Dracula on the Mat

The yoga mat, that is.    Because I have to tell you, it’s taking pretty much full yogic mindfulness to not let this book make me batty.  As I sat quietly in a recent yoga class and listened to my teacher talk about the importance of accepting where you are at this very moment and surrendering to that acceptance it felt like Bram Stoker was next to me giving me a little tap on the head.  Maybe what I need to do is to simply read and accept, be open to the style and conventions of a book written over 100 years ago.  Is it possible to let go of our 21st Century minds and accept that in this world the characters would behave very differently?  Can we just accept and enjoy?  In the words of Van Helsing (Chapter 17) can we “Read all, I pray you, with the open mind…”?

When I first started writing notes for a post about letting my yoga mind help me enjoy Dracula I was somewhat ahead of schedule and adding some additional reading.  Since then I’ve read J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a lovely little novella with a female vampire published in 1872, and H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896.  They helped me to get more into the style and rhythm of fiction at the end of the 19th Century, and were wonderful side reads.  For a little while I was doing ok, relaxing into it, accepting the characters seeming obliviousness and Van Helsing’s ridiculous phrasing.  I was thinking that life for these folks was simply more dramatic, what with all the sinking to the knees and wailing and pledges of undying loyalty.  I was enjoying it, really I was. 

Now?  I won’t go beyond the spoiler point here, but since we’re supposed to be finished with Chapter 21 today, I have to admit that the scribbled notations of WTF followed by exclamation  points are piling up in the margins of my copy.  As Claire wrote in her main page post  for Oct. 21, damn them!  The whole dismissal of Mina after they couldn’t praise her enough and then their complete miss of the fact that she was suffering the same fate as Lucy was just about too much for me.  Now that the boy’s club is all together it’s all about planning and getting our toys, um, I mean weapons, ready and preparing and all the fun boy club things.  Gee, Mina looks pale, she should go to bed.  By herself.  In the lunatic asylum next to the lair of Dracula.  Much safer that way.  Do the boys redeem themselves by finally figuring out what’s going on with Mina?  Nope, Renfield has to tell them as he’s dying. 

As we move into the rest of the book, I’m going to be trying to just relax and accept.  I’m going to try to keep my yoga mind about this, but I have to say it’s getting harder and harder to do!

A brief insight on Seward

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.


Like Joan, I’m pretty far ahead of the daily milestones, so I haven’t by any means dropped out of the reading, though I’ve clearly sort of dropped out of the writing for Infinite Summer this time around. Maybe I’ll come around soon. I brought my book into the office tonight with the intention of scanning my margin notes through chapter 11 and putting together a post, but I simply don’t feel like it. I guess part of it’s because I put a lot of myself into not only Infinite Summer but a side writing project associated with Wallace’s work over the summer, so I’m kind of needing a break from what sometimes feels like the obligation of a deadline. Part of it also is that I missed watching a whole lot of baseball this summer. Nobody held a gun to my head, of course, and it was a good tradeoff, since the first installment of IS was a great pleasure for me. And don’t get me wrong — I’m enjoying reading Dracula (it doesn’t really speak to me as Wallace’s work does, but it’s neat to read the work that has informed the culture). But Dracula‘s no Infinite Jest, and baseball season is winding down. Oh, my Cubbies are long since out of the running, and I was bummed to see the Cards fall to doper Manny and the Dodgers last night, but the Yankees are still around to root against (I guess I’m cheering for the Phillies to take it ultimately now), and then there’ll be the 5-month drought. So baseball is trumping writing about Dracula right now. But I’m here, and I’m reading, and I’m reading a couple of blogs about it, and if anything moves me to write, you bet I will.

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.