It is a given that Dracula is a great novel. Not as great as Frankenstein, I’d argue. But great nonetheless. It’s very longevity argues the fact.
It is not a given, however, that Bram Stoker is a great novelist. Consider that it took him ten years to write Dracula, and that nothing he wrote before or after has stood the test of time. Most often, authors grow better with practice. Stoker did not. His final novel, Lair of the White Worm, proves that point. In effect, Bram Stoker was the George Lucas of his day—without the financial success of Industrial Lights and Magic to add clout to his later efforts.
I argue this about Stoker in order to say that while Dracula may be great, it isn’t perfect. There remains room to discuss what works best in the novel, what drags, and what writers might learn from analyzing the good and the bad in it.
Which brings me to Van Helsing. He is such a central figure that we have come to love him—but I’d argue that’s more from his legendary status in subsequent tales and movies than from his depiction in the original novel. The fact is that in Dracula, whenever Van Helsing shows up, the story begins to drag.
Lately I’ve been thinking that much of the reason for this is Stoker’s lack of comfort with the character.
Here’s my rationale: The novel opens excellently in Jonathan Harker’s voice in his journal; Stoker then really hits his stride with the letters between Mina and Lucy, along with their journals (he obviously connects with these characters); Dr. Seward’s journal also conveys the author’s comfort with this character. Now we come to the characters who are presented to us only secondarily: Arthur Holmwood is a caricature of an aristrocrat-cum-fiance; Quincy Morris is a caricature of a Texan; Renfield is slightly more interesting as a madman, mainly because of his mood swings, but ultimately he’s still just stage dressing; and Van Helsing is the biggest caricature of them all—a genius deus ex machina who exists to deliver needed explication in broken English (was Stoker intentionally lampooning the Dutch?), and that only at the dramatically appropriate time.
Perhaps I’m being slightly too hard on Van Helsing; he does show moments of honest worry that the others will think him mad or hate him if he tells too much too soon. My main point, however, is that Stoker seems uncomfortable in portraying Van Helsing as a real person. Maybe if he had taken the effort to cast more of the novel in journal entries by Van Helsing himself, rather than relying upon Dr. Seward to repeat their dialogs, these scenes would seem less dull.
Frankly, if the whole novel were presented from Van Helsing’s point of view, incorporating the other characters’ journals and letters as evidence, it would probably be much better. Then it would be truly an invasion tale: in this case the story of a foreigner who comes to London striving to save the city from another foreigner. Stoker seems to be attempting something of the sort, but he’s no Shakespeare, not even an Arthur Conan Doyle.
You can read pretty much anything by Doyle and enjoy his storytelling abilities. And the way he uses Watson to reveal Holmes is genius. Frankly, if Stoker had spent the ten years between the publication of A Study in Scarlet (1887) and Dracula (1897) studying Doyle’s unfolding work, Dracula would undoubtedly be a much better read, and Lair of the White Worm might actually be readable.
Of course, Doyle didn’t have to make a living as personal assistant to the actor Henry Irving and as business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London. Much of what’s stultifying in Dracula could also be attributed to the “hamminess” of the stage. (You could almost make a drinking game of the number of times characters in Dracula clap their palms before their tear-stained faces in a sudden transport of sorrow.)
Still, we come back to Dracula time and again because of the sheer dramatic power of the villain. Go ahead, give it a read if you haven’t already. Forgive Stoker his Victorian depiction of ruling-class bonhomie and enjoy the book. (Then go read Frankenstein, and discover just how literary a horror tale can actually be in the right hands.)