Saturday, November 09, 2013

Bram Stoker, Dracula


Opening Passage:

3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P. M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here; indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.

Having had some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.

Summary: Dracula stands out in the genre of horror in part because, despite its Gothic roots, it is not really a horror story but a crime story. It's a bit difficult for us to read it that way, because we all know the mystery. But if you don't see this aspect of the story, you miss out on a great deal. And it is quite clearly the way the book sets itself up to be read: Van Helsing explicitly talks about Dracula in criminological terms, for instance, and the book is very carefully structured to peel back different layers of the mystery at different times, until we get to the final pursuit of the terrible criminal at the very end.

The underlying detective story, however, also bears a larger significance as a sort of picture of Western civilization beating back the darkness. The 'detectives' themselves could hardly be more deliberately chosen to show this. We have England (Seward, the Harkers, Holmwood), continental Europe (Van Helsing), and America (Morris) represented. Every single person is an active contributor to the building of civilization before Dracula even enters the scene. We have the men of science, Seward and Van Helsing, at the forefront of medical research. We have the resourceful men of the physical frontiers, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris. And we have the professionals, the business-like Harkers. And together they pull in a representative selection of the advances of the day. We have telegraphs and steamboats, trains and Winchester rifles, stenographic shorthand and newspaper research, experimental psychiatry and blood transfusions. The blood transfusions are interesting; they read a bit oddly today -- no notion of blood type -- but while there had been blood transfusions by this point, it was only just short of science fiction. And of course, years before phonographs were a common item, we find Dr. Seward recording his diary on a phonograph. The fact that they are doing this is, again, explicitly noted by Van Helsing; it is one of their primary advantages in trying to stop Dracula that they are familiar with these things and he, clever as he is, must learn. It is not enough; but it is quite clearly recognized as one of the advantages on their side. Even when we get into the superstition and lore, they are able to learn what they need because of the state of the art of the day.

None of these things, however, are the heart of civilization; the heart of civilization is love for each other. This, too, is quite clearly indicated by Van Helsing, although it can easily be seen in the structure of the novel. It is love that makes it possible to defeat Dracula: the love, both marital and amicable, of men for women and women for men; the love of friend for friend; even the love between colleagues who respect each other. All of these play their part, and without any of them, the defeat of Dracula would not have been possible. It takes all of our heroes to bring down Dracula. Only by being united do they stand a chance -- and the unity it takes is both an openness to each other and a willingness to die for each other. Every progress they make is impossible without joining their forces; the single greatest they make is at one point not being completely open with each other; and their victory only becomes possible when, at great risk, they trust Mina with everything they know despite the fact that she could involuntarily give it all away to Dracula.

There are a number of other interesting features of the work. Mina Harker is quite an active heroine. She is the one who brings all the pieces together, over and over again. We also get here an English novel with an extraordinarily positive view of Americans. The chivalrous, fearless, resourceful, amiable, larger-than-life Texan, Quincey Morris, is a striking character. He is not as central as any of the others, but to some extent this makes him more remarkable: he is there wholly as a friend of Arthur Holmwood, and later everybody else, but he never flinches from the task. Stoker had visited America and toured it fairly extensively; he had met Teddy Roosevelt, probably twice, and he was something of an americaphile. The focus stays on the Europeans, but Stoker lets Quincey Morris share the honors of the killing blow with Jonathan Harker.

It's also nice to clear away a lot of the bad movie accretions and see the original ideas in their pristine form. It's flowers of garlic that provide wholesome protection. The single best weapon against a vampire is a good knife -- a Kukri knife or a Bowie knife. And, of course, the single best defense is the Host. Stoker was a Protestant (Church of Ireland), and except for Van Helsing none of the heroes are Catholic, but it's a very Catholic book. Van Helsing does some things with the Host that a Catholic author probably would not have written him as doing, but the book recognizes the potential problem:

“What is that which you are using?” This time the question was by Arthur. Van Helsing reverently lifted his hat as he answered:—

“The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence.” It was an answer that appalled the most sceptical of us, and we felt individually that in the presence of such earnest purpose as the Professor’s, a purpose which could thus use the to him most sacred of things, it was impossible to distrust.

And whatever the physical issues, or the issues of canon law involved with the odd idea of an indulgence for crumbling a Host to seal up a tomb, symbolically it all works. It is the Body of Christ that protects from evil. The whole of the vampire lore of the book, of course, is eucharistic: the vampire is the devil's parody of the Eucharist, and the true Eucharist is the most powerful safeguard against it.

I also listened to the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of the story.

Mercury Theater on the Air: Dracula from The Radio Ghost on Vimeo.

As with most of their episodes, it is quite faithful, but fitting the whole book into an hour is impossible, so they make some interesting changes that do affect the narrative. The first and most obvious is that Dr. Seward is the narrator. While we do get a lot of the book in Dr. Seward's voice, the narrators in the sense of the characters primarily mediating the story to the reader, are the Harkers. Jonathan Harker has the first and last word, and we only get Dr. Seward's diary -- which is actually recorded in a phonograph, you remember -- because Mina Harker is transcribing it for us. It is Mina Harker who is also organizing all the epistolary materials that compose the book. The switch to Dr. Seward is quite a significant change. It does make sense for radio -- after all, again, it is Dr. Seward who is recording an audio version of the events in the first place.

There are also some cuts to keep the story in bounds. We lose both Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, more's the pity, and Dr. Seward in the radio version succeeds, rather than fails, to win Lucy Westenra's hand in marriage.

The single most significant change is that it is Mina Harker, not Jonathan Harker (and, of course, not Quincey Morris), who strikes the triumphant blow. I find this an interesting modification and wonder what the reasoning was. Given other changes it makes some sense. Dr. Seward, not Mina, is giving us the story; and the story has to move much more quickly, and so can't have Mina's painstaking work in putting everything together. There's a resulting danger that Mina will end up being too passive. Giving her the honors gives her an active role. It's interesting as well to consider the implications of the change. In the book, Dracula can only be overcome by everybody; it's a very Catholic ending, complete with the Body of Christ and a martyr. The radio ending seems to me to be a more Protestant ending -- everyone helps, but Mina herself must overcome him through some hidden impulse of grace. And that fits with the fact that a lot of the Catholic symbolism of the book simply doesn't and probably couldn't make it into the radio episode.

Favorite Passage:

Mr. Morris, who had sunk to the ground, leaned on his elbow, holding his hand pressed to his side; the blood still gushed through his fingers. I flew to him, for the Holy circle did not now keep me back; so did the two doctors. Jonathan knelt behind him and the wounded man laid back his head on his shoulder. With a sigh he took, with a feeble effort, my hand in that of his own which was unstained. He must have seen the anguish of my heart in my face, for he smiled at me and said:—

“I am only too happy to have been of any service! Oh, God!” he cried suddenly, struggling up to a sitting posture and pointing to me, “It was worth for this to die! Look! look!”

The sun was now right down upon the mountain top, and the red gleams fell upon my face, so that it was bathed in rosy light. With one impulse the men sank on their knees and a deep and earnest “Amen” broke from all as their eyes followed the pointing of his finger. The dying man spoke:—

“Now God be thanked that all has not been in vain! See! the snow is not more stainless than her forehead! The curse has passed away!”

And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. The major difficulty with the book is that it takes some work not to bring in distorting presuppositions; but if you can approach it with an open mind, there are layers and layers.


  1. Enbrethiliel12:01 AM


    Back in uni, I knew a girl who read Pride and Prejudice for the first time not knowing how any of the romances would work out, and she was already an odd duck. But with different editions of Dracula giving the ending away in the cover art (as if the name's weight in pop culture didn't already do the job!), I don't think anyone can approach this novel with totally fresh eyes any longer. I'm trying to guess how Bram Stoker would feel about that.

  2. branemrys11:06 AM

    Stoker as an old theater hand might be pretty sanguine about it. The book does seem to lose a bit because of it, though.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.