Saturday, November 7, 2009

King Vampire

Well, the chronological posting of Dracula over on Whitney Sorrow's blog has come to a conclusion. I enjoyed re-reading the book, especially in such an unconventional manner. It's been years since I last read it and in revisiting it I was reminded of a few things I'd all but forgotten.

For one thing I was surprised at how much a nerd "assistant schoolmistress" Mina is. She's into the latest gadgets and has one of those newfangled typewriters. After she reads her hubby's disturbing diary her first impulse is to type the whole thing out and organize it. But the clincher is the fact that she's a trainspotter.

'"When does the next train start for Galatz?" said Van Helsing to us

"At 6:30 tomorrow morning!" We all started, for the answer came from
Mrs. Harker.

"How on earth do you know?" said Art.

"You forget, or perhaps you do not know, though Jonathan does and so
does Dr. Van Helsing, that I am the train fiend."'

Give that girl an anorak.

The vampirism at the heart of the novel can be interpreted many ways, but there's no escaping the Victorian erotophobia it denotes. When expressing revulsion for the vampires the most common adjective used to describe them is "voluptuous". Not only is Harker almost seduced by the three vampire women in Dracula's castle, but much later in the novel Van Helsing himself finds them "so exquisitely voluptuous" that it's only by a major effort of will that he can drive a stake through their hearts. Add to this that Dracula himself is constantly sinking his fangs into the flower of English womanhood and you have a novel that practically begs for a Freudian interpretation.

One of the more amusing details of the novel is when, in chapter 19, Van Helsing equips the gang with a veritable vampire hunter's utility kit. In addition to the requisite assortment of pistols and knives (the Texan, Quincey, has a Bowie knife, natch), they are each issued a small silver crucifix, a wreath of withered garlic blossoms, a small electric lamp, and a portion of Sacred Wafer. In fact it's surprising how often the Sacred Wafer is used to ward off vampires. It's an odd detail that you won't find in most of the movie & TV derivations of the tale.

Something else that has been altered in later vampire stories is the nature of their resting place. Most often it's asserted that vampires must rest in soil of their native land. But Van Helsing gives a much different explanation. It's not the soil of their homeland that vampires must sleep in, but sacred soil. "For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good, in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest." The only way to prevent this is paradoxically to sanctify the soil further. "He has chosen this earth because it has been holy. Thus we defeat him with his own weapon, for we make it more holy still." Placing the Sacred Wafer in the dirt does the trick. Those Sacred Wafers sure are versatile. No vampire hunter should be without them.

The book's denouement doesn't coincide with Halloween which is a bit of a surprise. If Stoker were British this would be more understandable since the big holiday there is Guy Fawkes Night, but you'd think an Irishman would give the season its due. And I still find the ending very anti-climactic. Dracula is unceremoniously stabbed to death as he lies helpless in his coffin. I know that he's more than a match for mere mortals, and there's no way the protagonists could prevail in a fight, but it's still an undramatic finale.

Like its Un-Dead antagonist this book lives on. Stoker wrote many other stories, but this one strikes such a cord that it's about the only one that gets read and re-read even more than a century later. It's hard to overestimate this book's influence on popular culture. Without Stoker's novel where would the legions of Twilight fans be? Would the Goth subculture even exist? Possibly, but as it is they owe more than a little to history's most famous King Vampire.

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