This novel is not told in a straightforward, chronological, omniscient manner, like many nineteenth-century novels. Instead, it is composed of a collage of letters, journal entries and diary jottings, in addition to a portion of a ship's log, various newspaper clippings, and even a "phonograph diary." Since the story is basically a mystery, this technique is highly effective in sustaining suspense, for there are literally dozens of narrative pieces for readers to fit together before they can see the complexity of the novel resolved and the entirety of Stoker's pattern. Stoker most likely borrowed this approach to his novel from Wilkie Collins, who used the same technique in his "detective" novel The Woman in White (1860).
Jonathan Harker's journal entries begin on May 3, sometime in the late nineteenth century. The young London lawyer has been traveling by train across Europe and is currently in Budapest, in route to Count Dracula's estate, located somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania — the "land beyond the forest." Harker has been sent by his London law firm to complete the final transactions for a transfer of real estate, which the Count has recently purchased in England, and thus far, Harker is very pleased with his trip. He is favorably impressed with Budapest, and he remarks that already he can tell that he is leaving the Western world behind him and that he is "entering the East," a section of Europe whose peoples and customs will be, for the most part, strange and unfamiliar.
At the beginning of his journey, the tenor of his narrative is low-key — that is, Harker records what he contemplates, what he sees, and what he eats (in regard to the latter, he jots off a couple of reminders to himself to obtain certain recipes for his fiancée, Mina Murray).
As his journal entries continue, Harker continues to record the details of the exotically spiced meals which he dines on, plus descriptions of the many old castles which he sees perched atop steep hills in the distance. The train dawdles on through the countryside, and Harker continues to describe the colorfully costumed peasants whom he sees; he is especially fascinated by the local garb of the swarthy, rather fierce looking men of the region, for they remind him of bandits, but he says that he has been assured that they are quite harmless.
At the eve of twilight, when Harker's train reaches Bistritz, not far from the infamous Borgo Pass, Harker disembarks and checks into the "delightful . . . old fashioned" Golden Krone Hotel (Count Dracula has instructed him to stay here). Before retiring for the night, Harker reads a note of cordial welcome from Count Dracula, then he records some of the local stories about the Pass, as well as some of the other local beliefs and superstitions. For example, the Borgo Pass marks the entry into Bukovina, and the Pass itself has been the scene of great fires and centuries of massacres, famine, and disease. Coincidentally, Harker's arrival at Bistritz is on the eve of St. George's Day, a night when "evil things in the world . . . have full sway." At first, Harker is unconcerned about these local superstitions, but after he witnesses an old peasant woman's fearful awe of the name "Dracula," and after he realizes the extent of her fear for his safety, and after he finally accepts her gift of a rosary to ward off evil spirits, Harker begins to become a bit uneasy about setting off the next day for the Borgo Pass, despite the fact that Dracula's carriage will be waiting for him when he arrives late on the eve of St. George's Day.
The morning of the departure does not bode well: A considerable crowd of peasants has gathered around the coach, muttering polyglot words which all seem to be variants of the word vampire; then, almost as if it happens en mass, the crowd makes the sign of the cross and points two fingers at him (a superstitious sign of blessing for a good, safe journey). The coach is off, and in contrast to the rugged road and the feverish haste of the horses, the countryside seems happy, bright, and colorful. But the forest trail, Harker notes, begins to rise ever upward, and soon they begin ascending the lofty, steep terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. The country peasants, as the coach dashes by them, all kneel and cross themselves, and Harker notes that the hills soon pass into a misty and cold gloom. Evening arrives, and soon they are passing beneath ghost-like clouds, as the coach careens alongside late-lying snows. Harker asks to walk, but his request is denied; foot travel is impossible because of the large number of fierce wild dogs in the woods. Meanwhile, the driver lashes his horses onward at an ever faster and more furious speed until at last the coach enters the Borgo Pass.
The passengers disembark, the horses neigh and snort violently, and the peasants suddenly begin screaming. Simultaneously, a horse-drawn caleche drives up, and the driver instructs Harker that he will take him to Count Dracula. Once inside the caleche, Harker collapses in the close darkness, feeling like a child, cowering within the eerie loneliness. Glancing at his watch, he notices in alarm that it is midnight. A wild howling commences, the horses strain and rear, and wolves begin to gather from all sides as fine, powdery snow begins to fall. Harker falls asleep, probably from psychological strain and also from physical weariness; when he awakens, the caleche is stopped and the driver is gone. A ring of wolves "with white teeth and lolling red tongues" surrounds Harker. He feels "a sort of paralysis of fear." The ring of terror is unbearable; he shouts and beats on the side of the caleche. There seems to be no one around. Then without warning, the driver reappears, signals the wolves to disperse, and he drives onward, ascending again, ever higher, until at last they are in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, the castle of Count Dracula.
From what we read in Harker's journal, it is clear that the young lawyer is a very logical, organized sort of man. Clearly, Stoker is setting up his protagonist as a very rational individual; in this way, the horror of the melodrama which will occur later will be encountered by a man who will try to combat it with common sense and logic. As a result, the terror of Stoker's narrative will become heightened and will seem more believable and less excessively hysterical. Had Stoker chosen a nervous, emotional type of man for his hero, his gothic melodrama would have become, or could have become, laughable and ludicrous. This is not the case, however; because of the carefully calculated way in which Stoker indicates and unravels the mystery of Count Dracula, he achieves a mastery over his subject matter that mitigates the raw horror and, instead, intensifies each chapter's sense of anxiety and portentous dread.
One of the first devices that Stoker uses to let us know that Harker is sensible and rational (in addition to the fact that he is a lawyer) is by having Harker recall in his journal that he spent quite a bit of time prior to his journey in the British Museum; there, he read as much as he could about the provinces through which he would be traveling (provinces originally occupied by Attila and the Huns); Harker tried his best to locate the exact locality of Castle Dracula, but unfortunately, he was not able to pinpoint the location precisely, because the castle is located in one of the "wildest and least known portions of Europe." Yet even this ominously mysterious fact does not worry Harker unduly; because he is able to use his smattering of German, he is enjoying his adventuresome trip — thus far — and his notes become more minutely descriptive and confessional as he continues; the purpose for recording as much as he can, he says, is so that he can later refresh his memory when he is telling his fiancée, Mina, about the journey.
One of the first clues in Harker's journal that suggests to us something about the terror that will soon commence concerns Harker's reaction to Transylvania itself. He notes that "every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians"; he also records, again matter-of-factly, the minor annoyance of his having had "all sorts of queer dreams" recently; in addition, he heard a "dog howling all night under [his] window." He wonders, rather naively, if perhaps it was the excessive paprika in the chicken casserole which he ate for dinner that could have been responsible for his bad dreams.