Sunday, October 31, 2004

Dracula (1897)

I've been fascinated by monsters since childhood, suffering nightmares as a 9-year old after reading a brief description of Beowulf -- including how Grendel would tear the heads off noble Anglo-Saxon warriors to drink their blood. But my monster of choice (and every horror aficionado has one) is least of all the vampire. From all candidates -- the drooling werewolf, the snarling demon, the cackling witch -- I most readily and typically cast my vote for the zombie, in all forms ranging from re-animated Egyptian mummy to Doctor Frankenstein's stitched-up, blasphemous revenant. There's just something about a crew of Romero's living dead shambling across a fog-enshrouded field in search of tasty human brains that inspires in me the Grand Guignol dread (or the Halloween glee, however you like to phrase it) sought after by all horror fans.

But not the vampire, I'd say. I don't care for vampires.

When trying twice before to wade through Bram Stoker's elongated epistolary melodrama (including once for college credit), I never made it. Following that creepy and exciting episode with Jonathan Harker imprisoned in the wicked Count's Transylvanian castle, I would bog down when the story switched to England and the frantic musings of Mina and Lucy, pondering their respective beaus and wedding days. Even Doctor Seward's observations of his fly-eating sanitarium patient Renfield weren't enough to keep my interest. Well, I guess I just don't care for the vampires, I'd say. But perhaps I'd simply been dulled by too many inferior vampire adaptations, and, as a younger reader, came to Dracula with expectations of carnival-ride thrills that could not be met.

Few stories have been adapted more times, in more ways. The version we all know -- the Universal picture starring Bela Lugosi -- descends not directly from the novel but from Hamilton Deane's slow-moving, drawing-room stage play, popular at the time. Countless other film treatments, radio dramas, musicals, and television shows have emulated, imitated, and diluted the story. The eponymous character has gone on to threaten not just Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing, but Abbot and Costello as well. Dracula's children, one way or the other, have proliferated in our modern literature and culture, from Kolchak the Night Stalker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All of which may well serve, for some, to blunt the bite of the antiquarian Count.

The novel has some built-in trouble as well. Dracula was the last great gothic Victorian horror novel, and as such is nearly a genre unto itself. But the world it so meticulously describes -- a world of carriages and telegrams and gaslight -- faded quickly into an age of motorcars and telephones and electricity. Just twenty-five years after first publication, the tale of Count Dracula from Transylvania was already creaky and quaint. (Consider The Exorcist, which had an impact upon moviegoing audiences in the 1970s similar to the impact of Dracula upon readers in 1897. Thirty years later, due at least in part to the essentially recognizable culture in which the story takes place, The Exorcist retains most of its shocks to first-time viewers, despite both advances in special-effects technology and a generally desensitized society.)

But even after a century, and all familiarity with the material, Dracula yet remains a masterstroke of horror, mainly due to Stoker's narrative technique. The tale is told through journals and letters and newspaper clippings, quilted into a linear timeframe. The horror builds first as the characters describe events and situations, the full implications of which are obvious only to the reading audience. The opening sequence is told through solicitor Jonathan Harker, summoned to Transylvania to aid the Count in shifting his estate from the Old Country to modern London. Harker soon finds himself a prisoner, and his forbidden exploration of Castle Dracula results in a near deadly, if quasi-erotic, encounter with a trio of fiendish vampire "brides." A case study in the amplification of narrative tension, these opening chapters set up the rest of the novel as a stress-relax exercise that undoubtedly made Freud proud.

The story then switches to England, introducing the clutch of associated characters who will take us the rest of the way, as they discover (by comparing notes, literally) among their recent but disparate experiences evidence that points to the existence of a bizarre and dangerous presence in their midst. There is Mina, betrothed to the missing Jonathan; there is her friend Lucy, and her fiancé Arthur Holmwood; American cowboy Quincy Morris; and psychiatrist John Seward, who eventually calls for aid in the form of his old professor, an expert in the occult, Abraham Van Helsing.

Van Helsing and his band of amateur sleuths are forced, via the corruption of Lucy, to accept the uncanny existence of the Count, and take steps to destroy him and his diabolical works. Their focus quickly turns from collecting and comparing information to a spirited chase of the Count across London, and eventually back to Transylvania. While the detective techniques employed aren't especially sophisticated (tracing shipping manifests and real estate documents, bribing low-level employees for information), the droll manner in which Stoker lays out the story and develops the characters, and his attention to seemingly unrelated, ordinary detail (so often excluded in adaptations, such as the Count's initial visitation to the grave of a suicide) in order to support far more unlikely elements, still delivers chills.

The Count, beyond the atmospheric opening scenes at his castle, makes only brief appearances, but powerfully creepy and disturbing ones:
Kneeling on the near edge of the bed facing outwards was the white-clad figure of [Mina]. By her side stood a tall, thin man, clad in black. His face was turned from us, but we all recognized the Count. With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
Dracula himself is barely described -- besides being generically tall, thin, typically garbed all in black and sporting a well-groomed white moustache or goatee, his physical aspect is left to the imagination of the reader. Otherwise, we know for certain only that Dracula has a vile yet powerfully magnetic charisma. And apparently he stinks: the Van Helsing bunch, upon gaining access to the Count's abode in Piccadilly, must light cigars to fend off the vile odor.

On the other hand, the Count is undeniably and specifically Satanic -- there is a deeply imbedded Christian subtext in the novel that cannot be ignored, even down to the silly alias (Mr. DeVille) the Count uses while in London. Much of the novel's horror stems from acts that symbolically pervert and desecrate Roman Catholic belief; after feasting upon the lovely Mina, the Count tells her, "You are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin," an unholy echo of Genesis. Later poor Mina repeatedly refers to herself as "unclean" and marked until Judgment Day. Van Helsing, attempting to aid her following "the Vampire's baptism of blood," touches her on the forehead with a wafer, but she is burned and scarred by the sacrament. This is in contrast to so many modern, nearly secular vampire tales, where the creatures might be harmed either by any religious icon, so long as the wielder has stout faith... or by none at all.

Along the same lines, there have been a couple of recent and unfortunate attempts to recast Dracula as a love story, with the Count yearning for Mina, seeing in her some bizarre redemption or reclamation of mortal life. But you can't have the bone without the marrow. Dracula is by nature a corruption -- a lustful, autocratic contagion exhibiting no human weaknesses. Rightly the only love to be found is among the story's mortal characters as they seek to protect and save each other from his machinations. To turn the Count into a kind of anti-hero undermines every foundation stone of horror (not to mention narrative meaning) Stoker has laid. The Count is not some misunderstood nobleman gone bad, he is a dynamo of sheer mortal and moral destruction, reveling in his power. He taunts Van Helsing: "Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine -- my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!"

Yeah, and your little dog, too.

Dracula still succeeds because, even one hundred years later, we are all essentially afraid of the same things that Stoker's contemporary audience was afraid of: Subversion, either of Love, or of Life itself, possibly both at once. For the Victorians, the Count was a symbol of unfettered lust, of desire allowed expression, and yet also the unseemly, ghastly consequences of a life lived in such a glut (Vice is death -- but what a way to go, many hear Stoker whispering between the lines, since the pull of such Freudian undertones is weakened these days -- even finding that Vampiric Style alluring, the ache of submission becoming equal to romantic yearning). Meanwhile, the Count remains a horrific elemental power, generating fear and dread.

H.P. Lovecraft asserted that the greatest fear extant in mankind, one that trumps all despite fad or fashion, is that of the unknown. Death, then, might easily be considered the Ultimate Unknown. Taking one step back, our most palpable fear would be of the possible pain leading into death (a stab wound, a shark bite, a heart attack). In Dracula, Stoker characterizes pain-into-death as the evil that might be brought against us, and that we might then become inspired to bear upon others. After Van Helsing scorches her forehead with the holy wafer, Mina believes she must carry the mark "until God sees fit" -- a kind of Scarlet O, perhaps; her redemption lies in choosing to proceed with as much grace as she can muster. It is either that, or… vampires begetting vampires, unto the ending of the world.

Odd then, that is exactly how Stoker's character maintains a hold in our culture. Dracula survives, continuing to spawn imitations and adaptations and revisions -- yet the bloodline doesn't weaken. Indeed, the Lugosi film, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is arguably the reason why Stoker's lone notable novel has remained in print for more than a century. Perhaps, just as the title character has always intended, he will be with us forever.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Of a Fond Ghoul," October 31 2004