My Favorite Horror Novel
By Jerry Knaak, author of The Dark Passage Series
I first read Dracula by Bram Stoker when I was nine years old. Like many American elementary school students, I received the Scholastic Weekly Reader on a regular basis. There were books that my parents were required to purchase for classroom purposes, however, I developed a love for books at an early age and always found something I wanted to read for pleasure. Of course, I had to have Dracula, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I also developed an affinity for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the writings of Edgar Allen Poe at an early age. Coupled with Dan Curtis’ made-for-TV production of Dracula and Universal Studios development of their stable of monsters, my life-long love affair with Gothic horror was well underway.
When I first volunteered to write this review of Dracula for Kendall Reviews I thought I could do it off the top of my head. I don’t often read books more than once, but Dracula is an exception. I have read it three or four times over the years, most recently a few years ago. But the more I thought I about it, the more I came to the conclusion I needed to read it afresh. I thought I had become jaded by the myriad film adaptations I have watched over the years and I was correct.
The copy I read is one of my most prized possessions. My late mother gave it to me as a Christmas present. It is a cloth-bound hardcover “Definitive Edition” published by Barnes & Noble. It includes exclusive illustrations, an introduction written by Marvin Kaye in 1996, Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest (Prologue to Dracula), the story itself, several annotations and other features.
As much as this is going to be a straight review of Stoker’s most important and culturally significant work, it is not intended to be an indictment of the films based on the novel. The reason I mention this is that it is important to note that I have never seen a truly accurate adaptation of the source material. A few have come close, but the late great Christopher Lee often lamented that he always wanted to play the Count as Stoker had written him. Unfortunately, I have never seen 1970’s Count Dracula, which is purported to be the closest Lee ever came to that goal. The 1931 film that many, including myself, consider the bar-setting and genre-defining performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula is actually based more on the Hamilton Deane stage play. Hammer Studios’ 1958 Horror of Dracula was written by screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and bears little resemblance to the novel.
The reason for the elaborate set-up is this. We all know the story, er, we all think we know the story. Since this is a review and not a treatise on Stoker’s influences or reasons for writing it, I won’t get into all that.
One of the interesting things about this novel is the style in which it is written. It is composed of journal and diary entries, newspaper clippings, reporter accounts, letters and telegrams. This allows for the introduction of numerous characters and their individual voices. It also breaks up the narrative even in the journal entries of individual characters with time and date hacks.
The story begins as we join Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, in Bistritz, Romania, in May, as he continues his journey from England by way of Munich, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. Harker is on his way to Transylvania to meet the enigmatic Count Dracula, an eccentric nobleman who wishes to move to England. Harker has been dispatched by his firm to handle the real estate transactions and facilitate Dracula’s transition from the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains to the hustle and bustle of London.
Although Harker finds things to be a bit strange and notes the eccentricities of his host, our traveling Englishman seems to get along well. Before long the regionalities and colloquialisms give way to monstrosities. It is during this reading of Harker’s journal that Stoker creates the most sinister and the greatest literary villain ever conceived. We are given clues along the way – the nocturnal nature of the Count, his odd appearance, the dilapidated environs, mysterious instructions – but its Harker’s observations of the Count’s preternatural abilities, his imprisonment and the scene with the three vampire women that cement Dracula’s true nature.
Three particularly gut-wrenching moments happen here. Stoker doesn’t have to get explicit. The horror is implied and effective. Dracula’s power is absolute and his cruelty is manifest.
After beginning the story like a travelogue, Stoker alternates from Gothic horror to detective story, to love letter to action-adventure rather deftly. The book only really bogs down as our heroes chase Dracula back to his homeland due to their mutual admiration. Another element that I found rather bothersome – you have two doctors, an English lord and a lawyer pursuing an evil entity and I found them to be rather blundering in their efforts to track Dracula down.
Count Dracula’s presence permeates the entire narrative. His ghostly mist hangs in the ether over our characters throughout. The actual face-to-face encounters are few, but Stoker’s description of them is chilling. Dracula’s influence is never far.
I listen to a horror film podcast called Nightmare University, hosted by Rebekah McKendry of Fangoria fame. In the most recent episode, which actually discusses torture horror of the 1970s and the 2000s, McKendry talks about heroes who may win the day, but make great sacrifices and compromises in doing so. I think that applies here.
I wouldn’t exactly call the epilogue a happy ending to this story. Our survivors are irrevocably changed, and not for the better. They are stronger for sure, but they have been exposed, nay, terrorized by an evil and corruption they did not know existed in the world. They survived Dracula, but at what cost?
My issues with the film adaptations over the years are manifold. Characters are often omitted or combined, names are inexplicably changed and romance is needlessly inserted into the story. Also, Renfield’s character has been used in ways that Stoker never indicated. Also, filmmakers have remade films that were never true to the source material in the first place. I highly anticipated Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D only to find that it mimicked Hammer’s Horror of Dracula written by Jimmy Sangster.
It took Bram Stoker roughly seven years to write Dracula. The character he created, regardless of the influences and origins, has become one of the most recognizable villains in the history of popular culture. From films and books to breakfast cereal and Halloween costumes, Dracula represents what a vampire is to so many. He has been portrayed and parodied more times than I can count.
Study.com defines Gothic Fiction this way: “The term Gothic fiction refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula fits this definition to the fang. I think the only way to enjoy this novel, if you’ve never read it before, is to wipe your mind clear of everything you think you know about vampires and even the mythos surrounding the Dracula character. Do as I did, read it with fresh eyes and childlike wonder. If you read one Gothic horror novel in your lifetime, make it this one.
This novel has inspired my own writing. It is one of the reasons why I thought that if I were to ever write a book, it would be a vampire story. I tried to include much of the superstition and folklore that Stoker introduced us to in his seminal work in my own books. This story affected me in ways Stoker could have never imagined and I thank him for it.
My first three novels, The Dark Truth, The Dark Descent, and The Dark Terror, form a trilogy of vampire tales set in modern-day San Francisco. I created my own deadly creature of the night and I have Stoker to thank.
Thank you to Kendall Reviews for the opportunity to tell you about my favorite horror novel.
Jerry Knaak, a member of the Horror Writers Association, has been writing professionally in one form or another for 25 years.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., he has worked in professional football for the past 18 years. He has produced thousands of articles for online publication during his career in sports digital media.
Jerry currently lives in Northern California and is the team historian for the Oakland Raiders professional football team by day.
When he’s not writing gritty tales of terror or researching gridiron heroics, Jerry enjoys reading, watching movies and good serial television, and exercise. He is also an avid blogger and hosts a regular podcast.
You can find out more about Jerry by visiting his official website www.jerryknaakauthor.wordpress.com
Follow Jerry on Twitter @GetTheKnaak
The Dark Passage Series
A Night Out
San Francisco PR pro Elizabeth Rubis reluctantly agrees to a night out on the town. Little does she know that her life will be altered forever as childhood night terrors come to life.
A Face in the Window
Elizabeth’s deepest, darkest fears crawl out of the inky blackness as her lifelong tormentor is revealed during a rare Northern California thunderstorm. A hallucination in the raindrops proves to be an evil, yet familiar entity.
A Baptism in Blood
Fueled by hatred for her tormentor, Elizabeth cuts a bloody swath across the San Francisco Bay Area in a desperate quest for revenge. No one is safe from her rage, not even her friends and family.