Author: Bram Stoker
First Published: 1897, by Archibald Constable and Co.
“Denn die Todten reiten Schnell” —
(“For the dead travel fast.”)
I love the opening chapter of Dracula—it’s like walking with someone through their own dark dream that they may or may not be remembering correctly. Jonathan Harker is travelling through a grim region in the Carpathian mountains (modern-day Romania), and from the start, you know that something is off about this place. The people are as nervous and superstitious as they come, foisting crucifixes upon the unwary traveller, whose life and soul they feel are in great jeopardy. Their terror becomes our terror, though we don’t yet know what it’s about. It’s the lack-of-knowing, on top of all the strange behavior, that makes the place so frightening.
The chapter takes us slowly through the Carpathians, revealing nothing but more darkness as we follow carriages and packs of wolves toward the looming Castle Dracula. Stoker’s lush writing infuses horror into the very landscape, providing beautiful descriptions that are as seductive as they are eerie and claustrophobic.
As we wound our endless way, and the sun sank lower and lower behind us, the shadows of the evening began to creep round us. This was emphasized by the fact that the snowy mountain-top still held the sunset, and seemed to glow out with a delicate cool pink. Here and there we passed Cszeks and Slovaks, all in picturesque attire, but I noticed that goitre was painfully prevalent. By the roadside were many crosses, and as we swept by, my companions all crossed themselves. Here and there was a peasant man or woman kneeling before a shrine, who did not even turn round as we approached, but seemed in the self-surrender of devotion to have neither eyes nor ears for the outer world. There were many things new to me. For instance, hay-ricks in the trees, and here and there very beautiful masses of weeping birch, their white stems shining like silver through the delicate green of the leaves.
Again, something is just not right here—there are hay-ricks (hay stacks) in the trees, and the people have goitre (a swollen thyroid condition); but it’s a gorgeous, if sinister, place to be held captive, and Jonathan, like us, will soon find himself simultaneously entranced and terrified by vampires.
The rest of the book—the story really—is of course marvellous, though it’s ridiculous that four able-bodied men and a houseful of servants can’t seem to keep a bouquet of garlic in Lucy Westenra’s room, or ensure that her windows remain closed through the night. But despite unlikely and humorous foibles like these, reading the novel Dracula is a hypnotic experience, and there is a reason why this book, with its countless adaptations and offshoots, refuses to “die.”