Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Bloody good: on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and a Hamlet connection)

After watching Haider last week I revisited a couple of earlier versions of Hamlet (Olivier, Branagh), but also  happened to spend some time in the company of another fictional nobleman who wears an “inky cloak”. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula in full for the first time (an embarrassing admission for a long-time horror buff, but there it is) and was unprepared for how masterfully constructed it was: how the pace and energy of the story sweep the reader along, preventing us from thinking too much about the handy plot coincidences; how the many narratives (the book is almost entirely made up of journal entries and letters) complement each other, provide slightly different perspectives on the same events, and dovetail so that we arrive in that comforting place so crucial to the effect of an adventure story about many good guys teaming up against a single powerful evil: oh yes, they’ve finally figured things out, most of the pieces are in place, now they can get on with doing what is required.

There are so many interesting things going on in this book. The shift in voices (this isn’t too pronounced, but once in a while it is done very entertainingly – when Dr Van Helsing is speaking in broken English, or the harbour scene where a garrulous old man blathers on about graves that don’t have the right people in them). The delicious little ways in which the reader is made aware of something that the other characters don’t yet realise the implications of. (A casual line like “She looks paler than usual” can be such a spine-tingler – that's Jonathan Harker, distracted by other things, mentioning his wife Mina in his diary.) The commentary on the social mores of the Victorian age and the scientific developments underway in the late 19th century, and what seemed to me at least a gentle satire on a certain type of self-consciously chivalrous man. (As the male heroes work out their plan to destroy the vampire, they are mindful of Mina’s delicate sensibilities, concerned that she be kept away from the action – not realising that by “sheltering” her thus they are creating more peril all around. Besides, she is actively helping them in important ways. Then there is the fate of the sleepwalking Lucy Westenra, a damsel so much in distress that she has to suffer numerous blood transfusions, the donor in each case being a gallant man – including three men who are in love with her. None of it helps in the end.)
Anyway, reading this book sent me back to some favourite vampire films: Nosferatu, Dreyer's Vampyr, the Lugosi Dracula and Roman Polanski's goofy Fearless Vampire Killers; or, Pardon Me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck. Along the way I noted little connections between Shakespeare’s prince of melancholia and Stoker’s Prince of Darkness. Hamlet’s “dread of something after death – the undiscovered country” is well-known. His father is technically undead, just as any self-respecting vampire would be. And take the scene with the grave-digger, culminating in our hero’s near-dash into the open grave meant for Ophelia: which famous coffin-dweller does that remind you of?  

To die, to sleep – no more. Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out. Etc etc. Definite theme here.

There is the joke about a woman who, after reading Hamlet for the first time late in her life, said, “I don't see why people admire that play so much – it is just a bunch of old quotations strung together.” We are meant to scoff at her, but perhaps one should be kinder. Reading merely the first act of the play again, I felt like I was swamped in clichés. (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”?? Forsooth, Will.) But that’s what happens when a literary work has seeped so thoroughly into popular consciousness and culture, and hundreds of lines that first appeared in it have – through over-use – become trite or ironical.

To a degree, this is also true of Stoker’s novel. After years of movie versions and rip-offs and tributes and parodies, I felt I knew iconic characters like Van Helsing (expert vampire combatant) and the heroic Harkers so well that it came as an atavistic pleasure to meet them in their “original” form. The last time I encountered Mina Harker was as the resourceful but hardened heroine of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, divorced from her husband after their misadventures with the dark Count and having reverted to her maiden name Murray. It took a few chapters of Dracula to shake that image away and start dealing with the compassionate Mina of this book.

Part of me, I think, was expecting something very quaint and dated, with little resemblance to the vampire story as it later became (I’m not talking about Twilight here, by the way – I’m not that up to date). I knew beforehand that the novel’s Count Dracula – initially an old man with a droopy white moustache, later growing more youthful after his blood infusions – was notably different from the debonair, black-cloaked satyr portrayed by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. But the book IS full of familiar things, as well as little surprises: I hadn’t realised that the line “Listen to them, the children of the night – what music they make!” so memorably hissed by Lugosi in the 1931 film, was originally from the novel.

Some of my favourite passages feature the lunatic Renfield. For years now I have thought of this character as a caricatured, Igor-like henchman, tottering about Dracula’s castle and grounds, doing his master’s bidding. So the first reference to him - around 75 pages into the book in Dr Seward’s journals - made me sit up. These chapters, where Seward diligently records his patient's “zoophagus” activities, must have delighted the hearts of screenwriters working on Universal horror films.

5 June. The case of Renfield grows more interesting the more I get to understand the man […]
He has turned his mind now to spiders, and has got several very big fellows in a box. He keeps feeding them his flies, and the number of the latter is becoming sensibly diminished, although he has used half his food in attracting more flies from outside to his room.

1 July. His spiders are now becoming as great a nuisance as his flies, and today I told him that he must get rid of them. He looked very sad at this, so I said that he must some of them, at all events. He cheerfully acquiesced in this, and I gave him the same time as before for reduction. He disgusted me much while with him, for when a horrid blowfly, bloated with some carrion food, buzzed into the room, he caught it, held it exultantly for a few moments between his finger and thumb, and before I knew what he was going to do, put it in his mouth and ate it. I scolded him for it, but he argued quietly that it was very good and very wholesome, that it was life, strong life, and gave life to him. This gave me an idea, or the rudiment of one. I must watch how he gets rid of his spiders.

8 July. He has managed to get a sparrow, and has already partially tamed it. His means of taming is simple, for already the spiders have diminished. Those that do remain, however, are well fed, for he still brings in the flies by tempting them with his food.
My homicidal maniac is of a peculiar kind. I shall have to invent a new classification for him. What he desires is to absorb as many lives as he can, and he has laid himself out to achieve it in a cumulative way. He gave many flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds. What would have been his later steps?
Macabre as these passages are, they are also very funny in the image they create of the conscientious doctor observing his demented patient and taking notes; the professionalism and scrupulousness of purpose contrasted with the informality of language (“several very big fellows in a box”), and the sense that the author is having some fun in detailing this relationship, the power equations of which are not always clear. How interesting it is that Seward – sane and balanced, but also melancholy because the woman he loves is betrothed to someone else – expresses envy and admiration for Renfield's orderliness:

“How well the man reasoned; lunatics always do within their own scope. I wonder at how many lives he values a man, or if at only one. He has closed the account most accurately, and today begun a new record. How many of us begin a new record with each day of our lives? […] If I only could have as strong a cause as my poor mad friend there, a good, unselfish cause to make me work, that would be indeed happiness.”

On this evidence I feel reasonably sure that Hamlet, Seward and Renfield could have a good tea-time conversation. But a little more on the Hamlet-Dracula connection: Olivier’s 1948 film has a scene where the prince holds his sword up like a crucifix, a Van Helsing keeping the monster at bay. This may have been an inspiration to Peter Cushing, who played the small role of Osric in the film, and would later be arguably the most famous Van Helsing onscreen.

(And as if that weren’t enough, the young Christopher Lee played a spear-carrier in Olivier's Hamlet. Spooky music alert.)
P.S. And now it turns out that Van Helsing's very name comes from Hamlet's Elsinore Castle - see this detailed post about links between the two texts. Talk about opening a can of (politic) worms...


  1. Jai – Is this really a horror book or is it funny? I’m kinda interested in reading it.

    1. Why can't it be both?

      If by "horror book" you mean something that will scare the life out of you, then no, probably not.

    2. Hmm...i was wondering if it is a serious horror book or a funny take on horror like the character Bela Lugosi played in Ed Wood. Never read a horror book. But, Renfield seems to be a very interesting character. So, will read it...

    3. Please tell me you know that Dracula is one of the two iconic "modern" horror novels in English (the other being Frankenstein). So it definitely is "serious" in the sense that it wasn't meant as a parody - but it has droll humour in places, and of course, over time and through over-familiarity, aspects of it may seem funny to modern readers; I made that point in the post.

    4. I know Dracula only as a character but had no clue it is a book before your post. It may sound tough to believe but true.

  2. Jai,
    I am sure you will like Penny Dreadful, a series aired earlier this year.
    The DVD is out now.