The last time I read Dracula, I was probably 16 or 17, and what I remembered most fondly was that it was eminently readable. Most 19th-century literature has all kinds of tortured text that makes high school students balk, but this one breezed by. In the ensuing years, I grew up, had kids, wrote a vampire novel of my own, and now it's time to ask, "does it hold up?"
Yeah. Pretty much.
Dracula is an essential part of horror literature, sure, but in our times of four-color cinema it is hard not to also acknowledge him as one of the first supervillains. The Count has been portrayed literally hundreds of times in adaptations of this work, and it is fascinating to see the original details that don't always make the cut.
The Count begins the story with no servants, since he must feed nearly every night, and word has gotten around Transylvania not to go near his castle. His imprisonment of Jonathan Harker is well-thought-out, as he forces Harker to sign letters saying all is well and sends them at later dates to keep up the fiction that Harker will return home. Dracula's sailing trip on the Demeter is less well-planned. The suspense there is all well and good, but feeding on the skeleton crew makes it surprising that he ever made it to England in the first place.
When Dr. Van Helsing is brought in from the Netherlands, he is not yet the hardened vampire hunter portrayed in many adaptations. He is unsure of his diagnosis of Lucy's problems, and neglects to tell her family not to remove the garlic flowers that are "part of her cure." He also makes a rather critical mistake some fellow readers have identified as a plot hole -- when he knows a vampire is in the neighborhood and has already struck Lucy, he and the boys leave Mina alone at night. I think there are a few spots where his Dutch accent comes and goes, but it may be because journals from other points of view don't record his accent and we only get the full effect in chapters that are supposed to be his journal.
Mina Murray is not exactly a modern heroine who doesn't need rescuing, but she's not a cipher of a character, either. Could she have been more? Certainly, but she's not bad as is. Her revulsion at being bitten and spiritual horror at the Eucharist burning her makes for a powerful scene. The disgust leads her to take charge and propose the hypnotism sessions that are instrumental to the plot in the second half of the book. I had never made the connection before this reread, but Harry Potter's Occlumency sessions may owe a debt to Mina and Dracula.
And unlike modern supervillains who rely on action-movie climaxes, Dracula is straight-up sensible. When he knows he's got a few hunters after him, he knows he's helpless during the day. So he flees London to go home and try again in another century because he's got time on his side. He's at least as much prey as he is predator, which is kind of a refreshing change.
The book is not without its cheese, of course. In the final few pages, one of the protagonists dies heroically, and then two characters name their baby after him. Today, that's the tropiest trope that ever did trope (see Star Wars expanded universe, Potter, the works), but now it's got me curious to see if that was Stoker's invention or whether it was common practice as far back as the penny dreadfuls. There's also bits of social commentary through cynical working-class cemetery custodians and Mina waxing poetic about "the wonderful power of money," which I find hilarious. (Apparently even before Batman and Zorro, authors knew you can't hunt a supervillain without some cash in the bank.)
All told, Dracula is quite an enjoyable read, some 120 years after its first print run. I wouldn't go so far as to call it immortal, but it sure isn't dead yet.