Thursday, July 28, 2011

Vampire Juice


Dracula (World's Classics edition), written by Bram Stoker, edited and introduced by A.N. Wilson (1897; this edition 1983): Tom Wolfe told us that great pilots have "the Right Stuff." Great pitchers have that mysterious "stuff" that very good pitchers never have. Or so we've come to believe. And some writers have "stuff" too, though for the sake of variety, I'm going to call it "juice." Juice has absolutely nothing to do with technical proficiency -- if art and literature came into existence solely through the mastery of formal and techical matters, then university professors would be the greatest writers and artists of them all. They're not, and it doesn't.

Bram Stoker, late middle-aged when he came to write Dracula, had juice for this novel and very little else. But what a crazy novel! Out of previous vampire stories, a smattering of mostly wrong Eastern European history and myth, and his own personal interest in (mostly paid for) sex, Stoker formed one of the most influential novels of all time. It isn't even a very good novel -- but boy does it have juice! The story of British estate lawyer Jonathan Harker's encounter with Dracula still resonates today because it's great, juicy, tranformative pulp.

Formally speaking, Dracula is almost archaic for its own time, much less ours. It follows the epistolary format of many early English novels, telling its story through letters and journal entries and the occasional newspaper clipping. This is all done ostensibly to add verisimilitude to the proceedings, and a lot of great horror from Frankenstein to Paranormal Activity has adopted a faux-documentarian format as part of an attempt to suspend disbelief.

There had been vampire novels and stories in English before, and Stoker lifts elements from many of them. His genius lay in bringing a foreign vampire to England, and in wedding the near-pornographic to both violence and a melodramatic depiction of morality. One attempted vampiric seduction plays like a thinly veiled blowjob scene (as Stephen King and hundreds of other critics have noted); another seems to parody Catholic Communion. Virginal British womanhood appears to be Dracula's target once he reaches England, the sexual threat of the Other made manifest and deeply kinky. And in a parody of the marriage bed, one male character has to stake his transformed beloved, with copious gushings of fluid concluded by a chaste kiss. Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing's whale-oil candle drips "sperm" all over a female vampire's tomb. Great GooglyMoogly!

And there are also almost endless numbers of scenes in which men and women weep in despair, or clutch hands and swear allegiance before God -- sentimental Victorian melodrama at its wooziest, not helped in the slightest by the modular interchangeability of the four main male characters.

Moments occur which stretch and even break credibility. The insect-eating madman Renfield sets a modern-day record for most escapes from a mental institution in one novel. Dracula, in one of the great bait-and-switches in literary history, goes almost entirely offstage after the first 60 pages, his presence made known almost entirely by the effect he has on others. Babies are fed to vampires, and grieving mothers to wolves. Heads are chopped off, the mouths stuffed with garlic. Dracula does his own dishes and searches for his own money and makes Jonathan Harker's meals. He really seems like a helluva guy. Too bad he stinks like a rotting corpse.

And the whole thing ends with a lengthy, continent-wide chase scene by ship, boat, rail and horse. It's all completely ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining. Even the Dutch Professor Van Helsing's garbled English becomes almost hypnotic in its lack of resemblance to any English ever spoken or written by anyone in the history of the English language. But Stoker keeps throwing Van Helsing's comments in there, sometimes with the caveat that even the other characters have trouble understanding him. It's a decision born of mad confidence.

There are several truly riveting and horrifying sequences in the novel -- Harker's initial ride to Castle Dracula and his subsequent adventures there; the diary entries of the Captain of the doomed Demeter; and the references to the "bloofer lady" who preys on children being three of them. Elements of the adventure novel, the thriller, the romance, the Gothic...all get synthesized by Stoker's lurid, imitative imagination, which remains, 115 years later, a greater imagination than that of most of his best-selling vampire-loving, novel-writing brethren and sistren. Highly recommended.

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