I realized that I was 26 years old and had never read the classics, so now I’m catching up, one volume at a time. You can read the intro to this blog series here.
Shlock is eternal.
Despite the changing tides of opinion, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has claimed the title of literary classic. The past century produced countless adaptations for film, radio, and stage … even a sequel that bears the Stoker family name. It’s taught in school, revered by horror aficionados … but let’s face facts. It’s The Blair Witch Project circa 1890.
Dracula uses the prose equivalent to the modern “found footage” fad. Stoker tells his story solely through journal entries, lending a sense of realism to the supernatural events but ultimately limiting his narrative voice (something Dracula shares with Frankenstein, proving that this technique dates back to the foundations of horror entertainment). And while this style provides many chills early in the story, once the second and third act complications arise it only serves to slow the action and undermine tension.
Stoker’s characters feel underwhelmingly similar to the one-note dullards that populate modern slasher films. The girls exist purely as a sex metaphor, though in Stoker’s time period they served as a warning against sexual repression instead of sexual promiscuity. The men bumble along from one bad decision to another, stumbling into dark crypts and blind corners with only luck and simple-minded bravado to save them. They come across as so moronic that at times it seems Stoker has strayed into biting social satire — a sort of Pride and Prejudice where all the socially inbred fools get turned into un-dead ghouls. But the annoyingly positive ending and glowing character descriptions suggest otherwise.
Ultimately, Dracula truly establishes itself as the grandfather of found footage films by completely derailing in the third act. All character development stops as the good guys chase Dracula across the world, and the monster evades them by simply taking a nap inside a boat. All the action is conveyed after the fact because of the journal entry format, which results in absolutely no tension. It’s akin to the infamous ending of the recent found footage film The Last Exorcism where the documentary crew must film a satanic ritual from across a field while the characters narrate what is going on because it’s so hard to see. In that case literal distance decreased tension, in the case of Dracula narrative distance eradicates any and all scares.
Despite the previous three paragraphs, I truly did like this novel. I found the beginning at Dracula’s castle particularly mesmerizing and the impending doom that permeates the first third of the novel was utterly fantastic. What chafes me is not the accolades and respect the book has received over the years, but rather the fact that modern horror storytellers are shrugged off by critics simply for carrying on this fine tradition in pursuit of thrills and chills.
In case you missed it at the top, here’s the Origin of Afterwords.
For those reading along, here’s my upcoming list. You should know that I never stick to it, though, so be warned.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck