Posts Tagged ‘Bram Stoker’

Reading “Dracula”

There is still something about the name “Borgo Pass” that causes an involuntary shudder to run down my spine. I gather it is a real place: Wikipedia informs me that it is actually called “Tihuța Pass”, and that it is situated “in the Romanian Bârgău Mountains”, and the pictures I find in Google images show a landscape that is disappointingly pleasant and welcoming. But in my imagination, it is the dark, sinister mountain pass through which Jonathan Harker is driven towards Castle Dracula, the driver of his coach being, as he discovers later, no other than the Count himself.

Stoker had never been anywhere near Transylvania: he had merely picked up the names from an atlas. The picture in most peoples’ minds when these place names are mentioned comes not so much from Stoker’s novel, but from the various film adaptations – especially (for my generation, at least) the films made by Hammer, featuring Christopher Lee. And if you have ever wondered why Transylvania is so flat in those films, it’s because much of the location shooting was done in a place called Black Park, near Slough. But no matter: the substitution of south Buckinghamshire for the Carpathians is a relatively small disbelief to suspend given how much is suspended already.

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I have expressed my enthusiasm for those Hammer films elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll leave them to one side for now. It’s the book I am interested in here. It is my current bedtime reading – when all is dark, with only a bedside reading lamp throwing eerie shadows about the room, and with a deathly stillness reigning outside – and I had frankly forgotten just how good it is. It is holding me spellbound, and I find myself looking forward to bedtimes. It is genuinely frightening. The Hammer Dracula films with Christopher Lee, despite being of far more recent vintage than Stoker’s novel, are unlikely to scare too many modern viewers, but it is a testament to the power of Stoker’s writing how well the novel has retained its power to frighten, and, indeed, how much more frightening it is than any of the screen adaptations. The first four chapters especially, where Jonathan Harker travels to castle Dracula, and, once there, finds himself effectively a prisoner, trapped with unimaginable horrors, still terrify. The 1977 BBC dramatization, which featured Louis Jourdan as the Count (and which is still the filmed version that is most faithful to Stoker’s novel) horrified many viewers with a scene in which Dracula brings back in a bag a live baby for his brides to eat: Hammer, for all their alleged luridness, never went anywhere near so far. And yet, this scene was not an addition by the scriptwriters to excite a jaded modern audience: it is there in the novel, dating right back to 1897. All the various Dracula films– from Murnau’s silent Nosferatu to Werner Herzog’s remake from 1979, the Bela Lugosi version from 1931, and the Christopher Lee versions with Hammer, stretching from 1958 to 1973 – all had to tone down rather than otherwise the contents of Stoker’s novel. And even then, many of these films were considered unnecessarily lurid and sensational at time of release.

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Stoker’s novel has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. It has been seen as a political statement, as a religious statement, as an encyclopedia of sexual neuroses, and so on. I can’t say I’m very convinced by any of these. Dracula is indeed a foreigner importing a nasty foreign plague into good old Blighty, but, then again, the man who leads the fight against him (van Helsing) is also a foreigner. (Yes, admittedly, van helsing’s homeland, Holland, is closer to Britain than Translvania, but if Stoker really had intended this novel as a broadside against foreigners, he could easily have made Dracula’s protagonist a sturdy Englishman.) And yes, holy water and sacred wafers and the like are used in the fight against Dracula, but that in itself hardly counts as promotion of Catholicism: the Magic of Evil had to be countered by Magic of Good, and it’s the Catholic Church rather than the Protestant that provides these items that magically represent the Power of Good: Stoker (himself an Irish Protestant) didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.

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And then, of course, there’s sex. Dracula is, in admittedly rather perverse ways, a very erotic novel. The similarities between Dracula’s bite and the act of sex are rather obvious, and has certainly not gone unnoticed by the various film adaptations. (After all, when busty ladies in low-cut dresses wear a crucifix to ward off the vampire, it’s not necessarily the crucifix that the camera is focussing on.) But this is hardly a devastating critical insight: the sexual element is so obvious that it’s hard to see how even the most casual reader could miss it. Take, for instance, that famous scene in the third chapter where Jonathan Harker, having fallen asleep, finds himself, in a state of half dreaming, surrounded by three beautiful but terrifying female vampires:

Two were dark, and had high, aquiline noses … The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at that moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time, some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

I find this terrifying, and it is surely the erotic element that determines the nature of this fear. Had these vampires been withered old women, the effect might have been equally frightening, but the fear would have been of a different nature: here, much of the sense of terror comes from Harker actually desiring these creatures, and finding them sexually attractive. He seems to know one of the faces, but can’t quite place it: he knows it only in connection with some “dreamy fear”. This fear, it seems to me, is not merely of the vampires around him, but also of the sexual desire within, that desire he has glimpsed only in dreams: it is the “burning desire” that he feels in his own heart that he characterises as “wicked”.

Of course, this can be read as a depiction of an English Victorian gentleman’s inhibitions relating to sexuality; but this is so clearly intended by Stoker, and made so explicit, that it hardly requires any great act of interpretation to tease it out. Of course it’s about sexual inhibitions. But to see this as the principal thrust of this passage (if I may use the word “thrust” in this context) is, it seems to me, to miss the point, which is nothing more, but nothing less either, than to evoke in the reader a sense of terror. And the greatest terror is not so much the terror of what’s out there, but of what lies latent inside us. Stoker, in this passage, mingles together these two fears – the vampires out there, and the sexual desire within – and, in doing so, intensifies the terror. Which, after all, is the whole point of the novel.

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Yet, to read the endless piles of criticism, it is easy to get the impression that the novel is about all sorts of things – politics, religion, sexuality – anything, indeed, other than what it clearly is on the surface – a horror story designed to send shivers up the spine. It is almost as if commentators feel that a mere horror story, intended purely to frighten the reader, is beneath their consideration unless they can find deeper meanings in it. And hence all the stuff about the novel’s politics, the novel’s religious subtext, and, most of all, about sexuality: it has been seen variously as an expression of revulsion from sex, about anal sex, about bestiality, and Lord knows what.

Fair enough, I suppose, if that’s what some readers see in it. Personally, I see a damn fine horror story, expertly paced and narrated, and full of all kinds of ghastly terrors. And that’s good enough for me.

It’s six in the evening now as I write, and it’s very dark outside. Soon, I’ll e pouring myself a whisky, settling into my armchair, and reading a few more pages of this shabby little shocker that has already outlasted many a book hailed in its time as unassailable masterpieces.

 

The pictures illustrating these posts are pictures taken by myself of my copy of “Dracula”, published by the Folio Society 2008, and with  the splendid illustrations by Abigail Rorer.

It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!