Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dracula remains a bloody good read

I'm currently listening to the audio book of Dracula, written by Bram Stoker and narrated by Robert Whitfield. It's a great book, now and likely always the definitive vampire story.

I'll plan on writing a full review once I'm finished, but for now here are some of my favorite scenes:

When Jonathan Harker leaves the west and enters the east en route to the Carpathian mountains and Transylvania, the trains no longer seem to run on time. This foreshadows the weakening of rationality and science in that part of Europe, and the increasing sway of superstition and the occult. This breeds an atmosphere of fear that allows the Count to hold the terrified countryside in his undead grip.

The count leaving his castle and returning with a child stuffed in a bag, which he proceeds to feed to his three vampiric mistresses. When the child's mother comes to the castle to plead for her child's release, Dracula calls a pack of wolves upon her. This is evil, folks--the antithesis of Twilight.

The arrival in Whitby of the ship Demeter. This whole scene is terrific--black stormclouds and a raging gale as the ship rushes toward land, "steered" by its dead captain lashed to the wheel; a large black dog that leaps off the prow once the ship touches shore; a hold full of coffins. Stoker wrote Dracula using a series of journal entries and letters from various narrators, and his use of the captain's log to tell the tale of the crew's strange disappearance, and the thin, ghostly-pale, red-eyed man hunting them one by one during the long voyage at sea, works very effectively.

Renfield. The lunatic asylum resident is a fun, memorable character. I've always enjoyed Dr. Seward's clinical observations of Renfield's carnivorous obsessions--he starts by attracting flies with sugar, which he then feeds to spiders, which he then proceeds to feed to captured sparrows. Renfield then asks for a kitten. Seward refuses the request, but it's chilling to think what would have become of the creature--and what would have been the next step in the food chain.

Dracula's early appearances in England, which include a trip to the zoo in which he frees a wolf. The zookeeper's description of the count to the authorities is suitably sinister--tall and thin, with a hook nose and pointed, mostly black beard, a hard, cold look and red eyes, white kid gloves, and a mouth full of white, sharp teeth. His sardonic, playful conversation with the dim-witted zookeeper reminded me of Hannibal Lecter's conversations with Agent Starling--humor mixed with a sinister undercurrent of murder.

Van Helsing. Along with the Count, the old, brilliant professor from Amsterdam is probably the most memorable character in Dracula. Some of my favorite scenes occur when Van Helsing realizes that a vampire is preying on Lucy Westenra, but is reluctant to tell the others, knowing that no one will believe him. This makes for some morbidly humorous moments, as when he tells Dr. Seward that Lucy will need to be "disposed of" after her death:

Tomorrow I want you to bring me, before night, a set of post-mortem knives.

Must we make an autopsy? I asked.

Yes, and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked!

The "Bloofer Lady." When Lucy rises from the dead and leaves her crypt to feed, the Westminster Gazette begins to report cases of young children returning home late. One child reports meeting a mysterious woman who asked him to come for a walk. The child refers to her as the 'bloofer lady.' The name becomes a funny catch phrase among the children until one of them goes missing, and is later found weak and emaciated with a wound to its throat. The device of a childish nickname for something monstrous would later be used by Stephen King.


ALM said...

I love "Dracula." I read it when I was 12 and have re-read it about a dozen times since. One of the best editions you can get Leslie S. Klinger's "The New Annotated Dracula." ( I simply cannot recommend it highly enough.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the recommendation, ALM. I have the audiobook as noted, plus the Penguin Classics version, but I have not heard of the annotated version. How is the introduction by Gaiman?

ALM said...

The Gaiman introduction is very good, but a bit brief. What makes the book spectacular is that Klinger plays the game that "Dracula" is non-fiction. Apparently, in a second edition, Stoker had written a tongue-in-cheek forward stating that he was not the author...merely that he collected the documents, changed the names, and published them at "Jonathan Harker's" request. Klinger therefore treats the manuscript as a historical document, the same technique he used when he annotated the Sherlock Holmes stories. His extensive footnotes and additional chapters (the history of vampires, or the novel, of Stoker, etc) are a brilliant read.

Brian Murphy said...

That is awesome... I must have this!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Haven't read this since grad school, but I remember it well. I've been teaching Frankenstein for years because of it's contemporary themes, but perhaps I'll use Dracula next time, in order to talk about superstition, etc.

And to get the kids off the cotton candy of Twilight.

Andy said...

"The count leaving his castle and returning with a child stuffed in a bag, which he proceeds to feed to his three vampiric mistresses."

This was always the scene that really killed Coppola's movie adaptation for me. Coppola's faithful up to a certain point, but he gets hung up on making Dracula a sad-sack romantic pining for his reincarnated wife. I wanted to shake the director and remind him that he's making a movie about a BABY KILLER.

JimLotFP said...

I haven't read this in forever, and thanks to your post I was inspired to go pick up a Wordsworth Classics edition (4€, brand new, in English!) at the local bookstore here in Helsinki.

Brian Murphy said...

Well Jim, it looks like my work here is done!

Atom Kid said...

Great post! I love Dracula! I try to read it every Halloween, it's kind of a tradition.

Hollywood has yet to get the book right, they always have to turn it into a romance. I still love the Todd Browning version the most, but it still had it's problems.

As far as characters go, I've always been facinated with Quincy. He was the only American in the book, and was definitely a man of action!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Murphy,

I agree that Dracula is an absolute masterpiece. Speaking of which, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which is a fitting sequel to Bram Stoker's masterpiece. It is branded a literary thriller by the publisher but is actually a cross between a gothic romance and an Oriental mystery ala those penned by Sax Rohmer in the teens and twenties. As a rule, I never read contemporary genre fiction, but Ms. Kostova's novel gives me hope that there are still some talented writers out there. Another Bram Stokerish novel I highly recommend is F. Paul Wilson's The Keep. The novel deals with a Dracula-like, vampiric entity, and reads like a cross between Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. F. Paul Wilson is also the author of the equally great Repairman Jack novels, which I recommend if you want to read some contemporary pulp fiction ala that of Robert E. Howard, Dashiell Hammett, and H.P. Lovecraft, with a dash of Mickey Spillane thrown in.

Alphonso Warden

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Alphonso. I have read The Keep before but not The Historian. It sounds interesting.

Atom Kid: Yeah, despite the many film adaptations and other spin-offs of the Dracula story floating around on celluloid, I'd still like to see a film that hews very closely to the book. As was mentioned above, Bram Stoker's Dracula (the Coppola film) was pretty good, but it portrayed the Count in a too sympathetic light, and not as Stoker did: A highly cultured bloodsucking monster.