Monday, December 26, 2005

11 Things You Might Not Have Known About Bram Stoker's Dracula

  1. That it is a quintessentially modern horror novel. I had made the, it now seems, groundless assumption that Dracula was a traditional vampire tale--that Stoker had laid the foundation for vampire myth as a folk-tale and superstition. Instead, what I found in Dracula was the blueprint from which all modern horror is drawn--or, more accurately, half of modern horror. The other half draws its shape from Frankenstein--the story of hubris run amok, of understanding untempered by morals or religion, of humanity meddling, through sheer scientific curiosity, in things better left untroubled. Dracula lays out the other classic form of the genre--the story of modern, rational people, who sneer at tradition, superstition, and anything having to do with the supernatural, and who learn, at great cost, how little they actually know about the world. The conflict between rationalism and spiritualism, which we tend to think of as a 20th century invention, is the driving force of the novel. It is the characters' rationalism and modernity that allows Dracula to prey upon them, but that same rationalism is also the force that allows them to learn from their mistakes and eventually defeat the monster (with a healthy dollop of spiritual, or actually Christian, faith thrown in for good measure).

  2. That the most famous line connected with Dracula actually appears in the book, albeit slightly altered: "Listen to them--the children of the night. What music they make!"

  3. That Renfield is not, as many adaptations and reimaginations of the story claim, made mad by Dracula. He's a genuine lunatic, whose particular obsession is with the very stuff of life. He consumes insects (and other animals) not because Dracula forces him to but because he believes that to do so grants him their life energy. He naturally transfers his allegiance to Dracula when the two come in contact--the Count is, after all, a walking implementation of Renfield's thesis--but even after that meeting he vacillates between his own madness, the one induced by the Count, and occasional periods of lucidity.

  4. That the book contains the only positive portrayal I have ever read of Victorian lunatic asylums and their keepers. Possibly because the plot doesn't hinge on a sane person being wrongly committed (see The Woman in White, The Quincunx, Fingersmith), and possibly because one of the main characters is an asylum keeper, but the seemingly ubiquitous Victorian conviction that the insane choose to be so, and that they can be forced to recant of their insanity by sufficient application of harsh measures, is nowhere to be seen.

  5. That it contains the phrase: "even his stalwart manhood seemed to have shrunk somewhat"

  6. That the book is violently afraid of sexuality, and consistently equates it with evil and damnation. When Jonathan Harker is accosted by the lascivious brides of Dracula, he finds himself shamefully attracted to them--a feeling which he never expresses for his beloved wife. When Lucy Westenra, Dracula's doomed victim, is under the Count's thrall, she is consistently described as voluptuous, whereas when she is herself her behavior is chaste and demure, to the point that, at the brink of death, her fiancé will only kiss her on the forehead. Mina Harker, who is held up as a feminine ideal, is correct to the point of wondering whether her husband would reproach her for embracing Lucy's grief-stricken fiancé when he collapses, or even for holding his hand, and when the male characters learn that Dracula may be attacking Mina in her sleep, they still debate the correctness of bursting into her bedroom.

  7. That unlike every other variation and permutation on the vampire story that I've seen or read, from straight adaptations to Anne Rice and Buffy, Dracula neither romanticizes nor aggrandizes the vampire or his timeless existence. The book manages to do what so many adaptations have failed (or perhaps never even attempted) to do--turn Dracula into a terrifying, unquestionably evil monster whom the reader hates and fears. Stoker manages this by telling the story solely through the eyes of Dracula's victims-cum-pursuers. It's impossible to observe Dracula constantly thwarting the best efforts of Lucy's well-meaning doctors, or to read the ship's log of a captain whose crew is devoured, one by one, by the vampire as he travels to England, without feeling a revulsion towards Dracula that, to me, was the most refreshing and intriguing aspect of the book. Dracula is consistently described as an animal--a dangerous, clever one, but an animal still--a being of pure selfishness and greed, a distorted child, who smells of death and putrescence (I dare you to romanticize vampires after reading Mina's cry that the creature had brought its 'reeking lips' to her throat), who needs to be put down. I can understand where the image of the seductive vampire comes from (especially given the blatant virgin-whore dichotomy that suffuses the entire book, which essentially means that to be a sexual being, one must be evil), but it's nice to see that at the beginning of the modern incarnation of the vampire myth, someone recognized the qualities that make the vampire inherently repellent.

  8. That Stoker's attempts at conveying accents and vernacular very nearly sink the entire endeavor, whether it's Van Helsing's fractured English, or the various attempts to convey working class English accents ("Man! But the supersteetion of foreigners is pairfectly rideeculous!").

  9. That Van Helsing is the most annoying character ever written. Even in a book as littered with Victorian paragons of virtue and decency--brave Jonathan Harker, clever Mina Harker, sweet, innocent, lovable Lucy Westenra, intelligent, devoted Dr. Seward, courageous and determined Arthur Godalming and Quincey Morris--as Dracula is, Van Helsing is a Mary Sue too far. He's not only a genius and a renaissance man, but a man of deep faith who is also open-minded enough to recognize the vampire's existence and who knows exactly how to defeat him (but not, apparently, how to speak correct English). As the plot progresses and Van Helsing begins to dominate the story, the book grows less and less interesting. It would have been better to have cast Van Helsing as the little-seen advisor figure and leave the actual vampire-hunting the younger, more skeptical, generation.

  10. That the entire book would have been about 20 pages long if the people in it actually talked to each other. In his journey to Castle Dracula at the beginning of the book, Jonathan Harker is constantly accosted by peasants who beg him not to go there, but not a single one will tell him why. Lucy Westenra's death is in many ways the result of her unwillingness to confide in her friends. Renfield refuses to tell Seward about the Count until it's too late--leading to his own death and the attack on Mina. Mina conceals said attack because she doesn't want to distress her husband, who is concealing the progress of the investigation into Dracula from her because he doesn't want to upset her. At some junctures in the story it's clear that Stoker is making a point, but at others he simply uses a lack of communication as a convenient hook for his plot.

  11. That it's a really good, and at time quite creepy, book, and well worth a look even if--especially if--you think you know exactly what to expect from it.

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