“…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.
*Today’s blog title shamelessly lifted from the wonderful recent book by Joshua Ferris because it popped right into my head when I was thinking of a title and it just plain works.
Right. I finished last night and I’m not really going to worry about posting anything past the spoiler point here. I mean really, there’s only one day left and if you’re not finished yet I doubt anything I could possibly say will be a revelation.
Well, well, well. I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it. As Infinite Detox so eloquently said, meh. It didn’t sink to the level where Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code reside for me, but it did pretty much level out at what I term “airport trash.” In other words, if you’ve been enough of an idiot to arrive for your flight and you have nothing to read, or you’re stranded and have run out of reading material, you can pick up some paperback from an airport shop and have a perfectly enjoyable reading experience. But is it great literature? Nope, not for me. There are too many inconsistancies; several footnotes in my Norton edition point out that either Stoker or his characters have got their journal entry dates wrong; sometimes the characters are quick on the uptake but more often they’re dumber than posts; do we keep Mina informed or do we keep her in the dark; will we let her become a vampire and gallantly go with her “into that unknown and terrible land” or will we all pledge to cut her head off and drive a stake through her heart to release her soul to God? And Van Helsing? Well, I’ll get to him later. There were many times when I felt like Stoker was making some deeper connections and exploring some larger themes and I got all excited. Then it would just fizzle out and we were back to the boy’s club dithering about. My sense is that he wanted to write a larger (in the thematic sense) work, but either couldn’t or he just went for the quick buck. Maybe he had it in mind all along that he would turn it into a play for Irving and he just needed to crank it out. In any case, I think it’s a fun page turner (most of the time), a quick and easy read that due to the circumstances of the subsequent play and movie has become a cultural icon.
Now, that Van Helsing and his final Memorandum. Wow. Nearly swooning over the three sisters, brides, whatever they are, in their tombs he admits to being nearly a carnal man. But he squashes the ”very instinct of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and to protect one of hers” and proceeds with the “butcher work.” But what really annoys me about Van Helsing is his back story. If I missed it somewhere early on when the pages were turning please let me know. In his Memorandum as he talks about the effect the vamp ladies are having on him he says
Yes, I was moved – I, Van Helsing, with all my purpose and with my motive for hate – I was moved to a yearning for delay which seemed to paralyse my faculties and to clog my very soul.
So, just what the hell was his motive? Did we ever learn that? Why does he know about Dracula and what extra motive for hate does he have?
And what an ending. The snow swirling, the wolves howling and drawing closer, Quincey giving his all in fighting through the gypsies, the vanquishing of the evil from the world, and then that rosy glow lighting up dear Mina as the men fall to their knees in adoration upon seeing that the terrible mark of the unclean is gone from her forehead. Quick cut to seven years later and the happy family – Jonathan, Mina, and son Quincey (who apparently has all of their names in his full name). And we end with Mina’s greatness summed up by stand-in grandfather Van Helsing with little Quincey on his knee. Telling them all that someday the boy would
…know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.
In the immortal words of Bill the Cat – oop ack! Thhhpt!
It seems as though most everyone (at least those commenting) has been annoyed with Van Helsing to some degree. Indeed, some have admitting to wanting to pitch the book across the room at times (see the discussion in the comments over at Infinite Detox).
Then we came to a short passage in Chapter 22 that made my jaw drop.
It may be that you may have to bear that mark till God himself see fit, as He most surely shall on the Judgment Day to redress all wrongs of the earth and of His children that He has placed thereon. An oh, Madam Mina, my dear, my dear, may we who love you be there to see, when that red scar, the sign of God’s knowledge of what has been, shall pass away and leave your forehead as pure as the heart we know. For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His will. It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame; through tears and blood; through doubts and fears, and all that makes the difference between God and man.
Is this the same Van Helsing who has been torturing us with his syntax? One of the problems with him that I’m having is that it’s so varied. We have him nearly incomprehensible and then when he’s being Biblical he is spot on; with a pretty good range in between. At times he reminds me of Marathe in Infinite Jest and at other times all I can picture is David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. Sometimes it makes me laugh and I understand what he’s saying and at others it’s just ridiculous. Add to that the fact, that some others have pointed out, that if he’s Dutch, why does he exclaim in German?
Then we have the priceless moment very near to the end of Chapter 23 when Jonathan Harker is relating what Van Helsing thinks of their rushing off to find the ship that Dracula is on
We have been blind somewhat; blind after the manner of men, since when we can look back we see what we might have seen looking forward if we had been able to see what we might have seen! Alas! but that sentence is a puddle; is it not?
It’s a puddle (puzzle) alright. Is this a silly aside? One of Van Helsing’s little jests? Or is it a sneaky comment by Stoker about Van Helsing.
So here’s a crazy thought – he’s faking it. It could serve as a form of personal defense – the bumbling foreigner who has trouble with English and seems able to laugh about it. It disarms and charms. That would fit with what we know of him so far, which is pretty much nil – why exactly does he have all this vampire knowledge; why has he been so secretive; etc.
Now, what do you think?
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?