October 31, 2006

Dracula

Today is Halloween and given that I'm looking for any excuse to take a break from the big ol' stack of articles I need to be reading, I thought I would write a little something on one of my absolute favorite books - Dracula by Bram Stoker. I've been reading this book since I was 13 as a primary way to calm down...Nevermind what that says about me...

There isn't much in the way of new things to be said about Dracula - it's still being read, both critically and recreationally, today though it was written over a century ago (it's popularity has no doubt been pushed along quite a bit by the veritable flock of film adaptations). But it's a classic for a reason. So instead of beating a dead horse, I'd like to say that it is a masterpiece of genre fiction and illustrates exactly why I think genre literature is so interesting - it provides a ready made allegorical form in which anything can be discussed.

Take Dracula as the example. Everyone knows what the basic story is by now, but in case you don't here it is in a nutshell:
1. A young London solicitor named Jonathan goes to Transylvania to broker a real estate deal with mysterious and reclusive Count.
2. Strange and scary things happen to him in the Count's castle (including several pretty sexy scenes with Dracula's vampire brides)
3. While our young hero is trapped in Transylvania, Dracula goes to London and starts preying on several middle to upper class young women.
4. Eventually he turns the sweet, young, rich Lucy into a vampire, stealing her away from her aristocratic fiance who then has to drive a stake through her heart and behead her. It's very sad.
5. Dracula then seduces Mina, Jonathan's young wife but flees back to Transylvania when Dr. Van Helsing, Jonathan and a band of noble young men destroy and consecrate his lair with Holy Water etc.
6. Jonathan, Dr. Van Helsing and a band of noble young men take Mina back to Transylvania in hot pursuit, hoping to kill him and free her from the curse of vampirism.
7. And on the Very off-chance that someone hasn't yet read it, I'm not going to say how it ends, but wow - if you don't know, get yourself to a library and Check It Out. Please. Thank you.

So, there we have a pretty typical horror story - big nasty monster stalks and chases victims with many a hair raising-adventure along the way. Keep in mind that in much the way Tolkien created the prototype for the modern fantasy novel with The Lord of the Rings, Bram Stoker is the grandfather of the horror genre as we know it and certainly the first author to really flesh out the vampire in fiction (fans of LeFanu or Polidori please don't jump all over me - I definitely acknowledge their influences, but Dracula was the first full length novel that explicitly featured the vampire as a threat and the first to treat the sexuality of the theme at such length). But I digress.

Underneath the very tightly wound suspense and horror of the initial story, Stoker weaves together themes on Victorian sexual anxiety, xenophobic fear of immigration due to colonialism and threats to the aristocratic social order to name only a few. Yet this dialogue, which explores the social psychology at work in Victorian England operates cunningly under the innocuous disguise of a thrilling story. Brilliant.

And this is why I think genre literature is worth taking a bit more seriously. Certainly not all thrilling stories operate on this dual level, but some do - perhaps more than you would think and it's worth considering that not all of the pertinent social commentary gets made in high-brow higher brow "literary" fiction.

For a great critical edition of Dracula, which has lovely annotations on everything lurking beneath the surface of the text check out:
Bram Stoker: The Essential Dracula ed. Leonard Wolf
ISBN 0743498038

5 comments:

coffespaz said...

Wow, great write up. I haven't read the book as I usually don't like "horro", but in the last few years I have learned to appreciate that genre. Your description and analysis now has me intrigued. Might be a good addition to my library this winter!! :-)

Madeleine said...

Always a good one to curl up with on a cold day...and there's a lot of interesting stuff mixed in with the horror so generally there's something for everyone:-)

Annamaria said...

Is a fun read...especially for one who hails from the same region of the world that spawned the Count...Maddie, dear, did you know there are Dracula tours you can take in Romania, complete with a dinner in his castle and some night noises outside your room? :-)

And if by any chance, you stumble on Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, I highly recommend it as a great alternate take on the Dracula story. I mean, really, frighteningly good.

Madeleine said...

Anna, you are so right about The Historian - it was the most imaginative take on the Dracula legend that I've ever read...and a pretty obsessive read too. I blasted through it in about 3 days and got very little sleep :-)
As for Dracula tours, sign me up! And I was already dying to see your beautiful homeland...

coffespaz said...

Hmmm....maybe annamaria could set up a tour one year?? Sounds like she would be the perfect tour guide! :-)