BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: Dracula
Posted by Matt Farr on March 28, 2012
Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, bloodsucking horror from Eastern Europe…
There is no other way to put it – Dracula really is a book of two halves. Not structurally, where it breaks down into more discrete chunks, but qualitatively, where by the half-way point I was really into it, and by the end I was pretty bored. It’s a strange conundrum, especially as some of the things that make the first half work are what bogs it down in the second.
Anyway, the story of Dracula is pretty well-known – Lawyer goes to spooky cancel, meets ancient evil, helps him move to England, shenanigans ensue. Many of the characters have moved straight into popular culture, from Dracula himself, to foreign-accented mentor van Helsing, to victim-turned-evil-sexy-Vampiress Lucy Westeroe, and so on. Its been instructive to go back to the original text and see where it all begins, and how far many of the interpretations have come.
It was the first section that really hooked me. Jonathan Harker’s diary tells of his travels through Transylvania and arrival at Castle Dracula, and the gradual dawning horror of a rational man from 19th century England being immersed in the terrible reality steeped in ancient folklore. His transition from amusement, to puzzlement, to fear, to outright terror is well realised and the ambiguity of his survival (spoiler: he does!) rolls well into the next step, where we encounter Lucy and Mina.
Again, this section works brilliantly for me, the slow build up and brooding atmosphere existing as subtext under a series of letters, journal entries and other correspondence. And as Lucy falls ill, and the characters rally around, the air starts to feel oppressive, as characters discuss and plan how to save her from an unknown and alien predation, only to find that the simplest, smallest mistakes are their undoing. In fact, right up to Lucy’s death and unholy resurrection, I was right behind this book.
The problem really is the final act, when the hunted become the hunters. Theres some nice touches, and the occasional great moment of horror such as the scene with Mina being burnt by the communion wafer, but where the discussions, and slow pace, and slightly overwrought prose work well to create an oppressive air of tension, when that needs to flip into pursuit we’re still sat around talking and doing a bit too much fruitless hypnosis. I felt the book needed to drive onwards to a climax but instead I still had a lot of talking and emoting, which could have happily stayed in the subtext or at least bore less repetition.
On the plus side, this read has been a bit of an eye opener onto this most famous of literary Vampires. He’s not, for example, in any way whatsoever, a tragic, romantic figure – he’s a murderous “other”, a true monster driven purely by lust and power. There is a common interpretation of Dracula that leans heavily on sexual undertones, but I’m not wholly convinced – the converted Lucy and Dracula’s “brides” are definitely described in the tones of “loose” or “fallen” women, but it feels more like a convenient way of making them appear transgressive to contemporary audiences than a deep and coherent theme.
Regardless, it’s a book I feel I should have read – it’s certainly a classic, and a defining horror story.
Next time: Archetypal spooky-house and spooky-kids ghost story, with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”
Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.