Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reading Dracula

I am reading Dracula. Not for the first time, but this time I am reading it for my horror club. I was actually the person who suggested we should take it as the next subject for discussion. It is usually either a story or a movie which is the "text" at my horror club meetings, but this time it is going to be the first four chapters of Dracula-- which cover Jonathan Harker's time in Castle Dracula.

I suggested we should tackle Dracula because the club has some very enthusiastic fans of the book-- people who have written and lectured on Dracula, and created visual works of art inspired by it. They seem to know it inside out. I suggested we should read our way through the book, since one of my favourite things in the world is listening to people who really know and love a subject talk about it. However, it was quickly pointed out that this would be a mammonth undertaking, so we are only going to discuss certain sections. 

Dracula is, of course, Irish. His creator was Bram Stoker from Clontarf. This is one of those facts that strike me afresh as surprising, every now and again. it is a grievance of my horror club that he is not sufficiently honoured in his native city. They were disgusted that an opportunity to name a bridge after him was missed quite recently. 

There is a delicious theory that the name "Dracula" is derived from the Irish language-- droch fhola being a literal translation of "bad blood". (I don't know how grammatical it is.) However, there is no foundation for this at all.

In my late teens, I borrowed a book about writing horror, fantasy and science fiction from the local library, and read it several times. Dracula was lauded for several reasons. One reason was the name "Dracula" itself, which was presented as the gold standard of horror character naming in a chapter on that subject. Another was Stoker's parsimonious use of the arch-villain. After the opening chapters, he rarely appears in person.

Of course, we have all been familiar with Dracula since we were toddlers. My first acquaintance with the novel itself came in a Ladybird version. My American readers may not know what Ladybird books are. They are picture-books, in which the page is usually divided half-and-half between text and a picture. In fact, most of the Ladybird books of my childhood had accompanying cassettes. There's no need to make that face; they were actually very good. Me and my two brothers listened to them over and over. Our favourites were the classic books series, and the inside back cover and facing page had a list of other classic titles in the series, with the heading "Stories...that have stood the test of time". They list had a kind of decorative gold frame pictured around it, and around that the page was coloured deep brown, like mahogany.  This stirred my imagination with the idea of timeless classics, and the magic of story.

The acquisition of Dracula was especially memorable. One afternoon, my father suggested out of the blue that we should buy it, and gave us the money. He'd obviously seen it in the supermarket. It's one of those little gestures that always remain with me.

Anyway, even though I've read the novel a couple of times since then, it's the Ladybird book that, in my mind, remains the definitive version. The phrase "London, with its teeming millions" (used in horrified anticipation of Dracula arriving there) has ever since evoked for me the poetry of a great city, better than any other phrase. The cry of the female vampire, upon being denied Jonathan Harker's neck in Castle Dracula-- "are we to have nothing tonight?"-- was rendered so powerfully on the cassette, that I can still hear it all these years later.

The passage from the Ladybird book that impressed me the most, however, had nothing horrific about it. Just before a terrible sea-storm occurs off the coast of Whitby, on the day that Dracula's load of coffins arrive in the town, there is such a spectacular sunset that a small crowd gathers to look at it: "The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly-coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty." I'm glad this detail made it into the Ladybird book because I remember being completely fascinated by the idea of people actually stopping to look at the sky. I'd never heard of such a thing.

I read the book proper in my early twenties, but I can remember next to nothing about it. It's extraordinary how that happens. There are many novels of which I can say the same thing; Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment, The Way of All Flesh, Pride and Prejudice, and many others. It's as though a kind of film descended over my attention, or memory.

I read it again more recently, and got more out of it, but it still didn't made as big an impression on me as the Ladybird version.

The passage that excited me the most in the entire book, each time I read it, is probably Count Dracula's rhapsody on his family's past (this is before he has revealed himself as a supernatural being). Please skip this purple passage if you start to find it boring:

I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. He grew excited as he spoke, and walked about the room pulling his great white moustache and grasping anything on which he laid his hands as though he would crush it by main strength. One thing he said which I shall put down as nearly as I can; for it tells in its way the story of his race:—

“We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come [....] Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.”

The Count's words of appreciation for the howling of his wolves have become deservedly famous: "Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!". Indeed, I think those words might express the poetry of horror better than any other.

Another thrilling line from the book: "We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." 

I'd always assumed that Dracula was the book which introduced the vampire into popular fiction. But this is actually far from the case. Vampires were already seen as clichéd by the time that Stoker came along. He gave new life to the genre, so to speak. Indeed, this time round, I've noticed that, when the term "vampire" is first used in the novel, it's not even explained to the reader.

I'm often withering about feminist literary theory, post-colonial literary theory, and all the other lefty, identity-obsessed fields of literary theory on this blog. Well, the proponents of such approaches absolutely love Dracula, and I have to admit that it's a book in which it's difficult not to see such theories borne out. In fact, I wonder how much of this is actually conscious artistry on Stoker's part.

For instance: there is the famous scene where Lucy Westenra, who has become a vampire, is staked through the heart by the combined efforts of her fiancé and two other men who proposed to her earlier in the book. OK, feminists. You can have that one.

And the fact that Dracula is quite literally an infectious creature from a backward and uncivilized country, intent on corrupting and polluting the women of England, does seem to be a genuine projection of cultural anxieties. (The fact that Stoker was Irish is often dragged into these discussions. Was Dracula Irish, in a deeper sense than just having an Irish creator? Was Stoker instilling him with all his own feelings of being "the other" in England? Why am I even talking like this?)

 It's certainly a story...that has stood the test of time. I'm looking forward to hearing the horror club discussion on it!


  1. One of my favourite books. I first read it when I was 12 - the novel, not the Ladybird version. And, funnily enough, back in my amateur dramatics days I got to play the Count himself in the stage version. I think I still have an old VHS cassette somewhere of that event!

    1. Now you play the role of embodiment of evil on the Irish Times letters page...!

    2. Indeed. Because, as we all know, anyone who does not fully agree with and publicly affirm anything and everything promulgated by the liberal cultural elites is by definition evil incarnate!

  2. I assume Stoker was protestant, not Catholic at any rate, but I've always had too much of a problem about one particular thing to every feel comfortable about the original book: Namely the mashing of consecrated Hosts into a pulp as a type of magical cement for keeping vampires away. And I doubt very much whether even the high Anglican Church would have allowed it at the time. A) I dislike the thought of it, even fictionally B) knowing (in Australia, at any rate) the nutty people that come into churches at times it's not a good idea to put into anyone's head. Fortunately few disturbed people read classical novels in my experience.
    Sorry to put a downer on your subject.

    1. He was Anglican but he seems to like Catholics, going by the book. His understanding of the Eucharist, however, is universally recognized as ill-informed. (Funny that he also refers to a rosary as a crucifix, twice.)