Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review: Dracula


SPOILER ALERT: A spoiler alert for a novel that's over 100 years old might seem silly, but if you haven't read Bram Stoker's original — if your knowledge of vampires comes secondhand from Hollywood, Anne Rice, or (shudder) Stephenie Meyer — then there really are some spoilers here.

I finally finished reading Dracula just a few days before 2012 began, and my overall response is this: My but Bram Stoker is long-winded!

Dracula is another great example of why I avoid Victorian fiction. I prefer the Kurt Vonnegut style of writing (e.g., "Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action."), so the logorrhea (some might call it grandiloquence) of Dracula and of other novels from the same era are, to me, difficult to bear. Bram Stoker and his contemporaries, it seems, take every opportunity to say in ten words what could be said in two.

To wit,
Dracula (first edition cover), Bram Stoker's v...
Image via Wikipedia
I was so absorbed in that wonderful diary of Jonathan Harker and that other of his wife that I let the time run on without thinking.

So I don't like Stoker's writing style. The story, though, is brilliant, made more brilliant when one remembers that all this vampire stuff didn't really exist before Dracula. Hollywood's vampire stories draw (vampirically) from Stoker's magnum opus, and this is the original. Dracula is to vampires what Alexander Graham Bell's first working telephone is to smartphones, or what Edison's first successful light bulb is to a 60-inch flat-panel 1080p HDTV, or what The Simpsons is to Family Guy.

There's no denying that it's an important story, but I did have some problems with it. With the ending, mostly. The chase through eastern Europe was, I thought, building up to a final, exciting, nail-biting confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing et al. Sure, there was an Old West–style stagecoach chase, but when the vampire hunters finally stopped the gypsy's leiterwaggon and knocked Dracula's coffin to the ground, were we treated to a final face-off with the soulless Un-Dead?

Nope. Dracula stayed in his box (the sun was still up), got his neck slashed and his heart pierced, and turned to dust.
English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist bor...
Bram Stoker
Image via Wikipedia

No battle. No test of will. No facing down death. Just killing a vampire in a box, like shooting vampire fish in a barrel.

Modern writers, I think, tend to agree with me on this, altering their adaptations to make the climax more, well, climactic. Exciting. For example, in Steven Dietz's stage adaptation of Dracula, which I recently got to see at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Dracula had the opportunity to attack his pursuers, but was ultimately done in by Mina Harker's "betrayal" — a kiss while the Eucharist was still on her lips — giving the men the opportunity to strike. In Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the title character actually dies by Mina's hand — she is the one who plunges a sword through Dracula's heart (and, through an odd feat of strength, into the marble floor).

In both of these versions, the relationship between Mina and Dracula is more overtly sexual, and Mina is more complicit (whether mesmerized or not) in that relationship. In the book, on the other hand, Dracula forces himself on a struggling Mina:
With his left hand he held both Mrs Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thing stream trickled down the man's bare breast. . . . The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
She never shows any sexual interest in him — only the pull of "her master." Throughout the race to Transylvania, Mina simply serves as a hypnotic GPS, and not a good one at that. She is otherwise just a deadweight.

So I didn't like the writing style, and I didn't like the ending. But still, there is something in this story that kept me coming back, moving forward to see what happened next. Maybe it was just to see how the original compares with Hollywood, I don't know. But whatever it was, Bram Stoker's Dracula was worth reading.

Once. It's worth reading once.

It's also a great source for learning some new words. For example, it was interesting to see that what we normally hear called a strait jacket is called by Dr. Seward a strait waistcoat. And then Dr. Seward writes what I see as a nice bit of wordplay:
There is a method in [Renfield's] madness, and the rudimentary idea in my mind is growing. It will be a whole idea soon, and then, oh, unconscious cerebration! [emphasis added]
We might expect Seward to write, in his building excitement, "oh celebration!" But, instead, he goes with "unconscious cerebration!" a term introduced in psychology in 1842 that would evolve into what we know today as the subconscious. (Cerebration is simply "using the mind.")

We also find a use of the word diligence that we don't see often:
At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you.
Here, a diligence is a stagecoach.

And a few more uncommon words from Dracula:
  • cal├Ęche: a light carriage
  • case-boffle: a bottle specially made to fit in a suitcase
  • daffled: crazy or stupid
  • drouth: thirst
  • hobnails: nails used in the soles of shoes or boots
  • London cat's-meat: horse meat
  • trituration: crushing or grinding
You get all these great words, plus a fair bit of French and Latin. And some nice bits of linguistic comic relief from Abraham Van Helsing, a doctor from Amsterdam for whom English is a second language:
Whereupon the captain tell him that he had better be quick — with blood — for that ship will leave the place — of blood — before the turn of the tide — with blood.
Perhaps Van Helsing has blood-sucking vampires on his mind a bit too much. Here, he's misinterpreting a discussion with a longshoreman, misunderstanding the British use of the word bloody: "bloody quick," "bloody place," and "bloody tide." Hilarious.

Or at least as hilarious as Dracula gets.

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