Infinitesummer’s showing database errors, and you can hear the electron wind howling in the chinks between the entries here at infinitezombies. Anyone here? What are we supposed to do now? Do we get like a sticker or something?
“…and while Scary is Exciting, Nice is different than Good.”
-Red Riding Hood, from “I Know Things Now,” Into the Woods
And so we end in a warm living room, all gathered together, knocking back rack punch and talking about that freaky time back just after we got married where Mina got totes possessed and we ran all over Eastern Europe chasing a Vampire. Vampire, pleeease.
So is Dracula a Good book? Meh. I think it has probably been more of a Nice book for me … a creepy tale of the supernatural mixed with no small amount of “Law & Order”-like proceduralism to keep the pace going. But for me, all of the compelling bits ended up falling short of their early promise:
Mina as the “New Woman” – why couldn’t her Baptism by Blood have proven to be the small impetus needed to turn her from an apologist for women who wanted more out of Victorian life to a rabid champion for what womanhood could have been. Lucy might have been the hot one, but Mina had all the makings of that kind-of-wierd-but-sort-of-hot girl in your Psych 201 class, with all the threat and promise of the same.
Renfield as the Spurned Apostle – poor most-likely-bipolar Renfield. Never have we seen a more plain case of hero worship/man crush gone horribly wrong. Imagine what his diary might have been like … secreted away under his stool, pages sticky with melted sugar and the cover painstakingly adorned with the pearlescent sheen of a thousand blowfly wings.
Van Helsing as the (Un)witting Impetus — Abraham, with your so halting speech and knowledge of the wampyr that seems almost uncanny in its thoroughness. Surely Stoker must have thought you had a little bit more in you. In your so-strong drive for knowledge, a drive that drove your poor wife Sarah mad with fear and grief, you saw something one night, didn’t you? Peering up over a rock lip onto the unholy convocation of the scholars at Scholomance you witnessed something so thrillingly wrong, so completely, compellingly depraved that the rest of your life would be spent trying to scrub that so-not-of-Gott image from your mind, hoping against hope that you’d fail. Abe, you are a sick little monkey.
Jonathan “I Was Cuckolded by The Undead and All I Got Was this Lousy Head of White Hair” Harker: You never could get those three women out of your minds, could you, Johnny? How could Mina ever be enough after the freaky bloodthrill of getting three-wayed in the Eastern European equivalent of the Bunny Ranch. ANd tell me you didn’t go into explicit detail the minute you and the boys were out of earshot of the women. Dude, you had three undead, bi-curious, possibly related wraith women fighting over who would be your first? How do you not turn that into the best campfire story ever?
Of course, the slash fic possibilities are endless. And maybe in the end, it’s that malleability that makes Dracula a classic. You can hang sex, mystery, nationalism, criminality, class warfare and so many other Big Ideas from the hooks Stoker leaves festooned around the story that Dracula can’t help but be retold and reread time and time again. It brushes up against enough of humanity’s Naughty Bits that it ends up being the perfect framework into which we can all cast our own hopes and fears about Life, Death, Sex, Money, Class and Technology and more and watch what happens.
So is Dracula a good book? Maybe not. But is Dracula the book we need and deserve? Mien Gott, yes.
What if Bram Stoker is the equivalent of Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer character on Saturday Night Live. He’s just this guy, right. This guy who happens to be alive at the time of almost tectonic shifts in the way the world looked and worked. Everything was in flux.
Let’s cherry-pick shall we?
- Married women had been granted the right to vote in England in 1894. In fact , the two decades spanning the turn of the century saw women’s suffrage explode throughout the British Empire.
- Austria-Hungary, including the Count’s beloved Transylvania, was a loosely stitched-together amalgam of tribes and nationalitoes, ruled by the German aristocracy with the consent of Hungary’s Magyar ruling class. Similarly, the whole of the Western World was bound up in a web of alliances, treaties and backroom deals that all but guaranteed any regional conflict would bloom into full-blown war across the entire European continent.
- Technological advances on par with those that marked the late ’90s and early ’00s in this century were blurring the lines between personal and business communication. Anyone with an opinion and a couple hundred dollars could start a newspaper and through the use of telegraphy, a vigorous mail system and a rail network that ran like clockwork and report news from places that had been days away from a printing press only 20 years before.
- Resource-rich America was an emergent power on the world economic and political stages.
In short, might the Victorian Age have been all about trying to retain a grasp on a too-quickly shifting World Order? Any thinking, semi-well-read white man in the world *should* have been able to look around the world to see that his supremacy as the Prime Mover was being challenged from every side. Women. Technology. Social Class. Wealth. Power. All these props of the Victorian Man were being nibbled away at.
And so with all that angst that he and his fellow Men must have had bottled up inside, Bram Stoker sat down and wrote a scary-ass story.
- Aristocrats fleeing their beloved, impoverished homelands for juicier pickings abroad!
- Women torn between a society that wants them docile and an outside world that obviously needs their help! Oh and S-E-X too.
- The insane being treated as human beings!
- Domineering Germans dictating the course of events at every turn with no explanation!
- New-fangled technology that moves information at the speed of electricity no longer afforded the calming gift of time between missives to let passions simmer down and news to play out!
- Lord Godalming’s fading genteel aristocracy overpowered by the rootin’ tootin’ manifest destiny of Quincey Morris’ America!
That, my fellow Zombies, is some crazy, boundary-messin’-with, masculinity-threatening stuff to cram in a book. To me the question is whether or not Stoker wrote all this and more into the book.
In fact, no author can claim to write in a vacuum, totally removed from his times. I believe Stoker was just writing a good, pulpy story that would sell enough copies to make him just a bit famouser than his boss, actor Sir Henry Irving.
Not completely up on my Seward backstory, but had a couple of BGsO (Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious) this morning.
“Journals for go, recordings for show.” Like all of the characters, we only know of Seward what we read in his personal papers. While the Harker and Murray journals are personal papers, meant for each other and possibly their descendants, Seward’s notes get laid over to Gramophone with an eye (ear?) toward permanence. As a “physician,” Seward would have been educated to keep scrupulous notes. Van Helsing even comments on the fact that Seward’s case-books were always the best of all his students. I can’t help but get the sense that Seward records knowing that these reels will be used as source material for some future generations’ research. Contrast his reels with the journals kept by the others and Seward’s tone is decidedly more professional, which would be expected. That said, he also comes off as much more of a self-promoter and the reels end up sounding, in many ways, like what Seward meant to function as medical cases-work ended up working much more as a Book of Grievances.
Locker room talk sucks regardless of age or century. Seward proposes to Lucy (assuming, I get the feeling, as close to a sure thing as Victorians would be capable of) and gets a tearful rejection because Lucy’s heart already belongs to another. Later, he hears that his wasn’t the only proposal on the table. I make that assumption based on the sausagefest Quincey sets up at the end of Chapter V as Holmwood promises to bring messages which will “make both your ears tingle.” One can only imagine much later that night as Morris drunkenly pulls Jackie aside and drunkenly whispers, “Dude, I totally tapped that” as they all three drank healths to Lucy. Sure it was a kiss. But even if we take Lucy to be a reliable source, “just a kiss” would have been the sociological equivalent of a party hook-up.
“‘Let’s be friends'” cuts deep. So having his proposal rebuffed by the Hot One, and the Hot One’s BFF also removed from the pool by reason of her previously engagedness to that prig Harker, Seward can’t even throw himself into the work of guiding poor fly-eating Renfield down the corridors of madness before he’s summoned by his rich friend Holmwood to check up on the Hot One, now in waning health. (Chapter 9). So Seward gets to check up on a weakened Former Love Object, including, we assume, some amount of diagnostic palpating and such. Considering the times, wouldn’t have this been the equivalent of asking Seward to play eunuch and take good care of the harem? I think yes.
But wait there’s more. Seward is just about to give blood for the first of Lucy’s transfusions when Holmwood bursts into the room. “Come,” Van Helsing commands, all but pushing Seward aside. “You (Holmwood) are a man and it is a man we want. You are better than me, better than my friend John.” Call for Dr. Inadequacy, call for Doctor John Seward Inadequacy. Please report to the Emasculation Suite, stat!
THEN, when Seward’s blood is finally called for, only a half-measure is taken, the blood of “her lover, her fiance,” being better suited to the purpose.
Thrice shunned from Lucy. Twice required to become at least medically intimate with Lucy.
Is it any wonder some amount of rumor/speculation exists that links Jack Seward and Jack the Ripper to each other. You KNOW that if this was a comic book universe that we would have had an entire series devoted to Seward the Ripper.
I for one, am maybe interested a bit more now in the Seward/Holmwood/Lucy dynamic than I was before. Let’s keep an eye on that one.
*to the tune of Once in Royal David’s City, with apologies to just about everyone.
Living in the Nashville area puts me within easy driving distance of the University of the South’s annual Lessons & Carols. For many good Episcopalians (and a good many more lapsed ones), a trek Up the Mountain to Sewanee the first weekend in December is the true sign that the season of preparation, Advent, has arrived.
As I read, the events surrounding Dracula’s coming feel like a bizzarro Advent season.
As he draws closer to his “dear new country of England,” all sorts of strange things happen. As readers we see these things in toto. However, the players with the story see only their parts, and so don’t have the advantage of perspective that we enjoy. So!
- Lucy Westenra begins wandering around her hotel room, spooking out Mina and dredging up all sorts of negative memories of summer camp for me.
- Renfield’s zoophagy climbs the evolutionary ladder, culminating in birds. At the rate he was progressing, I dare say he would have worked his way up to either wildebeests or small children by August 6, the day the the ship bearing the Count was sighted out past the reef in Whitby.
- On August 6, Cap’n Swale, citing no more than a change in the weather, seems to forget his previous blasphemies to Mina Murray and instead make everything short of his Last Confession to her.
I point out these occurrences as examples that Evil/Dracula’s ability to project mojo/vibe/Dracularity well beyond himself. Vampires’ ability to hold humans and animal in thrall is well documented. Stoker, however, has given us several glimpses of the long-distance spookiness the Count can direct.
What I am not yet clear on is whether those who pick up on the vibes are pre-selected or simply happen to be receptive to Dracula’s evil mind control powers. I am much more spooked out by the possibility that the Count is little more than an Amplified Radio Tower of Evil, sending out wave upon wave of death and the three who pick up on it were somehow targeted from afar.
Unlike the lil Babe who was born in a lowly cattle shed in “Royal David’s city,” Dracula’s advent in the West will definitely not shine as a light unto the world.
So is it just me, or does anyone else get the sense that Lucy Westenra’s personality is not altogether dissimilar to “the kind of girl” one might run across on a (Victorian Trustafarian) “Girls Gone Wild” video?
I’m just sayin’.
Fellow Infinite-Zombie Daryl L.L. Houston sez “One of the things I’ll be looking for in the book is style vs. story.”
Infinite Jest to Dracula. Style vs. story. That’s some heavy lifting.
While I wouldn’t be too quick to relegate Dracula to the polite charms of the quasi-epistolary novel – and I don’t think Daryl is either – Stoker’s book is hardly the juggling act that Jest was. Three – five major plot lines vs. one, maybe two. A cast of some two dozen characters versus Dracula’s seven or eight. And a post-modern/pre-apocalypse/fin-de-siecle author who set out to tell a story AND confound the mechanics of the modern novel in Wallace versus a guy who wanted to tell a good story in Stoker. In short, it’s hard not to get caught up in a struggle of style v. story.
However, if I put myself in the fussy, uncomfortable, distinctly not-sensual seat of the Victorian reader, however, the style begins to make much more sense. The epistolary novel – or a letter within standard novels – has always been an ideal vehicle to expose a story through deliberate brush strokes, keeping both writer and recipient in the dark about the true nature of things.
And if, as Beresford asserts in his Demons to Dracula, Stoker’s story represented to first widely circulated telling of a story that combined folk tales from Eastern Europe, his audience wouldn’t have been as inculcated with the whole Vampire Thing as we are. So the novel might end up reading like some sort of gothic horror strip tease, where one gruesome, erotic layer is removed at a time. Only instead of knowing what we, the collective Modern Reader, are going to see next, every letter exposes something new, thrilling and a tiny bit naughty.
“We are not amused,” Queen Victoria might have said of Stoker’s book. “But We are intrigued and not a little titillated.”
About the Post Title: So I got caught up with 3 back episodes of “Top Gear” the weekend to clear off the DVR. Sue me.
From the first time we burble “Again, again” after Daddy reads us The Snowy Day to the last time the mourners utter a pre-Eucharistic “Thanks be to God” at our funeral, we meatsacks are borne swiftly through life on the backs of familiar stories, repeated again and again and again until the words scarcely have meaning any more.
Throughout December and regardless of faith leaning, we hear the story of Christ’s birth. The Night Before Christmas gets endlessly repeated and re-written to fit the most mundane of applications, the office Christmas Party (Twas the night before Christmas/and all through Accounting,/the billing was late, the tensions were mounting).
Star Wars retold The Seven Samuari which retold every Western ever. Stories of the underdog’s triumph unwind endlessly back into history. Even the Creation stories our varied faith ascribe to have the ring of the familiar (Hey Noah. Gilgamesh called. He wants his flood back)
We’re comforted by their repetition.
And it’s that very familiarity I have to work to overcome when reading Dracula. Sure, Dracula is the vampire story that sired them all. But the fact that it’s the source, the ur-Dracula, means that while the plot elements can change from telling to telling, the tropes themselves never will. And, for that matter, they never can.
So we have Harker en route to the castle, with every person he meets along the way telling him not to go. We have a coachman pick him up at the Borgo Pass who we know to be Dracula. The teeth, the pallor, the inhuman strength. The thrall he holds over the canine and lupine.
Has there ever been a book more deserving of having its reader yell, rude-in-the-movie-theater style, “Dude. Do NOT get into that caleche. DUDE! DON’T. Awwww maaaaan!”
We must have the willing victim. We must have darkness and dogs. We must have repressed heroes, helpless women (on which more, later) and the deus ex machina of a wizard/shaman/doctor/Van Helsing.
We welcome them, cheering as they enter on stage. “Hey y’all it’s Jonathan Harker! Hey Jonathan! When you here a slap-slapping at the window, don’t open it dude!”
And yet. As we read, no matter how familiar we are with how the story will play out, we KNOW that we’ll continue to read. In fact, because we know the play and players so well already, we can spend more time peering into the text for subtleties.
Here’s some of what I’ll be looking for.
- Does the Count have a sense of humor?
- Is he playing with his food as he welcomes Harker to the castle?
- Precisely how far up his own ass, careerally speaking, is Jonathan Harker’s head to miss out on the many disturbing signs he sees along the way because he’s so focused doing the job he was sent to do?
- Are the women any weaker or stronger than the men in how they deal with Dracula?
- Is the real evil in the book the Seward/Renfield relationship?
- Is Dracula, for that matter, evil? Or is he merely animal?
- How does Dracula feel about his immortality? Wouldn’t someone who could never die eventually wish he or she could if for no other reason than to try something truly new?
Too, like the story of the Nativity, every vampire tale brings a new element of the overall Dracula universe to light (so to speak).
So that’s my challenge to me.
What will you hope to find in this reading?
If this is your first ride through the Carpathians, what presuppositions will you have challenged? If you’re an old pro, what will surprise you this time around?