Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.
What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.
I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)
But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.
And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.
Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)
Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.
(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.
(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.
(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.
(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.
As previously discussed, I’m enjoying Gilbert Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies, even if the third volume in the trilogy, Misterioso, is starting to feel a bit like overkill. And much as I can get down with some well-wrought experimentation, this round of innovative boundary-busting has left me with the need for some old-fashioned verbal grounding– something with a more solid, identifiable flow. What could be more appropriate than some 19th-century horror to satisfy that craving– meaning, in this instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
Having seen and been unjustifiably scared out of my mind by multiple film versions,(1) I’m sort of amazed it’s taken me this long to read the book, prone as I am to finishing written originals before checking out their adaptations in other media. Part of it may have been due to the fear of wasting time on Romantic(-ish) cheesiness; witness copious amounts of eye-rolling, for example, at The Woman in White. Film adaptations of old tales of the supernatural, especially more contemporary ones, can often eliminate the treacly clichés of gender, honor, true religion, and so forth, found in the texts– and although it’s rare that I enjoy movies more than the books on which they were based, those freak cases usually come from the horror or sci-fi genre.(2)
Maybe it’s because I was expecting so little that I’m enjoying Dracula so much. Oh, sure, Lucy is the exasperating epitome of sweetness and light, and her tenderly spurned gentleman callers harbor suspiciously little resentment towards her chosen beau. But Stoker has arranged the many journal entries and letters that make up the novel in such a way that it really does resemble a well-ordered case study, so that the reader can almost believe the format involves no pretense. Along with the story, in other words, I’m enjoying how Stoker is telling it, seeing how he’s orchestrating and organizing what might initially have been a simple idea, so that an originally generic thought about a folk monster was transformed into a tale of many working parts. Admittedly, it’s no hyper-Dickensian world akin to that of Infinite Jest,(3) but there’s something to be said for a quality easy read.
Carl Jung was noted for talking about synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate my calling him into service for the following, but the display I came across on my way home seemed to be a perfect encapsulation of my reading Sorrentino and Stoker at the same time. I’ll end, then, by using one of the good Romantics to caption the picture I took, even though he would also probably be offended. “Look on my Works, [then,] ye Mighty, and despair!”(4)
(1) At this point, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production is hands-down the most terrifying of all– and that despite my easy ability to laugh at what a friend called the castle-bound vampire’s “butt hair,” as seen in the film still below.
(2) For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris blows Stanislaw Lem’s book out of the water. And whichever low-budget adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I saw as a teenager was so delightfully creepy, I’ve been afraid to spoil that memory by reading the story itself– a probably erroneous move I think I’ll soon correct.
(3) (Best book ever– among other reasons, because how in the world did David Foster Wallace not only come up with, but also keep straight, so many brilliant, complex, enormously textured lives and entanglements?!!?)
(4) That’s from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”