Sherlock Holmes is about as old as Dracula is, in terms of their literary birth. The curved pipe-smoking detective made his appearance in “A Study in Scarlet,” in 1887 and the dark aristocrat in all-black, in 1897.
Both these personages have been made wildly famous by a plethora of reel adaptations, even reincarnating as action figures. Sure, that helps to keep them alive in our 21st century pop culture and beyond.
But does it not as well eclipse some of the aura of their true fictional selves?
Few realize that “Dracula” is a Victorian gothic horror classic, by Bram Stoker. I’m among the small number, who hasn’t seen any of the movies.
So, I opened the book, without knowing what to expect. My mind was a tabula rasa, unclouded by any notion of vampires other than that they had a lust for blood. I hadn’t even seen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
It was only after I began reading “Dracula” that it dawned on me that it was the best season for this bibliographic adventure. Halloween peeks, from round the corner.
The novel begins in Transylvania, a picturesque region of Romania that’s a cauldron of superstitions. Johnathan Harker, a young Englishman and a newly-minted solicitor, is traveling on business from London to meet a foreign noble, who lives in an ancient castle, nestled in the ranges of the scenic Carpathians, near the Borgo Pass.
He’s on a house call to explain to his host the nitty-gritty of real estate transactions in England. After his business is concluded, he’s held in sinister captivity, from where he does ultimately escape, his mind etched with a horrid encounter.
One summer day, a bout of wicked weather slams the seaside resort of Whitby, Yorkshire. “A little after midnight came a strange sound from over the sea, and high overhead the air began to carry a strange, faint, hollow booming. Then without warning the tempest broke.” When the wind quietened down, heavy banks of “white,” “wet,” “dank and damp,” cold clouds came drifting inland.
Amid that rushed into the harbor, a Russian schooner, from Varna, the “Demeter.” “The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on the deck at all.”
The vessel arrives, without being navigated, without a captain at the helm and no crew on board. No human disembarks.
No sooner than it docks than Lucy Westenra, a gorgeous blue-blood and a close friend of Johnathan’s fiancée, Mina, is stricken by a mysterious illness that leaves her pallid, listless, and reticent.
John Seward, a doctor, from Purfleet, a London suburb, is called in to examine her. The case, he thinks, is best looked into by his professor and dear friend, Abraham Van Helsing, a revered Dutch scholar.
As treatment, he recommends transfusion, a radical and risky medical procedure for its day. Within a course of ten days, blood from four different men is pumped into her veins, but without making sure whether they’d be compatible.
She swings between a ruddy complexion and sallowness, till she’s beyond help. She dies and joins the ranks of the undead and is on a nocturnal prowl, looking for her brand of fare: kids.
Ironically, in an alternate version, if she hadn’t died slowly from the count’s lethal bite then, she surely would’ve from the very treatment intended to save her. The donor red blood cells, when injected into her vessels, would’ve clumped together and ruptured, releasing hemoglobin that would’ve poisoned her entire system.
It was a few years after the publication of “Dracula” that the Austrian physician, Karl Landsteiner, first distinguished the blood groups—A, B, AB, and O—in the early 1900s.
Both Seward and Van Helsing are brilliant men of medicine, but of the two, the older gentleman takes an approach that integrates both hard logic and mysticism.
Realizing that their enemy commands the power of both the flesh and the spirit, though, he himself isn’t flesh and blood, Van Helsing looks beyond volumes on pathology and hematology for answers. The cure doesn’t lie in hypodermic needles, pills, and bottles of syrups, but in a crucifix, garlic blossoms, holy wafer (a piece of small round bread, with a cross printed on it), and wild rose.
He tells his junior colleague, a consummate scientist: “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explains not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Who would’ve entertained the possibility of vampires in the midst of their “scientific,” skeptical, and pragmatic 19th century, he asks?
True. Stoker’s England was indeed, a gigantic workshop and a laboratory. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” which declared that we’d all evolved from a primordial soup shook up everyone in 1859. Mosley Street, in Newcastle upon Tyne, was the first street to be lit by Joseph Swan’s incandescent light bulb in 1879.
Gas lighting, steam-powered trains, railway network became more widespread. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Other inventions were the Kodak camera, the step-less and the brake-less penny-farthing, the flush toilet.
As a work of literature, “Dracula,” is a product of the late Victorian era, but in its choice of theme, it contains elements of Romanticism, an earlier intellectual movement that revolted against the spirit of inquiry and rationalization and reached its zenith between 1800 and 1850. It called for an understanding, based on faith.
A spate of strange occurrences happens all over London, after Dracula emigrates there. A gray wolf escapes from the zoo. Small children disappear after sundown and return to their homes with small puncture wounds on their throats.
Van Helsing tells Seward: “There are mysteries, which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.” When science fails, they must turn to superstition, he advises.
It’s written as an epistolary tale, as a series of telegrams, diaries, journal entries, newspaper clips, and a ship’s log. Had it been penned today, it might have been a collection of WordPress entries and text messages of the characters.
Technologies that feature are the telegraph, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the Winchester rifle.
Mina’s a brave, whip-smart woman, an ace typist, who also knew shorthand. When Seward goes to receive her at the train station, upon her arrival from Exeter, he notices that her luggage included a typewriter.
Before setting off on the Underground, he shoots off a “wire” to his housekeeper, to let her know that she have a sitting room and a bedroom prepared for her. Every post office in that day had a telegraph instrument that let people routinely dash off telegrams from one end of town to the other.
Seward was an early adopter of the newest technology of his time. He dictated his notes. It’s unlikely, though, he owned a telephone.
When Mina goes down to his study, she’s pauses at the door, thinking that he’s talking to someone. When she walks in, she’s intensely surprised seeing that he’s alone and sees table was a device she’s never seen.
“Oh,” he replied with a smile, “I was only entering my diary.”
“Your diary?” I asked him in surprise.
“Yes,” he answered. “I keep it in this.” As he spoke he laid his hand on the phonograph. I felt quite excited over it, and blurted out, “Why, this beats even shorthand!
“He stood up and opened a large drawer, in which were arranged in order a number of hollow cylinders of metal covered with dark wax.”
The phonograph, invented in 1877, by Thomas Edison, was a bulky record player that recorded sound as engravings into a spinning cylinder, coated with a sheet of tinfoil sheet, but later improvements used wax, with a stylus, cutting a zigzag course across it. The recorded voice would boom out through a flaring horn, or if you wished, directly into your ears through a two-pronged earphone.