“…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.
*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.
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?