Current efforts to better educate myself in the world of literature have led me to explore all the books I either missed, have always meant to read, or never finished. Several of these are books that were issued to read in high school, but went to class B rather than my own. We got Much Ado About Nothing, they got the more traditional Romeo and Juliet. They got Frankenstein, we got Jane Eyre. Etc. Basically, they had all the fun. Though we got Lord of the Flies.
The majority of this undertaking has come through the use of audiobooks while I work, though with prose copies on hand to re-read certain sections either for clarification or just to refresh my memory. What I have greatly enjoyed about this exercise so far, is how the use of audio books have made some of the more mundane acts of life more bearable. Manual labour, exercising, cleaning, etc. Really takes the edge off of a dull day.
Choosing a book is perhaps the hardest. I started with a list and the more I thought, the longer it became. In the end, there was only one clear choice. DRACULA!
I love vampire movies. Though I have never bothered to sit through the Twilight collection. In 2016, I acted as the projectionist for the University of Hertfordshire’s second film season. Bloodlust, a season dedicated to Vampires in cinema, curated by Danny Graydon. And while I thought I knew the story of Dracula, partly through movies and partly through a vague memory of reading it. I found myself wrong. In my mind, and through cultural osmosis, I had concocted an image in my mind of a bloody horror story. Complete with a monstrous man who grew young, and a trio of female vampires by his side. What I came to understand however, was a story surrounding how far men will go for the people they love. The tenacity of human will and the monstrosities of what we don’t understand.
In fact, I was shocked to find that the novel Dracula was more faithfully retold, though updated, in 1985s Fright Night than it is in 1931’s Dracula! Though granted, most film incarnations seem to portray a more handsome Dracula than that of the novel.
The method in which the novel is told, is through the lens of various storytellers. Made up of letters, diaries, recordings and newspaper clippings. Following the work Mina does in the middle of the novel, you could even say that the novel is the product of Mina organising everyone’s notes to help them better understand the circumstances and events going on. This style of storytelling does make you feel like you are in each of the characters shoes. That the change in language and perspective for each makes you feel like you get a greater sense of what is really going on. In fact, the only perspective that seems to be missing is Dracula himself. Though I imagine that at some point someone has attempted it. Probably in some attempt to make Dracula the far more sympathetic figure.
The novel begins with Jonathan Harker, working on behalf of a solicitor firm, traveling to meet a man in Transylvania who has just bought a property in London. Along the way, as strangers find out where he is going, they start acting strangely. Praying for him. Giving him food laced with garlic, a cross to wear around his neck. When he reaches his destination, he is faced with the old count known as Dracula. He’s pleasant, makes Jonathan dinner and gives him a place to sleep stay during his visit. But keeps him captive for far longer than intended. Any letters Jonathan can send, the Count reads. The only secrets Jonathan can keep for himself are the ones he writes in his journal. The one we are reading. Only kept secret by the fact that the Count can’t read short hand. The Count even has Jonathan write letters dictating that he is on his way back, and one that states that he will be home soon, even though he is still locked away in the castle. While in the Count’s captive, Jonathan finds oddities such as a lack of servants and mirrors. A trio of seductive but aggressive woman, and a lack of escape.
As Jonathan’s initial journal comes to an end, we switch to the perspective of Mina Murray and Lucy Westonra. Jonathan’s fiancé and her closest friend. While Mina waits for Jonathan’s return, she is staying in Whitby with Lucy. Through letters between the two and diary entries, we come to learn about Lucy’s many suiters, John Stewart, Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood. Each of which play a larger part in the novel. We hear of a ship that crashes off the shore of Whitby, one that in reality contains both the Count, and his supplies. How Lucy sleepwalks and once found herself in the graveyard overlooking the sea. Only woken by Mina running after her in the night. How Lucy suddenly falls ill, complete with small marks on her neck. Eventually, Mina hears that Jonathan has been found. He’s recovering in a hospital in Budapest where they are finally married.
While the Harker’s are away, we are introduced to the work of John Stewart who runs a mental institute in London. Conveniently right next door to the property Dracula has bought. As well as learning about one of his strangest patients. Renfield. Correspondence between himself, his friend Abraham Van Helsing and Lucy all lead to her attempted diagnosis and her eventual death. Before seeing her return as a figure that steals away children in the night. As all of our characters unite, compare notes and learn of the Count’s true nature. The party go to any means necessary to drive the Count back out of England, and back to the grave.
The novel is compellingly structured and a fascinating read. Despite the books age, it feels incredibly modern. Even in 2018, I didn’t once question why they didn’t use something that hadn’t existed at the time. It feels grounded and understandable. Things in a regular fantasy/horror novel that would come off as normal to the characters, but abnormal to use, feel just as out of place as they should be.
A better understanding of Dracula’s source novel gave me a better understanding of modern vampire lore. Though it has led me to question where certain tropes have come from. Such as the strong reaction to sunlight. Though if I had to hazard a guess, I would imagine 1922s Nosferatu.
After finally conquering the classic. One that left me hungry for more. It was a struggle to pick the next book to sink my teeth into.
There were a few logical progressions. From one Universal monster to another, I could have tried my hand at the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I could have gone to another classic vampire novel, or at least one I’ve heard about multiple times, Interview with the Vampire. I could have continued the horror theme and followed in my mother’s obsession with a Stephen King novel. Instead, I decided to carry on the Vampire motif but chose a book I remembered trying once as a teenager but could not remember why I never finished it. Richard Matheson’s, I am Legend.
I remember seeing a certain Will Smith film over 10 years ago now. One with the same name and a similar plot, though one consisting of Zombies. I thought the film was fine. It was on tv a lot a few years after its release, so I saw it multiple times. But something always seemed to be missing. After finally reading the novel, I have not only found what was missing, but a novel I truly adore.
Unlike the film, the creatures of the novel are ‘vampires’. Or rather infected humans that seem to act like vampires. As someone who has experience working in haematology and still owns multiple books on the subject, I was surprised that a biological approach to vampire lore had never occurred to me. The combination of these factors and a well written, though simple plot, give rise to this fantastic novel.
Fun Fact: The company that initial printed I am Legend, Gold Medal Books, were a division of Fawcett Publication. The same company responsible for Captain Marvel. Or as he is now known, Shazam! Not important, but something I found interesting as I’m now imagine a young Billy Batson suddenly finding himself confronted with a vampire apocalypse. Too scared to speak the magic words. Ending up devoured by the rest of the Captain Marvel family while Tawny the Tiger watches on, hungry for his share.
Our protagonist is Robert Neville. A man who finds himself attacked on a daily basis by vampiric creatures. He’s lost him wife and child. Everyone he knew, and it’s been months since he saw another none infected human. Through the novel, we follow Neville as he battles with depression, alcoholism and self-preservation. Over the years we follow his research as he tries to understand how these creatures even function. Fittingly, reading this after Dracula becomes very appropriate as Neville is studying the book at the beginning. But why do these creatures need blood? Why do they avoid sunlight? What is it about garlic that affects them? Neville, despite his depression, isolation and frustration, actively searches for answers. Going out of his way to find sleeping vampires to get samples, and set up experiments. Neville’s determination and the question of what are these creatures, drive this novel.
Despite Dracula literally providing multiple points of view, it’s possible I am Legend’s ending that gives the greatest example of perspective. The final part of Matheson’s novel up ends what we already knew about Neville’s world. His battle for survival as the last man alive, becomes the monstrous acts of a nearly extinct race.
Despite Dracula’s reputation. I found I am Legend to be the more interesting and compelling book. Granted, this could also come from my own background and interests. But both Dracula and I am Legend are fantastically written novels that compels you to keep going. Both are amazing pieces of Vampire fiction and should be required horror reading.
Up next on my adventures in literature: Salem’s Lot.
- Bronte, C. (1847) Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Smith, Elder & Co.: London.
- Dracula (1931) Film. Directed by Tod Browning. [Blu-ray] Universal Pictures: USA
- Fright Night (1985) Film. Directed by Tom Holland. [Blu-ray] Colombia Pictures: USA.
- Golding, W. (1954) Lord of the Flies. Faber and Faber: London.
- Graydon, D. (2018) Danny Graydon. [Online] Available from: http://www.dannygraydon.com/ [Last Accessed: 13.06.2018]
- King, S. (1975) Salem’s Lot. Doubleday: New York
- Matheson, R (1954) I am Legend. Gold Medal Books: New York
- Nosferatu (1922) Film. Directed by F. W. Murnau. [Blu-Ray] Film Arts Guild: Germany.
- Rice, A. (1976) Interview with the Vampire. Knopf: New York.
- Shakespeare, W. (1591 – 1595) Romeo and Juliet. Royal Shakespeare Company: London.
- Shakespeare, W. (1598 – 1599) Much Ado About Nothing. Royal Shakespeare Company: London
- Shelley, M. (1818) Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones: London.
- Stoker, D. (1897) Constable & Robinson: London.