Immersion and Verisimilitude in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Gothic castleThe Week 3 reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I read this book about 20 years ago, right after the Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name came out because friends told me the movie did in fact make lots of changes to the story.  I confess, I’m not a devoted fan of the vampire sub-genre and I had not much enjoyed the book.  Re-reading for this class, I made an effort to look at it with news eyes; I still didn’t enjoy it much for its own sake, but I was interested in seeing in which ways and by which means it had so marked the genre.

Here is my 300-word essay on a small aspect.

Stoker’s Dracula owed much to vampire stories published in decades before (John Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Théophile Gautier’s “The Beautiful Dead,” Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” etc.), yet had unprecedented impact on the genre.  Its success lies largely in Stoker’s ability to give his prose the emotional impact that lets the reader of horror literature get swept along.

Stoker used four main tools to create this impact: foreshadowing, primal fear motifs, symbolism, and verisimilitude.  The first three are found in other vampire literature before but the last sets Dracula apart.  Stoker was not the first author to immerse us in a story by providing as realistic an experience as possible, but he used techniques that took the effect to a new level.

The book introduced itself as another familiar genre of the time, travel literature, before veering off into horror.  Stoker makes extensive use of descriptions appealing to all the senses, down to the tastes and smells around characters.  Narrators make seemingly mundane, prosaic observations, like the details of house-keeping and table-setting in Dracula’s castle, or the weather in Whitby.  Characters speak with distinct voices and dialects are presented phonetically.  Details of then-current science and technology – phonograph, telegraph, typewriter, train guides, Kodak camera, Winchester rifle, blood transfusions, stenography – are used by the Crew of Light against Dracula.

Distinctively, the text is presented as letters and documents purporting to be from primary sources who have a presumption of truthfulness, of telling the truth as they understand it at the time (as did other books before, including Frankenstein, but with greater effort towards “realism.”)

Finally, only gradually do we come to understand that these documents have been assembled by the Crew of Light; tying everything else together, the documents are those that will be used to track and defeat Dracula in the text, making the reader a trusted repository and participant in the struggle against darkness.

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