Draculean Derring-Do

I’ve just finished reading Dracula, which means I’m well placed to gather my thoughts on the subject. I’ll save up some Dungeon stories for next time; given the nature of this post, it’s a shame that their legendary Vampires show is long-defunct.

In relation to the other great monster novels, Dracula ranks somewhere near the middle. It rarely ascends to the transcendent, spiritual heights of Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray – each crying for a God who never arrives, begging huge questions that go unanswered. But then, Dracula also discards the tedious mystery trappings that plague Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Phantom of the Opera (‘mysteries’ to which a modern reader inevitably knows the answer). Dracula shares their epistolary form, but the point is never to verify the Count’s existence so much as stitch it together. Thus, the impression is that of a conventional group of people, engulfed by a presence on the very fringes of their understanding. I would argue that this is the novel’s greatest achievement. Dracula himself almost never appears, but his presence throughout is oppressive to the point of claustrophobia.

In other ways, Dracula does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the most straightforwardly horrific novel I’ve encountered since working through Monk Lewis’s repertoire last summer. The expected stakes are hammered home – and with such ferocity that the victims tear their own lips to a bloody foam. Infants meet ends appalling enough to rival Stephen King’s It. Early on, Dracula feeds a baby in a bag to his vampire brides; later, numerous children are attacked by the nightmarish ‘bloofer lady’ in a London park. The links to be drawn between paedophilia and vampirism are interesting. I think it’s worth noting that Dracula himself doesn’t prey on children – only women he’s converted to the undead. Perhaps the gender delegation takes the edge off; precisely why warrants examination. Stoker is at his most brilliant when evoking an atmosphere of decay. Dust-strewn cobwebs and crumbling masonry converge with impenetrable darkness in such massy, cluttered detail that Gothic landscapes become sublime. Smell is one of the more poorly represented senses in literature. But Stoker is in his element here; rarely have I recoiled from a novel as when imagining the halo of rot and decay surrounding the Count. And, very often, an unsettling detail will simply linger. For example, a modest shaving bowl sits on the dining-room table in Dracula’s Piccadilly residence. The water has a reddish tinge.

Dracula also boasts enough that’s unexpected, quirky and downright weird to keep the interest of the most jaded horror fan. It’s hard to forget the passage where Dracula’s brides appear as ghosts in the Transylvanian skies – or reappear, in a torrential snow storm, to Mina and Van Helsing. The close association of vampires and ghosts is too often lost – the natural consequence, I suppose, for a monster whose dining habits are unabashedly corporeal. I found myself reflecting on the deaths of the vampires in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). In the former, Count Orlok suffers exposure to the rising sun, fading through the smoothness of a lap dissolve and dwindling into ashes on the carpet. In the latter, the staking of the old hag is spectral rather than visceral, her skeleton gleaming through her flesh before finally replacing it. Stoker keeps up the ambiguous relation of the bodily and the ghostly – not least in the near-absurd range of limitations to Dracula’s supernatural powers, from running water to the felicitous need for an invitation before entering a property. J.K. Rowling has stated that one of the greatest challenges of the Harry Potter series was to show that magic had its boundaries; Stoker admirably tackles the same problem in Dracula. That conflict between the extremes of limitation and power becomes one of the character’s most interesting qualities. Another memorable detail comes when a wounded Dracula sheds coins rather than blood. (Colonial subtext, maybe? The filthy foreigner who literally sucks the country dry?) Most tantalising of all are Stoker’s allusions to Dracula’s past as alchemist and warlord. For the purposes of a one-hour monologue, these hints of what Dracula got up to in his other four hundred and ninety-nine years are invaluable.

Especially appealing to me is that Dracula is also a novel about basic human goodness. I think this is often taken as ‘PATRIARCHY!’ and ‘MISOGYNY!’ by those stupid enough to believe the Victorian age (and only just, at 1897) embodied nothing else. (That the period’s named after a celebrated Queen is the sledgehammer blow to that line of thought.) Mina is not limited by her kindness and softness. It is what empowers her beyond her male protectors; it is certainly what puts her in a position to thwart Dracula. The numerous scenes of the hardened vampire hunters weeping over some little bravery or sacrifice from Mina might be too Little Nell for some. I personally find them very affecting. As with Dickens’s sentimental moments – the ending of The Pickwick Papers, the fates of Nancy in Oliver Twist and Smike in Nicholas Nickleby – they’re seen through with such good-hearted sincerity that I can’t help but go with them. What little sympathy is evoked for the Count also comes from Mina. It’s nothing like the wanky adolescent fantasies of Francis Ford Coppola or the Twilight franchise. Stoker’s evocation of sympathy is much closer to Christopher Lee’s treatment of the character: a fleeting insight into the terrible loneliness of evil. In many an interview Lee’s repeated much the same thing (possibly to legitimise his lengthy horror resume): ‘with all these characters, I always look for one particular element that runs through them all, and that is a kind of sadness’. In adapting Dracula for the stage, I want to experiment with how to get at such sympathy. It should be challenging. For Dracula must remain what he always has: a blood-sucking demon from hell. The best devils, like Milton’s Satan, are charismatic and seductive and endlessly persuasive in converting you to their own point of view. And, as with Hitler, you don’t even realize you’ve being converted – until you step back and marvel at the intricate frame of frighteningly logical evil. This seems to me the way to go.

So: well done, Bram Stoker! A sizzler, all in all. I’d encourage everyone to give Dracula their time. 2012 is the centenary of Stoker’s death, so it’s a more historically apposite time than most.

The next stage is to educate and re-educate myself in all things Dracula. In one sense, I’ve been preparing for this for a lifetime – and quite without realising! The reading is going to be thrilling. But then, what’s the dread Count without a monster movie marathon…?

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Filed under Dracula, Essays

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