Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

First, let's be clear, Stoker was not moving about the lay figures of Marxist/Feminist/Freudian criticism when he wrote Dracula, he was working straight out of 'the foul rag and bone-shop of the heart'. The mind of a civil servant is a strange and hideous place, a lair of filth, corruption and latterly, brown envelopes. I never, ever read the introductions to novels in the fancy academic editions lest the wearisome lucubrations of the scholastic infect me with its turbid literalness: but having read Dracula for the nth. time I invited Maud, Daughter of Richard, Ellmann into the clean well-lighted place that is my mind. Alas! I think a first reading at least should be a naive one - in which our reader encounters this novel for the first time. Besides the critic may be careless of spoilers.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will". He made no motion of stepping to meet me but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The moment however that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said
"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely and leave something of the happiness you bring."

Ah yes, was ever a more prophetic invitation made. Note the quiet old-world dignity of the formula and the implication that all motions of the soul are fundamentally free. Can there be such a thing as a willing victim? When you join the ranks of the Undead you do so by invitation. He invites you to a mockery of eternity, you accept. As Dr. Van Helsing makes clear later in the case of Lucy she must first have let the Count in.

The conventions that create the illusion of verisimilitude are freely used in this novel. The Bradshaw Railway timetable both English and Continental is plied freely, we can be certain that the indefatigable Van Helsing can do those journeys to fetch his kit in the time that is allotted to him. In a sort of a way the normal narration of a novel is subverted and real history with its profusion and methodology of documentation is aped. Even the phonograph, the latest killer app of the day is pressed into use. Nobody knows what anybody else is thinking unless they are told and we do not know unless that is recorded by one or other of the participants. There is an inevitable muting of character development using this sort of narration but the point of Dracula is the play of forces.

It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which 'modernity' cannot kill.

However it is Mina Harker nee Murray using all modern methods who collates the evidence in 'a mass of typewriting' that allows each to know of the adventures of the other. Only Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Dr. Sewards old professor, appears in the annals of the rest having none of his own if I rightly remember.

It is surprising how many people think that Dracula is an ill written farrago or pulp and just don't bother with it taking the movie with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the fons et origo. That is a mistake. There is much excellent stuff in it. Here is the passage where Jonathan Harker discovers that his host dispenses with stairs:

What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had some many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.......

There is some humour also, perhaps unconscious, but I think not. In Dr. Seward's Diary we are told of the first meeting with Mina Murray of the mad zoophagite Renfield who is in clairvoyant contact with the Count :

She came into the room with an easy gracefulness which would at once command the respect of any lunatic for easiness is one of the qualities mad people most respect.

Extract from Ombhurbhuva's journal:
I have finished Dracula today, and now I see that it is the Day of the Dead. Of course I observed the usual precautions and only read it during the hours of daylight. I am comforted by the wild rose in the hedge and an abundant supply of garlic in the kitchen. As ever I was relieved that Kukri and Bowie knife accomplished their grim task giving peace at last to the Count who in his day, we must not forget, was a great patriot.


ktismatics said...

I believe I mentioned that I had set Dracula aside in order to read the library's copy of Potocki's book. I returned to Transylvania last night and was surprised when reading J. Harker's journal entry of 5 May to discover that he has taken several "Kodak views" of Dracula's castle. This must have been a portable camera that Harker took on his trip, a device that had only recently been put into production. I like your invoking the term "killer app" in the context of this story.

ombhurbhuva said...

Victorian Gadgetophile that he was, when it came to the laying, with extreme prejudice, of vampires, Protestant Stoker used Catholic sacrementals; the host, holy water, figured cross and rosary beads. When you want big ju-ju whoyougonnacall. Van Helsing had a special dispensation so that was O.K.