Most of us are looking ahead at a lot more time spent at home these next few weeks. So I thought I’d recommend a few excellent books that would make for perfect reading material during this time of ‘self-isolation.’ The wonderful thing about books is that, even if you are at home alone, they can provide a source of company and a means of imaginative escape. You can travel to distant lands (in the case of today’s read, 19th century Transylvania!), meet new people, and lose yourself in someone else’s adventure.
I’m going to try and recommend books which I think are especially ‘immersive’, that really plunge you into another place and time. These happen to be my favorite sorts of books anyway, so I’ve got lots of recommendations!
First up is a thrilling piece of gothic fiction! I read it for the first time last year and simply could not put it down and that is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You might be familiar with one of the many film versions of this book, but trust me – the original book itself is well worth a read! It’s atmospheric and suspenseful and, in my opinion, no film version has ever captured the true spirit of the book. For me, Dracula is the original Scooby Doo. At its heart, it’s about a group of people who are trying to solve a mystery and defeat a dastardly villain intent on destroying their society. Lots of films try to make this into a romantic story, but to me it’s a tale of friendship and camaraderie.
If you don’t know the story of Dracula, I actually don’t want to give too much away (because the less you know, the more exciting the story is!). But it’s about a count with supernatural powers who tries to invade Victorian England. We follow various characters who try to figure out how to stop him, starting with the young lawyer Jonathan Harker who is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania at the start of the book. We also meet his fiancée Mina, her close friend Lucy, a goofy Dutch doctor who is an expert in the occult (I pictured Christoph Waltz for some reason), a Texan cowboy, an English Lord and a whole bunch of other people. All these people have to come together and try to stop Dracula’s plan, which is to turn more people into vampires (See, I bet you didn’t know that there was a COWBOY in Dracula? He plays a pretty big role too…). So in many ways it’s an appropriate story to read right now: one where smart people all come together to stop a dangerous contagion.
One of the things that makes Dracula such an engaging read is its epistolary style. It’s told in a series of letters and the occasional newspaper report which gives it almost a ‘true crime’ feel. The reader is piecing together the story, just as our characters do.
Another things that makes Dracula exciting to read, if I’m perfectly honest, is that it’s sexy. There is also a genuine terror in it of sex, particularly female sexual power. You have to read this book in the context of its own time (it was first published in 1897) and don’t except what we would call now ‘well-rounded’ female characters. Women are either pure and virtuous, like Mina, or literal demons who have fallen under Dracula’s power and want only to seduce and destroy men. But the female vampires definitely ARE super sexy. Take this passage when Harker encounters a vampire lady in Dracula’s castle:
The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, til I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on her scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat.
When people think of ‘classic’ novels, I think they imagine that these books are dry or tedious. That’s often not the case and it’s definitely not the case with Dracula (see passage above). Dracula is a strange window into Victorian fears (fears of female sexuality, fears of foreign invasion, fears of animal desires and impulses) and a damn good read. It’s one of my favorite books and, coincidentally, I’ve actually been to Transylvania (which is a part of modern day Romania!). I went there before I had read Dracula – one of my partner’s good friends lives there. But, now that I have read Dracula, I can picture even more vividly the haunting settings of Bram Stoker’s book: the mist-shrouded Carpathian mountains, the crumbling ancient fortresses, the steep ravines. But you don’t need to go to Romania to experience the world of Dracula. Just curl up with this fabulous book and let yourself fall under its spell.
Stay tuned for more reading recommendations, and don’t forget to check out my series Madeira Mondays, every Monday, where I talk about early American history and historical fiction!
Do you have any reading recommendations for me? What books should I sink my teeth into (okay, there had to be one Dracula joke!) during this period?
I hope you’re well, and thanks very much for reading!