Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 1: Zoöphagy

Yes, it's true: until about a month ago, I'd never read Dracula. If this revelation tempts you to look back on anything I've ever said about the horror genre with sneering contempt, I could hardly blame you. It's like someone going on and on about detective fiction and its roots, but when asked for his thoughts about Raymond Chandler, he responds "Raymond Whondler??" Although in my defense, I had actually heard about Dracula before, and even Bram Stoker. Irish guy, right? Owned a theater or something? Often appears alongside Arthur Conan Doyle in novels where Doyle finds his life suddenly and shockingly mirroring the world of his fiction? Red hair, probably?

No, the reason behind my decades long...and not even "resistance", but maybe "apathy", towards the book, which is one of two or three works that can be said to have given birth to modern horror, is that, you know, you don't really need to have read the Bible to have picked up the basic idea. To, in fact, have had the basic idea surround you your entire life. So it is with Dracula. And Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but of course I've read those books. Why not Dracula, too? Because I guess, to a greater degree than the Shelley or Stevenson or Wilde creations at the heart of their respective novels, Dracula, the character, has become like Santa Claus or Superman, or, indeed, Sherlock Holmes. In other words, mythic, bigger than Stoker or a single novel. Given that the roots stretch back hundreds of years into actual human history (sort of, but not really, but that sounds nice at least) this isn't surprising. Hell, some people still think Sherlock Holmes was a real guy. Meanwhile, Dracula actually was (sort of, but not really, but etc.).

So not a lot of surprises left for me, I used to think. And having now read it, I was sort of right. Bram Stoker's Dracula has been picked clean, the good stuff stripped away and furiously stapled to all manner of other modern Gothic adventures, the bad stuff left behind in the dust, except a lot of the scavengers apparently got some of it on their shoes and tracked it home. But regardless, I knew, even when I wasn't reading Stoker's book, that I was only robbing myself, and that knowing basically what happens in narrative terms didn't in any way mean there was nothing left to know about Dracula. The bonus of projects like this one is the excuse to rectify my errors.

And error it was, because something occurs fairly early in the novel, a reasonably well-known scene, though one rarely dramatized on film (and incidentally, if it's all the same to you, I'm going to dispense with the plot summary on this one) where one of our team of narrators, Dr. Jack Seward, recounts an important series of encounters with his disturbing mental patient, Renfield, in which Renfield's not just dietary, but also scientific and experimental and even philosophical, habits begin to progress. Flies, is what Renfield starts with, and then he moves on to spiders. Though he still consumes these creatures, his interest seems to focus more on the feeding of the flies to the spiders. And then sparrows...

We are progressing. My friend has now a whole colony of sparrows, and his flies and spiders are almost obliterated. When I came in he ran to me and said he wanted to ask me a great favour...I asked him what it was, and he said, with a sort of rapture in his voice and bearing: --

"A kitten, a nice little, sleek playful kitten, that I can play with, and teach, and feed -- and feed -- and feed!" I was not unprepared for this request, for I had noticed how his pets went on increasing in size and vivacity, but I did not care that this pretty family of tame sparrows should be wiped out in the same manner as the flies and the spiders..."

In the role of consumer, Renfield is practicing what is known as "zoöphagy", which can mean either "the eating of unusual animals" or simply "the feeding on animals", so clearly Renfield is creating a food chain, one not terribly different from the one found in nature, with himself the final link, the eater of all that is below him. But Renfield is not the final link, and he knows this, and this is the source of his madness. Renfield is Dracula's pawn -- as well as a kind of tracking device for the Count, a fact which must, in the end, have terribly chagrined the both of them -- and Renfield is a living, breathing human being, or more to the point, homo sapien. If what Renfield is doing with all these flies and spiders and sparrows and, theoretically, cats, is constructing his own personal evolutionary food chain, and Dracula, as Renfield fully understands, is a being of greater strength and adaptive powers (he can camouflage himself in many different ways) whose only source of food is human blood, then what, exactly, does this make Dracula?

In 1953, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book called Childhood's End. It's necessary to badly simplify the book in order to talk about it here, but basically it's the story of an alien invasion which heralds, eventually, the next evolutionary step for mankind. Which is only natural and good and which, with the coming of the aliens, bookends a time of peace and enormous prosperity on Earth. Unfortunately, the next evolutionary step can only mean one thing for the place from which that step is being taken, and the novel ends with the obliteration of mankind -- of you and me -- as the "last generation" emerges triumphant. All of this is being overseen, which is not to say controlled, by the aliens, or "Overlords." And not incidentally, these Overlords just happen to physically resemble the demons and devils of our folklore -- horns, tails, the whole bit. The personification of evil, you might say.

You can maybe see where I'm going with this. And if I'm not being obvious enough, let's let Dr. Abraham Van Helsing lay it all out:

"...As I learned from the researches of my friend Arminus of Buda-Pesth, [Dracula] was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist -- which latter was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse...Well, in him the brain powers survived the physical death....In some faculties of mind he has been, and is, only a child; but he is growing, and some things that were childish at first are now of man's stature. He is experimenting, and doing it well; and if it had not been that we have crossed his path he would be yet -- he may be yet if we fail -- the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life."

Well, indeed, Professor Van Helsing. So it must always be, and the case can be made that what Van Helsing and his team of do-gooders is really accomplishing in the end by destroying Dracula is the destruction of natural progress. Dracula, unlike most vampire novels, is not terribly concerned with vampiric origins -- in other words, how Dracula went from "most wonderful man" to undead bloodsucker is never explained. There is no ur-vampire in Stoker's tale, at least not one we're meant to concern ourselves about. Vampires simply are, and have adapted to life, by winning points over death, over the years to a degree that must make the first guy who learned to cook food feel like a total dumbshit. Oh, penicillin, huh? Yeah, that's really terrific. I'm 400 years old, by the way.

Of course, vampirism as it exists in Dracula and pretty much every other vampire story, is unsustainable as an evolutionary step. If your only food is human blood, and as a species you have, as time marches on, wiped out every human being, as vampires as they are classically portrayed are bound to do, then what's next? Adapting to other types of blood, presumably, or perhaps not wiping out humans, and breeding and harvesting them as we do cows and pigs and so forth. Now that book must have been written at some point, right? My little theory runs into further trouble when you remember that Clarke's Overlords were essentially benign. Their pragmatism may be so extreme that the difference between it and actual aggression might finally get lost, but still, they are benign, and anyway mankind is famously shortsighted. The Overlords demonic appearance had something to do (it's been a little while since I read that book) with how long they'd been in some sort of contact with mankind, and collective memory free of true context, and so forth, and it's very tempting to imagine something similar about Dracula. He's been around simply forever, and his unambiguously evil appearance -- red eyes, black clothing, and the like -- could actually just be our mistake and projection onto him. The problem, though, is that Dracula actually does evil things, and wallows in the suffering -- the grief, even, which is almost harder to justify than any of the physical suffering he causes. That could be part of the evolutionary step, after all. Hoping that all those who love Mina Murray should weep their days away after she has been taken from them is something else again.

The idea of a sympathetic Dracula, an almost nice Dracula, which Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart would regrettably run with in 1992, is really not that present in Stoker's novel, but the seed of it, and even the entire modern world of sensitive and mournful vampires, can perhaps be boiled down to this passage, where Mina takes her husband Jonathan Harker to task for wishing brutal revenge on the Count who has not only killed Lucy Westenra, but is attempting to turn his wife into a vampire:

"Jonathan dear, and you all my true, true friends, I want you to bear something in mind through all this dreadful time. I know that you must fight -- that you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter; but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality..."

And in fact, when Dracula is finally dispatched, Mina believes she sees a look of peace cross his face just before he crumbles to dust. But otherwise, it's a pure horrorshow. More child and infant deaths are implied in Dracula than in any book outside of the works of Cormac McCarthy, and they are all engineered by the Count. Though surely not all the children are killed -- it's made clear that some are merely attacked, and rescued before Dracula, by way of a freshly turned Lucy, have finished with them. Surely vampire children would have been part of the Count's plan. In Childhood's End, the end of mankind and the ascent of a new and greater lifeform, is heralded by the last generation of children, powerful and wise in a way so cold to their parents, who can no longer reproduce. So in Dracula, turning children is perhaps the first step.

Anyway, so how's the book? There's a tendency these days, from certain quarters, to look down on Dracula and regard it as mindless pulp whose unintentional subtext is perhaps interesting, and its cultural impact is certainly etc., but as a work of etc., it's etc. And I don't even disagree! All of the best writing in Dracula can be found in its first half to two-thirds. And there are wonderfully chilling moments and images, such as the white figure of Lucy, now a vampire, carrying off children into the graveyard where she is buried, or Dracula throwing a baby, wrapped in a bag, to his three brides for them to feed on, or the self-contained story of the Dimiter, or just the general amassing of evil that culminates with the merciful execution of Lucy's undead self -- it's all quite gripping, and rather brilliantly structured. It would be a supreme act of denial, however, to not acknowledge Stoker's occasionally extreme clumsiness. I'm thinking of, for example, these soothing words spoken by Van Helsing to Mina: "'Do not fear, my dear. We are here..." You mustn't leer, but in case it's not clear, we're all out of beer. You're very near, but I still can't hear, even when you cheer. Not to hammer on the point.

I imagine, too, that some would take issue with the novel's extremes of moral description. Dracula's evil is pretty hard to ignore, obviously, but is it necessary to describe Mina as a "sweet, sweet, good, good" woman, and "so sweet, so true, so noble", and so on, basically every other page? And the bravery and goodness of our male heroes reaches a pitch after a while that reminds me that Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life. This stuff doesn't chap me too much, though, because it's really no different from Dickens. If the argument is that Stoker was not the writer of prose that Dickens was, then I doubt anyone will disagree, but in terms of separating the good men from the bad, they approached it from the same angle.

No, what bothers me about Dracula is the fact that, once our heroes go on the offensive and begin to actively track Dracula down, Stoker seems to think the minutiae of their actual travel plans is of great interest to the reader. This stuff goes on forever, and is really only broken up so that Van Helsing can tell us how good and sweet and true Mina is again. There is a remarkable, almost hilarious, amount of dead weight in Dracula. If there's a finer or more delightful example of that than this, from a conversation between Mina and Van Helsing, then I somehow missed it:

"But why need we seek him further, when he is gone away from us?" He took her hand and patted it as he replied: --

"Ask me nothings as yet. When we have breakfast, then I answer all questions." He would say no more, and we separated to dress.

After breakfast Mina repeated her question. He looked at her gravely for a minute and then said sorrowfully...

And then he answers her question! What could possibly have been the point of having him refuse to answer until after breakfast, only for Stoker to blow past breakfast in a line and then have her repeat the question, and then have it answered? If Stoker had taken the time to describe breakfast, I might regard the whole thing as worthwhile, but he doesn't. It's bizarre, and, to me, pretty funny. But this stuff really piles up right when Dracula should be gaining undeniable momentum, and for 50, 60, 70 pages -- more? -- it's a horrible grind that left me near despair.

And yet somehow, when all our character converge outside Dracula's castle, and the gypsies who are transporting the count suddenly find themselves facing Harker, Arthur Holmwood, Jack Seward and Quincey Morris bearing guns, and then Van Helsing and Mina rise up, also armed, a thrill ran through me -- yeah, get those motherfuckers! What's most striking to me about Dracula as an adventure novel, as a story structured around the idea of a team of heroes -- which is really what it is -- is how that team is treated, and how things play out, and how each member is regarded. Everybody save Van Helsing suffers a personal grief over the loss of Lucy (Jonathan's is indirect, but genuine), and all bond together to do good, but the desire to destroy Dracula is most personally felt by Arthur, who was engaged to Lucy; Mina, whose life is most immediately at risk; and Jonathan, who is married to Mina. Van Helsing is the expert leader, and Jack Seward is a vital narrator, and the link to Renfield and Van Helsing, and, anyway, a gentleman suitor of Lucy's and friend to Arthur. (I was reminded in some ways of Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire, what with its group of good, brave men huddling around to protect one woman, though obviously Mina is more innocent and less brassy than Barbara Stanwyck is in that film. Plus, for all the continuous outpouring of heartfelt emotion in Dracula, it doesn’t contain a moment as genuinely moving as “Sweet Genevieve.” But I think I’m starting to compare apples to cargo planes, so let’s move on.) But what about Quincey Morris, the American? As a tenderly rejected suitor of Lucy, his emotional attachment is no stronger than Seward's, and really should be the least of all the characters. But somehow Holmwood fades in the novel, and Morris never does. Morris's American bravery -- much is made of the two being linked, though all Stoker's heroes are equally brave, with the exception of Mina, who is perceived to be the bravest, though in her case courage is not paired with nationality, but gender -- is often heralded before he even has a chance to do anything, but mainly he's still in the background with Holmwood. Until he's not, until he and Jonathan bear down on Dracula at the end, and until he delivers the fatal blow to the Count, suffering a mortal wound in the process. I mean, hell, outside of a brief epilogue, the novel ends on Quincy's final words!

I must say, I love this sort of thing, in part because of its extreme rarity. But in books and films about teams, I deeply appreciate when one of the least of the team is suddenly in the spotlight, or when teams get divided up in unexpected pairs (I'm thinking of the Omar Doom and Eli Roth, and Brad Pitt and B. J. Novak, pairings at the end of Inglourious Basterds). So it's rare, but how many stories reach mythic significance whose central character is killed by a character almost entirely forgotten by the rest of the world? There are torch bearers for Quincey out there, and for all his boneheaded moves, Coppola did have the decency to preserve the character and his final heroism. But it's an interesting world where the demon is known by practically every living soul, while the man who laid that demon low struggles to remain a footnote.


Greg F. said...

You analyze Dracula well for someone who has not yet lived a single lifetime.

Seriously, so much to cover here. I have read Dracula, sort of, kind of but not really. I've read it in bits and pieces, snippets here and there and, frankly, using the Vampire encyclopedia and its thorough synopsis (better than Cliff notes) I felt I had read it.

But not really so I got it on kindle and I'm reading it now. Nonetheless, I know the entire story so what the hell does it really matter at this point?

Now, if you take some of Coppola's Dracula (the Quincy bowie knife slaying but not the Mina shit that happens after that with Drac), some of Herzog's Nosferatu and some of the original Nosferatu and mix in a bit of Hammer and Universal's Dracula, you could make the whole thing work, a little bit.

The problem is, either he's a romantic hero (Coppola's) or he's a rat-like beast (Nosferatu). Christopher Lee and Bela's Drac (Hammer and Universal) probably are the best for me but adapting the novel is a problem because there's so many different narrator's. This confused Coppola's. To make it work, it should be stripped down, that is, free of narration and Dracula should be evil but not completely rat-like.

It's a tough balance, obviously, as witnessed by over a century of, essentially, failure to properly adapt the book.

And, yes, I love that Quincy is the one to kill Drac with his big-ass knife. It's a great cap to the story of his pursuit.

Robert H. said...

You may want, at some point, take a look at Kim Newman's ANNO DRACULA, which starts with the notion that Van Helsing and Co. were NOT successful in killing Dracula... it's an ongoing series (THE BLOODY RED BARON and KINGDOM OF TEARS:ANNO DRACULA 1958 A.K.A. DRACULA CHA CHA CHA), and Newman has a lot of fun with it.

Bryce Wilson said...

Damn it Greg took my joke.

Well Bill not much more to add then this is a great start and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

bill r. said...

Greg, I really don't think it IS a tough balance. I think it would be very easy to do a straight adaptation, very stark and simple, with or without the use of the multiple narrators. I think that can work, but I don't think you need to do it. Anyway, the problem has been that nobody has wanted to do it. DRACULA became so much bigger than itself that people have wanted to twist it and upend it as soon as they had the opportunity. This all being fed by the fact that the Browning film wasn't even based on the novel, but on Balderson's stage adaptation/butchering, and the novel almost never had a chance onscreen. But it wouldn't be hard to do, and I wish someone would do it.

Robert - Not only might I want to read ANNO DRACULA, I do want to read ANNO DRACULA. And time permitting, and all that...but I doubt I'll get it done for posting this month. But I've been wanting to read it for years, the only thing holding me back being that I hadn't sat down and read Stoker's novel yet.

Bryce - Thank you, and I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I can't believe Greg took your joke. What a fucking punk.

WelcometoLA said...

Damn, this was pretty interesting. Except for the general trashing of Coppola's Dracula, which I think is pretty good. But, again, what do I know of horror?

bill r. said...

I'm constantly surprised by the horror films you, such a vehement anti-horror guy, make exceptions for.

Anyway, I don't hate Coppola's movie. I hate parts, really like other parts, and find the whole thing extremely frustrating.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah it's a real toss up whether that's the worst movie I love or the best movie I hate.

If only it were silent.

Fun thing noticed while watching it last time, Keanu Reeves totally looks like Andy Warhol when he wears the fright wig.

Fred said...

Excellent review of Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book, not Coppola's movie). The passage you cite about the conversation with breakfast may be Stoker's attempt to add color to the character of Van Helsing, add to the notion that he is a bit of a nutty professor, making Mina wait for an answer until he has finished dining. With respect to Quincy delivering the coup d'grace, it Dracula speaks to us in the same way we remember a bench player in a football or baseball game making the key play in the big game, like how Met fans will always remember Al Weis hitting a homer off of the Orioles' Dave McNally to win a World Series game in 1969 or Timmy Smith coming out of nowhere to rush for a then-record 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII to lead the Redskins to victory over the Broncos. It is unexpected, yet quite truthful, when someone of little note rises to the occassion, to win a game, a battle, or slay a dragon. David and Goliath, to cite a Biblical cliche.

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Jess Franco's Conde Dracula? With respect to adapting the novel, it is probably as close to the chronology and faithful to the events, except for maybe the BBC telefilm with Louis Jordan. True, it was not one of the best versions (and it wasn't one of Jess's better films), but Lee does put on a great performance, and any film with the lovely Soledad Miranda can't be all bad.

bill r. said...

Bryce - Keanu Reeves is inexcusable in that film. I truly cannot believe that performance was allowed to happen.

Fred - Thank you. And yes, you're right, Quincey's last minute heroics are quite truthful, which is way I love it so much. It becomes extremely wearying to read a book of this sort and peg early on the, at most, two characters most likely to bring about evil's downfall, and then be 100 per cent correct. That's now how it works, and while I hardly expect my vampire stories to rigorously reflect everyday life, any attempt to step outside of an expected formula is very welcome. And somehow, Quincey's heroism and death add a poignancy that the death of, say, Van Helsing or even Harker would not have had.

And I've never seen the Franco film. I've seen almost none of his movies, in fact, which is something I've been meaning to fix. I'll check that one out first.

Fred said...

Bill, word of advice with Conde Dracula: while it is one of his most accessible films with an excellent cast, it is also one of his least representative works. Nevertheless, it may not be a bad place to start as it was the first or second one I saw (not sure if I saw this on TV after I saw Awful Dr. Orloff also on TV in the early 70s). One other plus that I didn't mention: Klaus Kinski may be the best Renfield ever.

Jose Cruz said...

Hot damn, Bill, if I didn't agree with just about every point you made in this review. I had very similar thoughts upon reading the novel for the first time. In particular, I found the idea of Drac having "a child-brain", one that hasn't quite fully developed and acquired as much forces of EEEEVIL as it possibly could have, to be some rich stuff and a hot ticket to a "what if?" type storyline where the Count lives on (which happens to be the plot of ANNO DRACULA if I'm not mistaken, so there you go).

I was grinning from ear to ear with your descriptions of the heroes' search for the vampire. That is some CASTLE OF OTRANTO-esque turgid stuff right there. And add to the fact that all the male characters sound so similar to the point that it's almost impossible to tell them apart and you find yourself bashing your head in around Page 457 when Stoker's telling you what shipping service the boys decided to ring up on to inquire where Drac's boxes of dirt are headed. But I go on...

Really, really great and comprehensive review of a still wonderfully entertaining novel that shows some of its scars (SCARS OF DRACULA... anyone? anyone?).

P.S. That scene where Dracula summons the wolves to devour the village wench whose baby was eaten? Sadly unrepresented in cinema and all-around AMAZING.

bill r. said...

Fred - I will take all try to remember all that. And I'm not sure that I've never seen a Franco film...I just can't remember now. And Kinski seems like a natural Renfield, obviously.

Jose - Thank you, and yes! That wolf scene you mentioned is terrific, one of the best parts of the book. How did I forget about that?

And, also yes, all that shit about which company and tracking down the coffins of dirt...there's no tension or suspense to any of it. All it (occasionally) does is give Stoker an excuse to write in dialect, as Harker or Holmwood or somebody questions some laborer. It's worth mentioning here that writing in dialect is the worst.