Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

A wealthy East European wishes to relocate to London, a city he has read about and long admired from afar. Following a period of political instability in his home country, he finds himself rich, and decides to make his dream come true. The source of his wealth is... well, he doesn't want anyone prying too deeply into that, so he contacts several law firms in regional parts of the UK to move various of his assets from his remote postage stamp sized republic in the Carpathian mountains and acquire assets in Britain immediately.

He hires a private yacht to sail him around the coast of his homeland and out through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and on to Whitby in England. When he gets to London, he buys property: a big pile out in Essex backing on to a mental hospital and a few choice properties around greater London to live in or rent for an income as he sees fit.

He endeavours to make his way in British society, making the acquaintance of a couple of ladies in a church yard and this is where his troubles begin. He is something of a lady killer, and begins an affair with one of the women, who undergoes some kind of attack shortly after making his acquaintance. Well, these English ladies, eh? So lovely and so fragile!

Shortly after the attack, she is spotted abducting young children from Hampstead Heath, and our gentleman – who has aristocratic roots, might I add – finds himself under suspicion for causing her mania. Soon, the lady's former lover, the chief doctor in the psychiatric hospital that abuts his new home, contacts one of his old school teachers, an eccentric conspiracy nut who has a thing for blaming East Europeans for the world's evils. They recruit the dead girl's friends to form a kind of posse to drive the new immigrant out of town.

What follows is a dark farce as the naïve Count is pursued across London by the outraged locals. Even when he flees back to his homeland, they pursue him and finally murder him in his own home. So much for British hospitality!

We always retell this one for our own era. The story has a metaphorical vacuum, where various interpreters can put in – or take out – what they want. It seems to reach deep into us, to contact fears and worries that are so familiar and recognisable that it's hard to remember sometimes that it was only written a hundred and fifteen years ago.

The xenophobia, the sexual tension, the grave-yard taboos all seem to come from somewhere – that keeps it at the front of our minds. It's a portrait of alienation or a reactionary villification of the other; it's a tale of the sexual license out of control or of the dangers of suppressing natural desire. An AIDS metaphor, or something about imperialism or Nazism or racism or whatever -ism you want, it seems. I'm a long time Dracula movie fan – especially when I was a kid – but this is the first time I've ever read the original – I'm not really a big fan of non-20th century fiction,  probably post war fiction, really, and had thus never gotten around to it until now. What I discovered is that perhaps my caution was justified, and that despite the power of its central imagery, most of the movies take big liberties with the story presented in the novel. And with good reason!

I was not entirely surprised to find that large stretches of Dracula are quite boring. There are long stretches were not much happens, and a great deal of repetition and excess chat. Early on, Lucy and Mina encounter a comical yokel at the graveyard in Whitby where Mina Harker staying with Lucy (while Jonathan is away, of course). If I recall correctly, we get three scenes of this before the annoying old stereotype is torn apart by Dracula in wolf form (off stage, NB).

In fact, comical working class characters crop up again in the form of various navvies who have to interrogated regarding the deliveries of coffin-shaped boxes filled with earth. To a man they find themselves unable to assist the heroes due to “the dusty nature of the consequent thirst engendered in the operators.” Once this situation has been seen to “through the medium of the currency of the realm” they suddenly, and helpfully, wax loquacious on the required subject, usually in the form of a verbatim cor-blimey-missus transcript.

These stock characters remind me of the sorts melodramas that Stoker no doubt knew well from his work in the theatre. There's a very heavy dose melodrama in the entire story – the numerous coincidences that connect the characters, the simpering love plot, Harker's disappearance and re-discovery convalescing in a French nunnery, the inclusion of Qunicey Morris the wild west adventurer for no readily apparent reason. There's a heavy lathering gothic as well, of course, but it's essential form is a popular one, not an artistic or literary one.

There's also a lot of apparent padding. The search for the London coffins seems to be included simply to fill up some pages, and the trip up the Danube to Castle Dracual for the final confrontation is precisely twice as long as it needs to be as the party splits in two and we hear about both journeys in detail. Perhaps Mina's ambiguous state, between human and undead, is supposed to drive some of the tension here, but it's thin stuff.

The most effective bit the opening sequence, where Jonathon Harker is trapped in Dracula's castle. There's a bit of travel log stuff at the start, but once he's on the carriage for the Borgo Pass, things get creepy quickly. Harker's gradual realisation that something really isn't right is nicely timed, from the nervous locals handing him blessings and crucifixes, to the mysterious black carriage that carriers him over the mountains through the Pass and the strange decrepit Castle Dracula, filled with piles of treasure, the seductive (“voluptuous”) brides, and the mysterious Count himself.

It's an intriguing mystery that makes you curious about Dracula's nature, even if you know the story from the movies. Harker's can-do approach provides plenty of action, and makes him a very engaging character: he's level-headed and makes several considered attempt to escape, but he is also in no doubt about the danger he faces. I suppose it's the classic horror movie protagonist, trapped and terrified but determined to survive.

Because I have seen versions of the film where the Harker and Renfield characters are combined, I was genuinely uncertain what Harker's fate would be and so I found this whole section genuinely thrilling. The Count is an implacable foe, too, dominating Harker with a combination of cunning and the force of his malevolent personality. The scene where Dracula throws the brides a baby is genuinely unsettling.

After this great beginning, though, it begins to get bogged down, and it's interesting to note that this is only section where the count has a significant present and any meaningful dialogue. The rest of the novel mainly concerns his actions off screen, and while he remains a cunning foe he is an entirely enigmatic figure from then on. The action focuses instead on the doings of Seward, Quincey Morris, Lord Godalming, Mina & Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing and I think it's this absence of the villain that makes the novel suddenly lose its forward momentum. Dracula needs to be in there gloating and dominating people, just as he does in the Harker sequence. The jolly heroes on their own turf are a far less appealing – I kept thinking of Bulldog Drummond's Black Hand Gang as they hounded the East European immigrant out of London.

In my experience, the movie adaptations greatly increase the role of the Count, usually at the cost of one of more of the investigating team: there are certainly a few too many brave young chaps around in the original. For me, the definitive Van Helsing was always Peter Cushing, with that cool Holmse-like precision and resolve. In the book Van Helsing is a far more eccentric kind of a figure – he struggles comically with English and overflows with compassion and overly demonstrative emotion. Closer to the book is Anthony Hopkins's lip-smacking portrayal in the Francis Ford Coppola version, in all its leering, lip-smacking glory.

The Coppola movie's probably closest to what's here in many respects, but I'm not a fan of that movie and having read the book I think Coppola does it something of a disservice. The tortured soul searching for his lost love robs Dracula of a lot of his psychotic allure. It's a weak spot, I suppose, that Dracula doesn't have in my favourite portrayals. Stoker's Van Helsing is convinced that Dracula is something akin to an animal, his soul trapped inside him somewhere while the body is used by an instinctively malevolent spirit.

It's this unaffected animalistic element that makes the myth of the Count so very powerful. Like an animal, Dracula is a kind of blank screen onto which other creators have projected their own concerns, or the concerns of their age. If it was a great book, then movie makers might be more concerned to “get it right” by attending to the details and themes in the original, with respectful dialogue and attempts at spurious authenticity. Since the book is one of modest achievements, then no one feels too bad about taking a bit of ownership and doing away with the extraneous matter. In this way, maybe, they get closer to the original than the original itself.

And I can't possibly post about this without including this, one of the greatest songs of all time!

I downloaded the opening image from here. I can't tell from this site whether it's OK to use these images or not, but I'm to err on the side of lack of caution and use it. If anyone wants the image taken down, let me know. I mean, I figure it's surely public domain by now!


  1. Kim Newman's excellent "Anno Dracula" was finally reprinted earlier this year - a must if you've never read it.

  2. Yep, read them all.

    I saw that they were available as a single vol (AD, Bloody Red Baron, Dracula ChaChaCha, and the Warhol one - Johnny Alucard?) and I checked to see if that package was available on Kindle... but alas no.

    Then, I thought about reading Anno D directly after this, just to give it a proper excavation that I was maybe not equipped for when I first read it (nearly 20 years ago, shudder) ... but, alas, no.

    "But alas, no." should probably be on my family crest.

    Anyway, as I am sure you are aware I interveiwed Kimbo about five years ago for the Zone. He's a very nice chap with a head full of the kind of fascinating genre cruft that fascinates me but which is obviously quite hard to monetise. There's a link on the reviews page here.

  3. I think the most faithful adaptation I saw was the BBC TV one from the mid 1970s with Louis Jourdan as Count Dracula, though that amalgamated Holmwood and Morris into one character.

    I probably think that the Nosferatu films by Murnau and Herzog and the first Hammer film are the most successful versions. Certainly Cushing makes an excellent Van Helsing and Christopher Lee is iconic as the count.

  4. That BBC one is on youtube, as it happens, and I watched a chunk of it while I was writing this. Louis Jordan is pretty good: his Dracula doesn't seem overtly supernatural or eery in the way of others, but he certainly rises to the occasion, eg in the Mina blood-drinking scene which has stayed with me since I first saw this when it as first broadcast.

    Cushing and Lee are hard to beat. I peppered this post with Lugosi images because a) he's iconic, b) generally better photos that are (hopefully!) public domain and c) Bauhaus. In the first Hammer movie especially I have always felt that Lee captures the animalistic aspect of Dracula particularly well, like a wolf or a shark operating purely in malevolent instinct.


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