Bram Stoker (Viking Studio, 2006; illus. Jae Lee)
390 p. First reading.
Each year at about this time I indulge in a little spooky reading. For the past few years I’ve been reading short stories, but this year I decided to forego that route in favour of one of the classics of Victorian horror. (Come to think of it, are there any others?)
Coming to the book I admit that I did not know much about vampires. I was aware that they are afraid of garlic and crucifixes; I did not know, but well believe, that they are also afraid of the consecrated Host. I knew that to kill a vampire one must drive a wooden stake through its heart; I did not know that for good measure one should also cut off its head. I was completely unaware that vampires have a special affinity for wolves, and can even change into one if necessary. Naturally I understood that vampires are creatures of the night, but was surprised to learn that during the day they must retire to a bed of consecrated earth from their native land.
I believe that our fascination with vampires derives in part from the manner in which they seem to combine incompatibles. The Un-dead confuse the basic distinction between life and death, and their behaviour is driven by a perverse combination of sensuality and violence. If we are creatures with feet of clay and our heads in the heavens, then vampires could be seen as exaggerated versions of ourselves: their immortality gives them a god-like status, yet they are consumed by bestial lusts. Their manner of feeding flirts with cannibalism, and is perhaps also a grotesque parody of the Eucharist.
Bram Stoker’s tale of Count Dracula started well. The opening sequence, telling of Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Dracula’s castle, his growing understanding of the macabre appetites of his host, and his eventual decision to escape, was superbly done, and I found it genuinely frightening. (The only misstep was the too-soon revelation that mirrors to not reflect the Count’s image, which sapped the rising dramatic tension.) The book’s second major set-piece, about the gradual disappearance of a ship’s crew as it carries Dracula to England, was also excellent. As the book progressed, however, I found that the inspiration flagged. By the time the men, led by the wonderful Dr. van Helsing, were leaving Mina Harker alone at night, thereby unwittingly providing a convenient meal to Dracula, they were too unwitting for comfort. The last third or so of the book read like a fairly conventional thriller. As the story drew to a close, with the net drawing ever tighter around Dracula, matters improved, and the closing sequence was quite good. I do wish, though, that it hadn’t relied so much on Mrs. Harker’s strange telepathic powers. To my knowledge this is no part of vampire lore, and, if it is, it ought not to be.
Speaking of which, Stoker makes use of a number of devices presumably rooted in vampire lore, but about which I have some doubts. Can vampires really dematerialize themselves into clouds of dust? Are lunatics specially attuned to the presence of vampires? Can a vampire and his victims read one another’s minds? Most importantly, does killing a vampire also cure of vampirism his various victims? Stoker’s plot relies on affirmative answers to all of these questions.
The edition of the book that I bought is handsome. A number of illustrations have been provided by an artist named Jae Lee, and they are very striking. He has made good use of silhouette, and given the scenes a vaguely Japanese flavour, which one might think would not work, but does.
After reading the book I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula. It is a disaster. It is so bad that the best thing in it is Keanu Reeves.