Saturday, November 07, 2009

The League Reads/ Listens to: Dracula

On Thursday morning I finished a 12-hour audio book of the original novel of "Dracula".

If you've grown up in the US, you're familiar with Dracula via Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman or any of the other innumerable TV or film versions of the character. And, most likely, you've seen one of those History Channel specials on "The Real Dracula" about the Romanian count who is rumored to have killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people on the end of a pike.

I've seen the Browning directed, Lugosi starring "Dracula" at least five times, seen the Coppola directed, Oldman-starring "Dracula" two or three times, seen a few other versions, at least two plays of Dracula (one of which was a musical), odd sequels to Dracula from "Dracula 2000" to "Monster Squad" (which gave us the phrase "The Wolfman has Nards!", for which I am eternally grateful).

But I'd never read the book.

Drac didn't get to tidy up before you popped by.

For today's reader who picks up the book for the first time, unfortunately, "Dracula" has two things going against it.

1) It definitely works in that "paid by the word" mode of its contemporaries, where characters are likely to have long, unimportant asides and speeches that go nowhere. By today's standards of narrative economy, its hard-going at times.
2) It more or less defined a tradition and formula, based upon folklore and tradition, that has become so completely ingrained in the popular psyche that you already know what is coming through 99% of the book. Especially if you were familiar with the book from other sources.

That said...

Its not a bad listen or read. Even scenes which we've all witnessed on screen becoming far more chilling as described in the course of the book and with Stoker's ability to deliver this information as fresh and revelatory.

What struck me most is that, while Stoker does make a 4th quarter play to recognize that his Count was also once a human and therefore should get some measure of pity, this is not the "oh, I'm really just a stand in for those broody guys from high school" Dracula which we've come to know over the years. My guess is that the Lugosi (who, apparently, the ladies quite liked), and the lack of gore and general ickiness described in the book, makes becoming a vampire seem not all that bad. You stay good-looking, you never die or get sick, you get your way all the time, and have an array of super powers that would make Martian Manhunter jealous.

got... got a little something... right there. on your chin. there. you're gonna want a napkin.

But Stoker's Dracula and vampires are drawn from the tradition of demons and monsters, not GQ models. Dracula himself is horrible to behold before Harker even figures out there's anything amiss. Drawing blood isn't an exaggerated hicky, but something Drac and his lady-friends do by stealing peasant children in sacks and then going family-style on them. Turning into a vampire isn't waking up with superpowers, as if one were accidentally bathed in cosmic rays, but a weeks-long process of slow death with the knowledge that one is becoming a hellspawn, but cannot even tell anyone else to kill them, because that will just turn you into the hellspawn directly.

It's a bad scene, and when pop culture critics look with crooked eye at the post-Anne Rice foppish-emo take on vampires, there's a reason for it. The horror of being one of the undead is not an inconvenience, which is more or less how Rice and the post-Rice followers portrayed their vampires. There is no choice to live well by raiding blood supplies or hunting deer or whatever modern creators have decided is an acceptable substitute, because becoming a vampire means loss of self, and what replaces you (whether you or a demon substitute) is not particularly interested in the ethics of the living.

Being a vampire is not all that different from modern images of zombie-ism, in that the zombies (and in many cases, werewolves) obviously have no choice about their motivations. Oddly, one of the more popular visions which seemed to match up was how vampires were portrayed in the first season or two of Buffy (which I didn't watch after season two or so. Sue me.).

Dracula enjoys the great taste of Keanu.

I tip my hat to Stoker's depiction of Mina, a character who is portrayed often as a damsel in distress, and unconvincingly as a character at all by Winona Ryder. Stoker celebrates "the modern woman" who was still 30 years off from the vote, but who men were surprised to learn could type, understand science and math, etc... And which Madam Mina seems to exemplify (and is far, far more interesting a character than the character of Lucy, who mostly swoons and feels pretty, then sick).

The belief in science and reason by the heroes is never questioned, superstition is puzzled out, and even the supernatural is more or less suggested to be just one more mystery of science. This current is occasionally explicitly addressed, but is certainly evident in how Stoker's characters grapple with the dilemma's surrounding them and give way from from what they know as gentlemen, to what they eventually open their minds to via observation and experience (which, honestly, takes up a huge portion of the book, and often seems to be the exact point of the book).

I confess to a particular affection for the character of Quincey Morris, who is often eliminated from the stage and screen versions, as his role is mostly to be The Manly Texan who is there to wield a Bowie knife and be happy to tackle some vampires while the Englishmen are grieving, swooning, etc...

And, of course, its easy to see why so many versions (particularly Coppola's film) become enamored with the wily genius of Van Helsing (whose name but nothing else is lifted for the Hugh Jackman movie of a few years back then seemed hellbent on ruining Universal's Monster Movie franchise). He's an interesting character, a man of science who openly recognizes that perhaps the age of reason and scientific investigation have led to people not looking at the sources of folklore and myth.

Some of the "scientific" discussion doesn't make a load of sense (I never got the "child-brain vs. man-brain" thing), but Van Helsing really sells it.

Dracula himself becomes somewhat lost as a character after the first quarter of the book. Only Harker has direct conversations with Dracula, while still in Transylvania. The polite foreigner who has moved into town of stage and screen is an invention intended to keep Drac on stage. But you kind of have to love how darned eeee-vil Dracula is when dealing with Harker, and what a clear picture is drawn of who the guys is, and that he is, in fact, struggling to get the hell out of the sticks and be a man of the world/ have a much bigger hunting ground.

If I've a complaint, its that Dracula's death is oddly ant-climatic both because (a) you know its coming, and (b) by today's standards, its not exactly a "Big Boss Fight". I found myself sort of rooting for the guy by the end, which I would guess is not an uncommon position.

Batman makes everything awesomer.

Regarding sex and the vampire:

There's absolutely no question where Stoker was going with his succubi-like "Brides of Dracula" (a term which doesn't actually appear in the book, if memory serves). Harker discusses what a big turn-on the women are, and when Van Helsing happens upon them, he's no less enchanted.

However, having had heard repeatedly how "sexy" we're to find the character od Dracula, and given the tone of the Frank Langella, Lugosi and Lee films, the eroticism of Dracula himself is a bit non-existent. The source I figured I was counting on for the lustiness of Dracula was Coppola's presentation, which he were told was a faithful adaptation, but that's fairly iffy. Given that the book is written in the form of various journals and diaries, it's possible, one supposes, that Mina and Lucy simply do not discuss the sexual aspects of vampirism, but the scenes I recall from the Coppolla film in which Mina is wooed just aren't there.

I'm of a mind that Stoker intended for Dracula himself to be deriving some sort of pleasure from taking his female victims (which is very different from how one assumes Dracula dealt with the all-male crew of the ship which brought him to England, who seem to have been roughly dispatched), as he returns to them night after night, and the book does suggest that Vampirism may spread by lovers willingly being turned to spend eternity with their partners.

But as for a suave gentlemen who maybe nibbles a little to hard on the neck? That seems to be derived from plays and movies, as neither Mina or Lucy ever really actually meet Dracula outside of when he comes to them at night.

On the whole, yes, the book could be a bit of a struggle to get through if you're not one for the flowery and often purple prose of the time period. But as vampires have become such a hot topic of books, TV and film of late, its worth going back to the original material and trying to understand how we got to the point where vampires are hanging out in the deep south and ordering blood at bars, and it's probably worth considering why we try, quite literally, to defang them.

The book, be forewarned, was unusual for its day. Vampires were not dominating the sales charts, and every school kid probably didn't know how two or three ways in which you could bump off the undead. So the book spends no small amount of time basically explaining what the heck is going on and setting up the various rules and roles of vampires which our vampire media of today still at least acknowledges.

I did enjoy the book, and if you were of a mind to get at the origin of vampire in the popular imagination, I'd say its an invaluable read. I do not believe I'll seek out Dracula's predecessors in literature and penny dreadfuls (I think I've actually seen a filmic adaptation of Carmilla back in college, but beer was involved, so...).


Fantomenos said...

Apparently in his later years, Stoker railed against eroticism in literature, which I find ironic considering how iconic vampire eroticism has become.

I also like the book, even if the journal conceit wears a little thin, eg "Dear diary, what a trying night, my best friend was brutally murdered and the villain may still be on the premises, just wanted to keep you updated."

For further Stoker reading, I think "Lair of the White Worm" is the 2nd best read, and the movie is awesomely weird.

The League said...

I saw the movie of "Lair of the White Worm" in high school, but don't recall much about it other than that it was one of the oddest movies I'd rented from our local video shop.

By the way, I did laugh out loud at your depiction of the diary. It absolutely began to feel that way after a while.

Surprised to hear about Stoker's take on eroticism, but I'd guess he'd rationalized it somehow. While its easy to see what's going on with the Brides, he does present it as chastely as possible.

Simon MacDonald said...

I too enjoyed the characterization of Mina. You can see how the character from Stoker's book continued on in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The League said...

It honestly really made me want to re-read the first two LOEG collections. But I think I will plow through "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" first. I've been meaning to read that one my entire life and not just count the time my mom read it to me when I was 5 or so.