I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt. I fear. I see strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul. God keep me, if only for the sake of those dear to me!
I love horror stories. The terrors of the night which make sleep hard to conquer and make horrible monsters out of every shape in the room, where mirrors are portals to the unknown and the slightly open door of a closet becomes a stone door to a deep and dark cellar, where the wind shaking the curtains changes them into diaphanous veils worn by beguiling beings sent to harm. The quiet of the night unbroken but for the sounds in my head, small, insignificant sounds which I can only hear with my eyes closed. Sweet sleep that finally comes only to bring dreams of fantastical white creatures flying in the night, converging on a tower, their mouths red with blood. Such a powerful dream, I still remember waking up and being surprised to see I was in my bed and not running for my life on the streets of an unknown city filled with people whose fascination with the creatures was bigger than the fear of them.
I had put off reading Dracula for a long time. After watching its 1992 movie adaptation (with Gary Oldman as Count Dracula), I was afraid the printed work would have no surprises for me. How glad I was to see my fears turned to nothing!
The story is told in the form of letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings. Jonathan Harker, a young English solicitor, is sent by his employer to Transylvania, Romania, to explain to a nobleman of the country the legal procedures connected with some properties the nobleman recently acquired in England. His experience at Castle Dracula is unforgettable in a very horrible way, and barely escaping with his life, Jonathan makes his way back home only to have his sanity shaken yet again when he sees the Count on the street.
His journal becomes a powerful tool in dealing with the monster he knows would have taken his life. His wife Mina, proves to be one of his most intelligent allies in the great adventure that will have him question his judgment and worth as a human being. In fact, the whole story becomes a fight strategy, and the characters each have their own part to play in the battle against the evil embodied by the Count. Mina’s friend, Lucy Westenra, becomes the count’s first victim, a turning point in the story, which serves to strengthen the belief that the enemy is someone so extraordinary that unusual measures have to be taken and the outmost secrecy preserved.
Lucy’s suitors, Quincey Morris – the American adventurer, Jack Seward – a doctor working in a lunatic asylum, and Arthur Holmwood, Lucy’s fiancé, are joined by Abraham Van Helsing – a Dutch doctor and famous scientist of those times. Renfield, a patient in Seward’s lunatic asylum proves to be of notable help in unmasking Dracula’s plans. His penchant for “consuming life”, starting with the flies and working his way up to bigger creatures, makes him an unreliable ally at first – what is more intriguing and hard to believe than a madman telling the truth – but his death brings new facts which are taken into account.
I loved this book. I was under the impression that Dracula would be more likable, a monster that should be pitied, maybe envied for his power but he was just pure evil. I guess that’s what happens when you watch the movie before reading the book. His death was anticlimactic but the story leading to that point was more than worth it. The constant fear, the dramatic turns, the threat to life and sanity, these were fascinating to read about and the fact that the book was written in epistolary form gave it a sense of intimacy and also of credibility, as much as a work of fiction can be said to be credible. Reading this book also made me feel a bit homesick. It’s been a while since I’ve visited Transylvania.
Dracula is a work of fiction but history is a part of the story. Here are some interesting facts mentioned in the book that are still valid today:
• mamaliga – a porridge made from maize flour, a traditional Romanian food, is still very popular, not only in Transylvania but also in another region of the country called Moldavia. So is slivovitz, “the plum brandy of the country” which is still being made but the name varies depending on the region;
• the leiter wagon, a type of wooden wagon used to carry Dracula’s box – my grandfather had one, which he used for carrying hay and sacks of sunflower seeds, with a pair of buffaloes pulling it.
• The clothes of the peasants described in the story reminded me of a photograph I saw of my aunt from more than twenty years ago – “white undergarment with a long double apron, front and back, of colored stuff fitting almost too tight for modesty”. I had to laugh at the “modesty” part, as those clothes would be termed plain old-fashioned these days.
• The names of the places are slightly changed but real nevertheless – Bistritz is Bistrita and river Pruth is the actual Prut. Szgany is a transliteration of the word “gypsy” in Romanian, and Veresti is the name of an actual village.
As for Dracula himself, there is little I can add to the known facts. A Romanian ruler in the 15th century, famous for his ruthlessness with which he defended the country against the Turks, he was and still is, one of the most revered figures in Romanian history.