Way Ahead

Ok, so I’m way ahead of the reading schedule and trying to slow myself down.  Part of the additional material in my edition (Norton Critical) is a selection of reviews that came out when the novel was published.  As I read through them, some favorable and some not, I remembered that there had been some forum discussion as to whether readers would have known what they were in for.  Without the internet, massive marketing efforts, and splashy dust jackets with glowing praise, how would the Victorian book reading public know what to buy?  I’m not a scholar on these things and welcome comments from those who have a better grasp of this, but I think they would have depended on reviews, word of mouth, and the knowledge of the booksellers.  Based on the reviews collected in mine, they would most definitely have known what Dracula was about. 

The Daily Mail, June 1, 1897, describes it as quite a page turner (exactly the problem for me!), references such works as Frankenstein and The Fall of the House of Usher, and warns readers that

Persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset.

The Spectator on July 31, 1897 declared that

Mr. Bram Stoker gives us the impression – we may be doing him an injustice – of having deliberately laid himself out in Dracula to eclipse all previous efforts in the domain of the horrible…

And most interestingly to me, Bookman in August 1897 states

It is something of a triumph for the writer that neither the improbability, nor the unnecessary number of hideous incidents recounted of the man-vampire, are long foremost on the reader’s mind, but that the interest of the danger, of the complications, of the pursuit of the villain, of human skill and courage pitted against inhuman wrong and superhuman strength, rises always to the top.

Bookman also issues a warning to “Keep Dracula out of the way of nervous children…”

Add to the prominence of newspapers and journals in disseminating information the importance of personal letters.  People were prolific letter writers at the time and the postal service, in London at least, was incredibly efficient (I believe two deliveries a day at some point).  I’ll leave it up to Infinite Detox to craft one of his outstanding parodies – perhaps two victorian maidens writing breathlessly to each other about the delicious new novel Dracula?

All of this is simply to say that I believe, for the most part, readers of the time were not picking the novel blindly, but were guided by reviews and commentary and were ready for the story within.

In my effort not to spoil anything, I’m still avoiding the critical commentary in my edition.  So to help me stick to the schedule I’m going to spend some time trying to read similar and contemporary works.  I’ve ordered H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), from my library and will also look for H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).  If I come up with some great discussion points I’ll let you know.

Once in Spoooo-ky Tra-ha-hansylvania/stood a roooo-cky cas-tle on a hill*

*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.

Infinite Downshift – Infinite Jest to Dracula is like shifting from 5th to 1st at 75 mph without double-clutching

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.

fussy chairsHowever, 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.

Temptation

I was struck at the conclusion of chapter V that Lucy Westerna is approached by three tempters, much as Harker was approached by (and aroused by) three temptresses. As with Harker’s temptresses, I found myself wondering if Lucy’s weren’t in collusion. That is, the three suitors know one another apparently rather well. I found myself wondering whether the victorious of the three hadn’t engaged his friends to tempt Lucy as a test of her devotion to him. Similarly, one of Harker’s seductrixes was differentiated in some way (was she a blonde and the other two brunettes?). I’m not in a position just yet to make anything of it, but this pair of trios is something I’ll be keeping my eyes open for in the weeks ahead.

Reading Dracula Again for the Very First Time.

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?

A Very Peculiar Man

Toward the end of chapter two, noting that he hasn’t yet seen the Count eat or drink, Harker remarks that Dracula is a very peculiar man. You said it, Bub. Parts of the first two chapters read to me the way the beginning of the movie Scream unfolds. Like the teenagers in the movie, Harker ignores many signs that things may be amiss. And, one assumes, things will wind up going as badly for Harker as for the teenagers. But there is a difference in what’s behind their attitudes, I think. The teenagers are carefree, daring, rash, and enjoying the gift of perceived immortality afforded to the youthful. Whether Harker is merely naive or is guilty of a rather less endearing tendency to write off the natives of the country he’s in as simple and superstitious I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps he’s both, for a tendency to underestimate people can itself be in a way naive.

In any case, it’s a little funny to read. Here’s my condensed treatment of Harker’s observations:

How strange: The landlord suddenly won’t speak to me about the Count even though it’s just achingly obvious that he can communicate adequately with me. Meh, it’s probably nothing.

What’s with the hysterical old lady with the crucifix?

Wonder why the coach driver and the landlady are whispering together about devils and hell and witches and looking at me frantically. Weirdos.

Wow, this coach driver sure is in a hurry. Sure wish he’d let me down to pee. And what’s with the blessings and gifts the other passengers are giving me?

My new driver sure has some crazy teeth.

Goddamn wolves!

Why are we driving around in circles? And what about these blue flames?

Those wolves sure seem to like my driver with the crazy teeth.

I think I blacked out for a while there. Anyway, we seem to be at the castle, but my driver just took off and left me here in the dark. Guess I’ll just wait here calmly.

This Dracula guy seems kind of dead.

Oh, and he sure has some crazy teeth and seems to love those wolves.

Dracula disappeared mysteriously for an hour, and when he came back, my dinner was ready. Oddly, there seem to be no servants at all.

I’m starting to feel a little lonely and creeped out.

Hey, Dracula seems not to have a reflection, and he grabbed my throat when he saw blood from where I cut myself shaving. Asshole. It’s ok, though — when he touched the crucifix that crazy old lady gave me, he backed off.

I still haven’t seen the Count eat or drink. He must be a very peculiar man!

Think I’ll have a look around. Wait a minute… this place feels a little like a prison. Wonder if something fishy’s going on here.

Did Stoker make Harker deliberately dim, I wonder, or is this a clumsy attempt to layer suspense in one detail at a time?

The Grapes of Wrath

I am apparently incapable of giving a post a title that is not the title of a famous work by another author. Is there a support group for this?

I found myself thinking tonight about the Irish allegory that my edition of Dracula says lurks under the surface of the story, and all the poorness and starvation and suffering of 19th-century Irish potato farmers, when all of a sudden, The Grapes of Wrath popped into my head. It’s been a long time since I read Steinbeck’s novel, but the gist as I recall it is that farmers during the dust bowl era who couldn’t make a go of it on their own land moved westward and have a horrific time of it, rather like the Irish potato farmers Stoker must have had in mind as he wrote about his blood-sucking absentee landlord type figure.

And then that final dramatic scene of The Grapes of Wrath flashed into the foreground for me. I suppose I’ll be spoiling Steinbeck’s book here for any who haven’t read it, though I’ll try to be a little oblique about it. That final scene is a similar sort of cannibalism to what we see (or will see, I presume) in Dracula and less directly in “A Modest Proposal,” isn’t it? Yet, for all the uproar over its being indecent or pornography or whatever some prudes have made that final scene out to be, it’s the most wholesome sort of parasitism. It’s the free offering of the self rather than a sort of rape; it’s the other side of the coin from what Swift and (I gather) Stoker were writing in opposition to, in which the well-off feed on the poor by force. Steinbeck shows us the poor helping the poorer, and what a triumphant thing that is! How validating of the human spirit at its best when confronting the human condition at its worst.

This makes me think of a post I wrote while reading Infinite Jest in which I noted that Wallace was exposing so much sadness and brokenness for which, I feared, there was perhaps no remedy. I begin to harbor a suspicion that works like Swift’s and Stoker’s may be demonstrative of a problem without providing any sort of real hope or solution. I don’t suppose Steinbeck provided any sort of solution either, but in The Grapes of Wrath, he does offer a glimmer of hope. Perhaps for the next installment of Infinite Summer, we should read something marked by unbridled hope, if only to cleanse the palate for 2666, which has its share and then some of despair.

My Vampire Friends

Hi, I’m the new member of the Infinite Zombies group and I’m a complete beginner at this.  Hoping to have a lot of fun and get lots of help from all of you!

I’m starting to enter Dracula’s world, but am finding it to be quite an adjustment.  For me it’s a combination of factors, the greatest of which is the 100+ years of vampires in our culture.  They’re tapping on my windows and flitting around the shadows in the house.  I know the first column on the Infinite Summer: Dracula site advised us to leave them behind.  I’m not sure that’s really possible and I’m not sure I really want to.  My favorite vampires over the years are all here with me while I read and I’m thinking I want to keep them in view.  Perhaps they can be my counterpoint to Stoker’s creation.  We know from scholars that his Dracula is very different from what vampires have become to us today and we don’t want to read with the mindset of “that’s not right, that’s not how vampires are” but I don’t think we need to banish them all together.  I propose instead to use the difference to reflect back on and illuminate this Dracula.  Not getting caught up in what is different but enjoying those differences.  Marveling at what Stoker’s Dracula has become.  He created a figure so enduring and so attractive that he’s become an icon.  Honestly, we’ve got the suave charming vampires, the ruthless sexual predator vampires, Christopher Lee’s Dracula cavorting with buxom maidens in the great old Hammer Studios films, the sensitive vampires of Angel and the Twilight series, and even The Count on Sesame Street (one of my personal favorites).  Here in Orlando I’ve got a neighbor who decorates his yard for Halloween with a gian inflatable Mickey Mouse decked out in cape and fangs.  Actually, I think that’s the creepiest version!  So I’ve decided that I’m inviting them all along on my read.

A Modest Proposal

I don’t have an immodest proposal of my own that I’m wryly naming “A Modest Proposal” in a knowing nod to the 18th-century work of satire of the same name. It just turns out that Swift’s piece came to mind as I was reading the end notes to my edition of Dracula. I cringe to admit that my knowledge of Irish history is woefully incomplete. As I understand it in a nutshell, England feared invasions from France or Spain across Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries and thus figured it was pretty important to control Ireland (here’s my source for pretty much all the history herein). At the same time, Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic church and so sought to convert Ireland to Protestantism, resulting presumably in much of what still fuels unrest in Ireland today. Later, Cromwell more or less conquered Ireland, and those loyal to him were rewarded with land. A landlord system emerged, the Irish Catholics relegated to the status of tenants. Much of this happened during Swift’s lifetime (1667 – 1745), and in his famous 1729 essay, he satirically proposed that Ireland’s poor tenants escape poverty by selling their children to the rich for food.

Bram Stoker was born about 100 years after Swift’s death, at just about the time Ireland’s potato crop was destroyed by famine. As the potato was the primary means of life for poor tenants, the famine cast them into even greater poverty (some 750,000 died of starvation or disease), and a question of responsibility for the tenants arose. Were they on their own or did the English landlords bear some responsibility for their fate? Many landlords adopted the former position and profited from the famine by driving their tenants off the land. Over the ensuing decades, factions and organizations arose that ultimately led to the reinstatement of some protection from unfair rents along with rights to repurchase for tenants.

My copy of Dracula has the following note early in chapter one:

Transylvania means “land beyond the forest.” It may be taken as a play on the phrase “beyond the pale,” which originally referred to all areas of Stoker’s homeland, Ireland, not under direct British administrative control, the so-called English Pale. Transylvania was a region of the Balkans that was a part of Hungary at the time Dracula was written. This fact is important for what we might call the Irish allegory of Dracula, Stoker’s use of Transylvania as a shadowy analogue of his own homeland. Hungary had achieved a form of independence from the Austrian Empire that Stoker and many other moderate Irish nationalists advocated for Ireland. The “devolution” of Hungary became an oft-proposed model for Irish “Home Rule.”

A number of other notes attached to the first chapter underscore the idea that Dracula is shadowed by Irish history, and I surely wouldn’t have guessed as much if not for the notes. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Stoker wrote (I assume for now based on pop cultural references, which may be dangerous) of a sort of cannibalism with respect to the state of affairs in Ireland, as Swift had done 150 years before.