Well, Halloween is almost upon us and it only seems right to post a few reviews about scary stories.
I personally love a scary story but I usually have to go back a hundred years or so to find a truly scary story. Disembowelments don't scare, only disgust. In fact they devalue life. One of the things I enjoy about the Victorian ghost story is that part of the horror was its emphasis on how precious life is.
So it is with Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.
I had read this book years ago in college but I caught a number of things during this second reading that didn't register before.
Firstly, whether intentionally or not, Stoker weaves in barbaric paganism with prim and proper Victorian culture. I don't know that I would have noticed it before except I had read another book, Vampires, Burial and Death by Paul Barber (which I'll review later) about the actual practices of destroying vampires.
At first I thought the book, Vampires, Burial and Death, was going to be about the traditions associated with vampires but it is actually a non fiction account of the belief in vampires that existed in past centuries through out Europe and the methodical ways people dismembered, mangled and otherwise defiled corpses that were believed to be "undead". Reading the book exposed how pagan beliefs persisted even during the Christian era of Europe and how barbaric they were.
Bram Stoker combines these grotesque practices but takes them out of the primitive eastern European village and places them in a sophisticated 19th century English culture. The dichotomy creates a dramatic chiaroscuro.
Stoker's writing style is dated and flowery, but normal for the era. The woman is held up to be a beautiful, but fragile lily in need of masculine protection. The language would probably make the modern feminist cringe.
The storyline, simply put, is Count Dracula from Romania makes his way across to England for what reason I'm not entirely certain of. I think it is for power and dominion. He starts by attacking a newly married young woman, Lucy.
At first Lucy behaves mysteriously, sleep walking and becoming langerous. She keeps losing blood but no one understands why. Five men are involved in her life. Lord Godalming, Johnathon Harker, who was the unwitting solicitor for Dracula, John Seward a doctor from an insane asylum, Quincy Morris an American from Texas and Professor Van Helsing, a Dutch Doctor who mentored the other men. Van Helsing and Johnathon Harker are the only men among them that were not suiters for Lucy's hand in marriage. (Lord Godalming is the winner and marries her.)
Each man donates his own blood but to no avail. Eventually Lucy dies. Then strange reports appear around London of a lady who roams the streets at night befriending children who all have the same affliction afterwards: two puncture wounds on their necks.
Van Helsing is the one to explain the phenomena of vampirism to the others and after much persuading, convinces the men that they must kill the undead Lucy, not only to save the children but her own soul. They do so by opening her tomb, driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head and filling the mouth with garlic. Lucy's husband is the one to perform the ritual. It is viewed as an act of heroism because in doing so he frees Lucy's soul to go to heaven.
The men then find Dracula's coffins and place Communion wafers in them, thus making it impossible for him to return to them. Realizing he is being hunted, Dracula returns to Romania but not before getting revenge on the men by attacking Johnathon Harker's wife, Mina.
The rest of the story is basically a race to Transylvania to destroy Dracula before Mina completely transforms into a vampire. If she were to do that, it would be too late to save her life and they would have to destroy her the same way they did Lucy.
What impresses me is how skillfully Stoker is able to convince me, the reader, that it is perfectly acceptable and even heroic for men to take a stake and drive it through the heart of a woman and decapitate her. The reason is that he is not really murdering her because she's already dead, but what a horrible thing to do.
Yet, these men truly adored Lucy. And they care so much for Mina they are willing to risk their own lives (even lose it in the case of one of them) by confronting a monster with superhuman demonic power in order to free her from living an existence of damnation.
I know there are a lot of modern women out there that would spit on this book. What chauvinism! A woman doesn't need a man to "save" her.
I wonder how many of these women enjoyed "Fifty Shades of Grey"? A lot, according to the New York Times best seller lists. What are we "too modern" for? Books that show men concerning themselves with the welfare of women? But we don't mind books that describe (in graphic detail) a man dominating and degrading a woman?
Furthermore, Mina is the brains of the outfit. She's the one who figures out where Dracula stays in England and what mode of travel he used to return to Transylvania. The men show her great respect and acknowledge her indispensable help.
Not only does Stoker contrast contemporary English culture with paganism, he sharply contrasts the behavior, language and mind of a refined, intelligent Victorian woman and what it becomes when she turns into something evil.
While alive, Lucy is articulate, refined and very correct in her behavior. Afterwards, she becomes like an animal, seeking only to hunt and devour for the maintenance of her own existence. The contrast must have been shocking to contemporary readers.
Another factor that is woven in is Christianity. Victorians didn't talk of their faith as openly as many Christians today. It was so much a part of the fabric of their life it was taken for granted. It would have been like pointing out to others that the sky is blue.
But Stoker uses Christian symbols in a pagan context. Holy Water, Communion wafers and the Crucifixes are used as some sort of magical amulet to ward off the vampires. Perhaps he is simply trying to insert a moral dynamic to show good vs evil.
One of the most interesting things about Dracula is how little he shows up in the story. Probably the most intense and consequently enjoyable section of the book is the very first part when we read Johnathon Harker's diary which chronicles his initial journey to Transylvania and subsequent imprisonment in Dracula's castle.
Dracula is written in first person through the diaries, letters and journals of some of the main characters. This provides different voices to describe the same story.
I think it must be terrifically difficult to create that many voices in a single text, especially the women's. He succeeds in all except Van Helsing's whose broken English came across as artificial.
I don't know why Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. Maybe he was trying to shake up his fellow Victorians. Letting them see that for all their sophistication, barbarianism is not as far away as they think.
I also am surprised at his theology, which in my opinion is skewed. At the end of the story, when the Count is finally vanquished, in her diary, Mina notices that the vampires face expresses peace before the body turns to dust.
What is the message here? That evil begets evil but no one is really responsible for their own actions? Each person is turned into a vampire against their will and has no choice but to act demonically? If that is so, then why would they be damned even while a vampire?
Whatever Stoker's reason for writing his story or his worldview, Count Dracula is just a plain scary story well told and its endurance is testimony to its value and place in the archives of Western classical literature.
For a different kind of review go to:
Still A Demon