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‘Kisses For Us All’
His Take, Her Take: Bram Stoker’s Dracula with V. J. Waks
© 2013 James LaFond
His Take
I came to Bram Stoker again after 35 years. The first read was retarded by my concentration on my English teacher’s, ah, hum, posture, and ultimately cut short by my jailbreak from school on my sixteenth birthday. In the meantime I have been subject to four film interpretations: The Night Stalker TV pilot; Blackula [my favorite]; Frank Langella’s sensual film performance; and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I rarely viewed horror movies as a teen, telling my friends that such movies were only made possible by the absence of Charles Bronson from the cast.
While Victoria is essentially a Stoker scholar, I am a neophyte who has generally had less than normal interest in vampires, gothic romance, and British fiction. My perspective on late 19th Century British culture comes chiefly from reading biographies, military histories, and British translations of ancient texts. The aristocratic English concern with luggage and breakfast and other pedestrian matters is off putting for a guy who can’t tell you what he ate for lunch or what shirt he’s wearing. So for the most part I’ve never been too interested in their business unless they were mowing down primitives with volley fire from their Enfields or galloping into the teeth of Russian cannon.
I went into this read with the intention of mining Mister Stoker’s work for the Hemavore serial I am writing with Dominick Mattero, and, hopefully—Dracula like—to impress, or even overwhelm, our Lady from the Left Coast with my limitless mental powers. I found Stoker’s Dracula to be broken into three clearly definable sections, and I will attempt to tackle his landmark creation according to his narrative scheme.
‘Doggedly At the Window’
19th Century literature is more ‘wordy’ than most modern men can tolerate. This was a function of the time, when the book was something you would read over the course of a week or more and discuss with your friends. One convention of the period, which seems like a lot of work for the author, was to arrange a novel as a series of related journal entries, letters and other documents, supposedly compiled by an editorial figure, lending the narrative an air of discovery. This artifice is rarely used in our time, except as a prologue or epilogue. At 355 pages this marks Dracula as a laborious construct on Stoker’s part.
I enjoyed the first portion of the book immensely. The first 48 pages comprise a novella length gothic horror story told as a translation from the shorthand journal notes by Jonathan Harker. The story begins with typical British concerns with luggage and dining considerations, but soon descends into a horrific engulfing mystery. The Harker character is perfect for the introduction of the Transylvanian Count. He is an average man who is by turns foolhardy, cowardly, effete, cunning, and brave, depending on the author’s need. The perspective shifts of a large cast of victims are provided by the befuddled Harker, and made all the more terrifying by his isolation.
I would have preferred the story end here ambiguously, and if I were writing it, would have ended it there, thereby frustrating my readers and precipitating a deluge of WTF e-mails. Stoker had much larger plans.
‘Your Pale Faces All in A Row’
Honestly, I found the bulk of the book to be a difficult read. However, the folklore nuggets and the strongest metaphors are mostly cloaked in this ponderous middle ground of the narrative. Such concepts as physiognomy and eugenics [crackpot racist pseudo-sciences of the day], and the curious belief in metaphysics among champions of science, as well as blind faith in drug use among the educated, were well-represented from a sympathetic perspective.
The setting was well-wrought: the latest scientific advances and metaphysical theories standing in stark contrast to the denatured world of Stoker’s time. If we modern readers think we live in an artificial gender-repressed world of materialistic plenty and spiritual want, insightful people of Stoker’s time had much the same sensation. Britain as an empire was at its zenith, having conquered the greater part of a world with nary a battle won. Russia was bigger, Germany more dangerous, France more cultured, America more vital, and the exotic reaches of the empire upon which the sun famously never set more compelling. Britannia’s best minds often set sail with no thought of returning home to the seat of power shrouded by the pall of history’s greatest collective cock-blocker, Queen Victoria.
In this transitional region of Stoker’s tale the only energy was cast by Dracula, who was often a shadow among the shadows. Without Harker’s previous experiences in Transylvania this portion would have been barely readable. The female characters are unusually well done for the time, though still women of their time. If you are a modern male reader it might be difficult to stay awake while reading the journals and letters of Mina and Lucy.
For you fellows I suggest the following. If you have not yet been married read these portions as a primer for what kind of vapid breakfast conversation you are in for until-lawyer-do-you-part. If you are already shackled in matrimonial bliss, read these passages at breakfast while your lady love decries the shallows of her life, minding to keep that bowl of Prozac placed on the table between the two of you.
Despite the masculine insensitivities expressed above, keep an eye on Mina and Lucy. With the exception of the asylum inmate Renfield the male cast is pathetically denatured, a cultural metaphor I wonder if Stoker was conscious of employing. Despite the slow pace through the midpoint of the book Stoker explores the human condition in depth: love; despair; yearning; alienation; insanity; rejuvenation; and death.
Dracula’s appearances become eagerly sought by the reader, as, despite his undead nature, he seems more alive than any of his victims or adversaries. His character is more intriguing than the film adaptations I have seen. He has ‘a look that could kill’, ‘the strength of twenty men’, and the mind of a sorcerer. Van Helsing, who comes off weaker in the book than on film, says in reference to Dracula’s mental powers that, ‘The devil claims the tenth scholar as his own’.
Dracula is not just a monster, nor just nocturnal. The importance of rejuvenating blood and an earthen bed to the Count invoke Saturn, the Roman earth god to whom gladiators were sacrificed at the Saturnalia, the winter festival that reflected the pagan concern with the seasonal rebirth of the natural world. His command of animals and his intrusive visit to a zoo suggests him as a metaphor for the fitful recession of the natural world; his un-death the haunting sense among men that they had extinguished that from which they had emerged.
‘Of An Imperfectly Formed Mind’
The final segment of the book, at a short novel length, is concerned with the hunting of Dracula. By the time the subjects of the Count’s incursion into England organize themselves for the hunt they seem very much the model for some modern role playing expedition, and Dracula the dragon fleeing to his lair. Incidentally Dracula means ‘Son of the Dragon’. The role of Mina and Van Helsing in the hunt brings to mind a criminal investigation. Stoker employs the symbol of modernity in the form of The Orient Express, and delves into the Victorian fascination with psychic powers. In many ways this was the most innovative portion of the story. It is interesting that the lone American member of the cast is credited with so much energy, behaving essential as an adolescent adventurer, and paying a very adult price in a finale reminiscent of an Arthurian romance.
Mina’s role strengthens throughout the conclusion of the book as Dracula’s weakens, with the male protagonists all but withering on the story vine. I have a sense that Mina is Stoker’s true gift to narrative fiction, and, since I have already prescribed her anti-depressants and wronged her with charges of domesticity, I shall leave it to Victoria to expand on her significance.
Dracula should have seduced Queen Victoria and taken young Winston Churchill on safari in Haiti.
Her Take
Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, reviewed by V.J. WAKS
Ah the guilty pleasures of epistolary style—that is, the story action predominantly carried forward by means of letters. We’ve seen this before; Austen set her cap with this kind of stuff. How powerful can letters be? Unimaginably—as tools to advance character development, to contrast and reveal different voices, to build suspense and provoke emotional response, the letter style as it serves in DRACULA, by Bram Stoker, is a marvel.
Do I need to tell you the story? Man meets vampire, vampire ups the stakes and follows him home, vampire goes after his lady, friends unite to fight vampire. We’ve all seen every aspect of this franchise in so many ways, so many deviations, it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t have it, it’s hard to remember that Stoker did it first, and I believe best. The story opens with Jonathan Harker on that by-now iconic trip to a mysterious nobleman’s castle in the heart of Transylvania. It’s just another journey at the beginning of just another novel. But notice just what is being accomplished in this ‘letters between characters’ approach. See how the style allows Stoker to work the story, to build both material and suspense. The description of how Harker researched his new post by delving in the stacks of the British Museum is clearly how Stoker did it himself; it establishes immediately the continuous dramatically building theme of Harker’s closeness with his fiancée Mina.
This idea of connections, between characters, between men and women, for this is as much a story about sexuality as it is about horror—is pervasive, and considering the time of its publication, powerful and provocative. As a storyteller par excellence, Stoker uses his unique style to set demographics of the land with a depth of detail that will serve later to build and exploit the close link between husband and wife and all their circle. Most importantly, it allows us to become part of the development of one of the central tentpoles of the story; Mina Harker’s character and personality.
And all in a letter or two.
Suspense starts early, masterfully—even before Harker is aware of the cloak of fear surrounding everything to do with the Count. The swift succession of ghost lights, wolves, moody horses and claustrophobic isolation—all propel the reader forward to that fateful meeting with the Count whose name has become a synonym for the macabre, as well as a hallmark and franchise of modern civilization. That meeting has been described, changed, played, and shown a hundred times since in fiction and film; nowhere in any of its permutations is it more horrifying than here, as in the original. We see the castle; it will become a tomb for the hero unless he escapes—worse, it may become his coffin, as he is forced to join the ranks of the king vampire’s slaves. The cunning of the creature is astounding when seen in print; he arranges his safe houses, he successfully crosses an ocean and his steps bring him ever closer to Harker, his family and friends, and to the eventual crossing of all story lines, to end in a manhunt like none other.
The style and Stoker’s genius allow him to create a startling world full of different voices. Harker’s excuse to tell us all about his journey and experience is mirrored by Mina’s excuse that she wants to be a better observer and—amazing for Victorian society—a better worker in her fiancé’s business. Every one of the male characters, including those supportive characters appearing only once, has a different voice. The difference in voices is nowhere more remarkable than in a comparison of the voices of the women in the story. The emotional maturity of Mina strongly contrasts with that of her friend Lucy. Mina is clearly the hero of the piece and Stoker makes no bones about it, giving her the ultimate compliment of “a man’s brain—in a woman’s body—if he were highly intelligent.”
Get ready for huge dissimilarities from what we see in current versions of women ‘transformed’ in this mythos. The mad licentiousness and wantonness that becomes the raison d’etre of modern directors in our culture is not seen in Stoker’s women when they fall under the spell. Something much more frightening is on the page—a corruption and alienation from self that is considerably more impacting than what we usually see in modern retelling. This loss of the true self is terrifying, to the characters in this novel—and to us as well.
Mina Harker is the one who drives the second half of the novel to its end, with her courage, intelligence, and determination, and with her profound faith. This faith is startling, poignant and ultimately places her among the ranks of epic heroes. What Mina signifies is in fact illustrative of a society in tremendous flux; here in this little horror novel lives and breathes a sign of the profound change in the way Victorian society was beginning to view women—and how they viewed themselves.
What we are seeing here, mixed beautifully in with stellar storytelling and a gripping concept—is the foundation from which Ellen Ripley will come. A smart, determined, strong woman gets to fight an ‘Alien’ never before presented in this way. My take is that we have here not simply one of the first intelligent and truly horrifying presentations of the vampire mythos, but the rare and extremely successful use of a powerful female protagonist in the genre. I believe Mina works through the male personas of Harker, Morris, Seward and even Van Helsing—she is the rock, she stabilizes, unites and inspires them.
The story is truly fantastic, the style and technique no less astonishing; there are scenes and visuals that put to shame many of the contemporary attempts at horror in this franchise, digitally enhanced or not. Stoker nails horror where it lives—in the darkest places of our inner workings, in secret fears, in what is essentially our inability to really comprehend and ever fight the truly unknown—a creature such as this. If your sole exposure to this mythos has been confined to that of popular culture, be prepared for a profound and substantially different story in many respects.
Simple humans, simple mistakes, simple terror—simply amazing. The first, and the best—DRACULA by Bram Stoker.
For information on Victoria’s latest novel, Looking Glass, go to our network page and click on RabbitHoleTheNovel.com. We also have a link to her main site VJWaks.com
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Dominick Mattero     Oct 10, 2013

A good woman is like an angel, a good woman who is intelligent and strong is like an Arch Angel..inspiration indeed. Men are like primates(savage chimp or trained monkey) while women are supposed to be the link to the heavenly (the primal)..frequently they are fallen and worse than demons..(fat demons to boot!).

And like Angels in general rare, but much appreciated...even after their passing to the next world.

Very nice male/female contrast by the way...look forward to more of this. We need more estrogen in the Lafond testosterone nightmare apocalypse!
JB     Nov 5, 2013

Enjoyed reading the two perspectives. Have never read Dracula. It's on my e-reader and hopefully I can get to it one day. The two reviews make me more wanting to do so. I like this idea and look forward to reading more of these reviews.
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