Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Dracula

After finally catching up with Twilight, I thought I'd go the whole hog and read Bram Stoker's Dracula

Stoker didn't exactly invent the vampire genre.  Vampires are figures of folklore and mythology, and other vampire novels preceded his, but he set the template for what was to follow. 

Abraham Stoker was an Irish protestant, a member of Dublin's governing class with a promising career in in the Irish public service.  His first book sounds particularly exciting - The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, published in 1879. 

However, by the time it was published he had already run away to join the theatre.  To be precise, he accepted the role of business manager at actor Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre in London, where for the next thirty years he acted as the calm, organised foil to Irving's charisma and persuasive powers.  His own creativity also blossomed and when he was not pandering to Irving's ego he wrote and published a number of novels and stories and engaged in public controversies over subjects such as censorship (he was firmly in favour) and the poetry of Walt Whitman (likewise).

Virtually none of this output is read now - only Dracula has survived.  Published in 1897, it was an instant hit and has remained in print ever since.  Its story has become embedded in our culture and has, like the Count himself, spawned many retellings and reworkings of the theme of which Twilight is merely the most recent.  Even Sesame Street has a character based on Count Dracula.

The story, told through the diaries of its various protagonists, begins with the young English lawyer Jonathan Harker (perhaps an avatar of Stoker himself) travelling to Transylvania to assist the mysterious Count Dracula to finalise the purchase of property in England.  Why does he go in person, rather than simply mailing the documents?  Harker never voices this thought in his diary, but I bet he is thinking it as he is subjected to imprisonment, terrorisation by wolves, attack by mysterious bloodthirsty women, the discovery that his host sleeps in a coffin and the certainty that he is marked for death.

He survives and eventually makes his way back to England and a respectable marriage to his darling Mina.  However, Dracula also makes it to England and proceeds, by one of those coincidences so beloved of Victorian authors, to prey on Mina's best friend Lucy Westensra.  Despite the valiant efforts of her bevy of male admirers Lucy slips into death and subsequent vampirism.  Her lovers, led by the Dutchman Professor Van Helsing, are forced to impale her on a stake and remove her head.  Having acheived that, they go after main prize, pursuing the Count through the streets of London and then back to Transylvania for the final dramatic confrontation.

The success and longevity of Dracula are not due to any particular literary merit.  We are firmly in the realm of B-grade fiction here, just as most of the hundreds of Dracula movies are B-films.  Stoker's prose is clunky and awkward, his characters wafer-thin stereotypes.  His men are brave, honest and upright, but more than a little dim.  His women, even the intelligent and resourceful Mina Harker, are meek victims.  They may be worshipped and adored or attacked and defiled, but they are at the mercy of the men who surround them.

The plot, like those of many such stories, depends on impossible coincidences and impossibly stupid mistakes by the protagonists of both sides.  How, when he has him so firmly in his power, does Dracula allow Harker to escape?  Why is every single workman in England able to be bribed for information with a small sum of beer money?  Why do Lucy's protectors repeatedly fail to set a watch despite knowing she is being attacked by a vampire?  Why do they go traipsing off in the middle of the night to seek Dracula's lair, rather than waiting until daylight when they know he will be helpless?  Why, having armed themselves to the teeth with crucifixes and pieces of communion wafer, do they leave Mina alone without so much as a clove of garlic?

It's hard to take any of this seriously and I'm not sure Stoker meant us to.  Early in the piece, when Harker is first becoming suspicious of his host, he realises that although Dracula is standing behind him, he can't see him in his shaving mirror.  Dracula angrily snatches the mirror from him and hurls it from the window, smashing it into tiny pieces.  "It is very annoying," comments Harker, "for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving pot, which fortunately is of metal."  Then there is Professor Van Helsing's persistent mangling of the English language, which is so tortuous as to make it impossible to take him seriously as chief vampire hunter. 

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Stoker intended this as a comedy.  Given his background on the stage, you can imagine the protectors talking in plummy English accents while the Professor burbles meaninglessly, the labourers and delivery men stumble around drunkenly bumping into things, Dracula cackles maniacally off stage and Mina Harker rolls her eyes at their stupidity, then simpers prettily when their eyes are on her.

Two things raise it above this general absurdity and have ensured its survival.  

The first is its dark undercurrent of sexual violence.  It's hard to miss the gruesome symbolism involved in killing (or at least re-killing) a beautiful young woman with a sharp stake, or the way innocent young women are transformed into ravenous but intensely seductive predators.  The idea that innocence is so quickly transformed or unmasked, that just beneath the surface of respectable society is a monster waiting to emerge, is attractive in any age.  So much more so for a repressed Victorian gentleman working hard to keep the immorality of his society hidden through strict censorship laws.

Second is the neat package of strengths and weaknesses, of fear and hope, of magic and science, that make up Dracula's conflict between good and evil.  Stoker gives more than a nod to religion, but the religion he nods to is decidedly idiosyncratic.  Dracula himself is clearly a demon, a character of pure evil and tremendous power.  He is superhumanly strong, he can shift shape at will, he can fly, he can read and manipulate minds, he is fiendishly cunning, and his bite can convert enemies into acolytes. 

Yet he also has fatal weaknesses.  He is powerful at night but powerless and trapped in daylight.  Although the heroes of the tale pray regularly for deliverance, what really stymies Dracula is not these ethereal prayers but the concrete symbols of Christian faith, deployed as magic tokens.  He is unable to abide the presence of consecrated communion wafer, or of a crucifix.  He is only able to rest in soil from his home graveyard, and his opponents can deprive him of this rest by sowing that soil with holy tokens. 

Yet alongside these ancient religious symbols, Dracula is defeated with the aid of the latest technology.  The heroes record their notes on phonograph and in shorthand, and Mina types and duplicates them on her new typewriter.  They telegraph each other, and get the drop on the Count by racing to Transylvania by rail while he travels by sailing ship.  As an ancient throwback he is powerless before the advances of British know-how.  His weaknesses are their strengths, and if they can attack him at a time and place of their choosing they can overcome.

The terrifying ancient mystery beneath the safe, scientific modern world.  The dark perversion lurking in the hearts of respectable people.  These are themes that resonate in every age.  Whether we stave off our fear through laughter, reassure ourselves by having good win out, or explore the dark depths through horrific tragedy, we need to come to terms with this reality.  Stoker's heroes may have succeeded in staking Dracula through the heart, but he lives on in their own hearts, and in ours.

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