Saturday, 28 July 2012

Dracula



Bram Stoker Dracula (1897)
Without actually bothering to reach over, pluck Trillion Year Spree from the shelf and check, I seem to recall Brian Aldiss attributing the success and enduring appeal of both Dracula and Frankenstein to the post-Darwinian demise of the notion of a human soul surviving the death of the body to live on in some form of afterlife, both Count and monster representing post-mortem existence in the absence of spiritual stuff. I may have remembered that wrong because having now read Dracula I've realised that it doesn't quite work, although it is true to say that both novels definitively belong to the industrial revolution. Nineteenth century advances in science play an obvious and integral role in the story of Frankenstein, although in Dracula this relationship is less clear, serving to influence the means by which the story is told rather than its detail. Specifically Dracula tells a traditional horror story using a rational perspective for the sake of contrast, scepticism and incredulity informed by contemporary mores expressed at almost every turn mainly for the sake of firing up the dry ice machine, pulling a spooky face, and whispering that the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere "modernity" cannot kill, as Harker puts it, or asking is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, as does Van Helsing, later to emphasise the same point thus:
"Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? But there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men's eyes, because they know—or think they know—some things which other men have told them. Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explains not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young—like fine ladies at the opera."

In other words, just like Lovecraft a decade later, Stoker was hinting at spooky stuff beyond our ken whilst pioneering the language we would today associate with flying saucer types who describe sightings in the driest possible terms in the hope of someone else pointing out that it definitely sounds like it was an alien spaceship. The problem is that unlike Frankenstein - which I seem to recall as revelatory - once Dracula has done this, it doesn't seem to do much else, four hundred pages stood around in the mist looking mysterious and occasionally claiming to know stuff that would probably freak you out a bit if it told you, so it isn't going to tell you because it's all mysterious and stuff. Take this passage for example:
As I approached the house, I explained to him, I was startled to hear the word 'vampire' called out by a passer and looked up to see a huge bat making an ingress of the Count's window. Dracula chuckled in Romanian, his red eyes aglow from that medical condition which he had earlier described to me, telling me that he had just recently returned from a cricket match at which he had served as umpire and therefore that cry in the night would almost have certainly been a colleague attempting to draw his attention to the bat at his window. Of course he had himself been quite aware of the flapping beast, and it had startled him so as to cause him to drop his hot dog and indeed I saw there upon his lapels and around his mouth the tomato ketchup which had been so unceremoniously distributed by his startlement. My mind duly set at ease, I wished him well and took my leave.

It's okay. I made it up. That isn't really in the book.

Maybe it's just that a million cinematic Draculas have somewhat spoiled the story for me, but beyond the admittedly wonderful opening Transylvanian chapters, I found it difficult to sustain enthusiasm, and after our man shows up in Whitby, it just sort of dithers around for several hundred pages before returning the Count to his castle, thus rendering the bulk of the tale more or less pointless; and it's told in diary form thus striving for a realism which shoots itself in the foot in presenting characters who must presumably have spent four or five hours each day writing up their circular conversations about how they're really scared and would rather not get bitten, the most ludicrous being Mina Harker's:
Of course he wanted to be with me; but then the boat service would, most likely, be the one which would destroy the... the... the... Vampire. (Why did I hesitate to write the word?)

I don't know, Mina, but it really didn't help.

Dracula undoubtedly has its moments, and it's interesting to note that the main character is unambiguously identified as the undead Vlad TepeĊŸ of Wallachia; yet like those goth types who go all weak at the knees for the whole vampire routine, it may look interesting, but there's not a lot else going on once you're past the window dressing. Whilst plodding through this, I paused to dip into Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People by Paul Woods and Gavin Baddeley for research purposes, and it's a bit embarrassing to admit that the non-fiction was about four-thousand times more interesting than Stoker's misty mumblings. Actually,  even Twilight was a better read, blasphemy though that may well be.

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