Have you ever read a novel and been surprised by just how much time has passed for the characters? To see heroes become old and grey in a heartbeat, months-long adventures snap by in a sitting, lovers falling head over heels before your tea gets cold? The dissonance between novel time and reading time can be either quite stark or harmonious, as observed by one Matt Kirkland in 2020 upon reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Kirkland had been sending his daughter updates on the book and noticed how conspicuously Stoker’s usage of diaries and journals lined up with his daily summaries. Based on this, he then developed a free subscription newsletter, one that deposited sections of Dracula into subscribers’ inboxes on the dates that they occurred in-universe! From May 3rd to November 7th 2021, the seminal horror novel unfolded in real reading time. Kirkland intends to run this telling of Dracula every year, with the 2022 run having over 200,000 readers. But what about this novel made it so apt for this niche form of delivery?
Dracula is an example of a very particular format, the epistolary novel. Derived from the Greek word for “letter,” this somewhat obscure genre is comprised of novels telling their stories with in-fiction materials such as letters, journals, newspapers, and other sources. In more recent years, this diegetic narration has expanded to include online sources like forum posts and text messages. Many readers find this format particularly immersive, and the removal of narration can give one a greater sense of intimacy with the main characters. Why examine someone through a lens of pretense or artifice (self-imposed or otherwise) when you can read their diary? Their notes to loved ones? When done successfully, epistolary novels are marvels that encapsulate the unique thrill of the written medium. And, dear reader, WPL’s lending catalogue has many!
Despite my academic waxing, epistolary novels are a format ranging from light and refreshing to heavy and literary. Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding’s beloved British rom-com-in-a-novel, is told entirely through the protagonist’s delightful if occasionally disastrous diary entries. The Martian by Andy Weir takes things in a more solidly scientific direction with stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s log entries. More obscurely yet fascinatingly, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s acclaimed 2019 lesbian time travel secret agent romance (yes, you read that right), This Is How You Lose the Time War is told through notes passed by the opposing agents through multiple parallel universes. Some novels also play with this format as a framing device, like Stephen King’s Carrie and (spoiler!) Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll give no more details here, lest you be interested in reading those two.
And of course, how could we forget Dracula itself? There’s plenty of time to download either the e-book on Libby or borrow our physical copy, or even consider signing up for Matt Kirkland’s 2023 Dracula Daily run. Although, I won’t hold it against you if you don’t wait several years after the main narrative to read the epilogue!