds presenting everything to do with vampires as mysterious, and we only get an explanation from the expert Van Helsing towards the end. This might possibly have worked when the book was first published to create suspense (though to be honest I rather doubt it; it's not the kind of mystery that you can work out, so the having the 'revelation' so late just feels like cheating), but for a modern reader, it fails before it even starts. The reader knows perfectly well that vampires can do all these physically impossible things, and that they are vulnerable to garlic and Christian symbols, and even simply the fact that the book is so famous means that there's no mystery that all these paranormal happenings are caused by vampires.
The world set-up in Dracula is really odd. Not so much because it's a world with vampires in it, but on the 'mundane' level of the gender relations and the way religion works. Female sexuality is regarded as so disgusting that it's only referred to in descriptions of the vile monsters that are female vampires. 'Nice' women are there to be rescued and protected, even though Mina Harker is in fact rather a strong character. The only acknowledgement she gets for having more sense than the heroic, manly men is occasional praise for having a 'male' brain combined with a 'female' heart, whatever that's supposed to mean. Also, Dracula is very, very slashy; I tend to regard that reading in that kind of thing as basically a bit puerile, but in Dracula it's almost impossible to avoid homoerotic connotations.
As for the religious aspect, all I can say is that it's deeply strange. There's not actually much mention of religion for the first two thirds of the book, except for Van Helsing's use of crucifixes and Communion wafer to ward off vampires. But as the book builds up to the final damp squib where a crisis should be, with Mina in terrible danger and the party dashing off across Europe in pursuit of Dracula, they all suddenly get really religious. There's quite a lot of the kind of icky Christianity which makes suffering noble, but what's really weird is the relationship between God and the vampires. If the mere sight of a crucifix can have such dramatic effects on vampires, you would think that God hates them sufficiently not to allow them to exist at all. What really squicked me, more even than the detailed descriptions of medically unlikely blood transfusions, was the idea that once someone has come into the power of a vampire, God abominates them.
The only thing I can really say in praise of Dracula is that some of the sentimentality is quite successful. There are too many tragic deathbed scenes and heroic sacrifices and too much touching devotion and all that sort of thing, but some of this at least is done reasonably well, even if completely excessive. I was quite sad about Lucy Westenra's fate even though it's spun out over far too many chapters when action should be going on. And there's a tiny little vignette where Mina offers comfort and hugs to Arthur and Quincey, even though it was socially unacceptable for a married woman to be intimate with other men, which I found quite touching.
On the whole though, Dracula has far more weaknesses than strengths. The supernatural background is just as silly in the original as in any parody; the vampires' powers and vulnerabilities are completely arbitrary and this makes the whole plot seem very contrived. And the execution of this already rather shaky idea is just unbelievably awful.