Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dracula!

Our book today is Dracula, Bram Stoker's immortal, undead, paradigm-shifting 1897 novel that has changed the shape of Western pop-culture more than anything published since. The book was a gigantic financial hit for Stoker virtually from the instant of its publication, and it's been imitated, parodied, adapted, and interpolated endlessly ever since.

I think there are three reasons why the concept Stoker hammered out and popularized caught on with such unprecedented drama (aside from the awkward, furniture-upsetting vigor of his prose, that is): first, he gives us a jim-dandy cast of characters - a good girl, a bad girl, a cowboy, an intellectual, a bland good guy, an aristocrat, a crazy old Yoda-figure, and of course the world's greatest villain, the perfect combination of plotting fiend and ravenous beast; second, he gives us that most emotionally satisfying of all plot under-structures - the invasion story ... Dracula has one goal in mind from the book's onset -- he wants to infect England with his undead virus, wants to begin turning the country (as I've done many times in the past, I whole-heartedly recommend Kim Stanley Newman's Anno Dracula, a book that has its own killer premise, that Stoker's novel is itself an alternate history, that in reality Dracula's plan worked), with only our band of heroes standing in his way; and third, he gives us a bad guy who's offering something just a little bit alluring. True, newly-turned undead must serve Dracula - but they get to live forever, outside of conventional strictures of morality. I've always considered it one of Dracula's rare important weaknesses that we never really see that allure championed properly - the Count's foremost servant, Renfield, is insane, and Lucy is a dimwit. But Lord knows, subsequent handlers of Stoker's material have spared no effort to show us that allure in all its dark glory (including most recently and most famously the Twilight saga, in which the winsome heroine pleads with her undead suitor to turn her, so she can be "free").


Sometimes, when I really love a book, I find my appreciation increases just a bit with every really good or interesting edition I find, and that's certainly true of Dracula - it's apparently endless commercial viability guarantees a fresh crop of repackagings every year, and some of them are worth having. Of course there's the Oxford World's Classics paperback with its great binding and its great notes (and the apparently requisite photo of Bela Lugosi on the cover), and there's the dorky old Magnum Easy Eye edition (also with Bela) for those who scorn any kind of scholarly apparatus.



At the hilariously, frantically overdone other end of the 'scholarly apparatus' spectrum, there's Leonard Wolf's epic 1975 Essential Dracula (it's got a still from Nosferatu on its cover, but don't worry - it's dedicated to Bela), which features the text of the novel onto which an encrusting, clambering moss of footnotes has clapped with joyful tenacity. Wolf footnotes absolutely everything in the book, and unlike so many equally annotated volumes of other classics (and the recent annotated volume of this one, which is as thorough as it is boring), Wolf's notes are always bristling with opinions. Sometime they very nearly end up being more interesting than the passages they explicate, like this little swipe at the token American:

Quincey Morris is a frequent window gazer. Presumably, this is part of his frontier American heritage. Stoker, no doubt, meant the trait to imply a huntsman's alertness. Ironically enough, this man of action rarely accomplishes anything.


Or this, about the recurrent wimpiness of Jonathan Harker, the book's main protagonist:

Mina here takes note of a pervasive weakness in Harker. The reader, more than Mina (one supposes), has seen a good deal of Harker lying passive and supine: most notably, of course, in his nearly flirtatious lassitude in the presence of Dracula's women; his swoon; his doze; and for a full six weeks he lay bedridden in Budapest. Mina, on August 24, reports that he was "so thin and pale and weak-looking ... He is only a wreck of himself ..." It is with this wreck that Mina spends her wedding night.


(fans of Buffy the Vampire-Slayer will read that "nearly flirtatious lassitude" and immediately think of Giles' own encounter with Dracula's women ... and, recalling it, most likely laugh out loud)



Dracula has naturally had countless adaptations to more visual formats over the years. The character had a long and very entertaining run in a Marvel Comics adaptation drawn by the great Gene Colan, and Mike Mignola's four-part comics adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is so visually stunning it almost compensates for the idiocy of the movie itself. And there've been many, many illustrated versions of the novel. Penguin brought one out in 2006 featuring both color and black and white drawings by an unusually restrained Jae Lee, and just last year Sterling kicked off its All-Action Classic series with graphic novel adaptation scripted by Michael Mucci and drawn with distinctive, idiosyncratic energy by Ben Caldwell.




And there'll be more, that goes without saying. Stoker hit upon the same creative gold that was found by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs did with Tarzan, so interpretations and re-interpretations will always be with us. This can usually be extremely frustrating - it's frustrating that Tarzan is currently creatively quiescent, it's more frustrating that Holmes is about to be debased beyond recognition into a gay kickboxer, and probably it'll be equally frustrating when details of the 2011 Hollywood version of Dracula come to light (I'm guessing the Count will be played by somebody under 25 - Michael Pitt's my frontrunner at the moment).

With any luck, in the meantime there'll be a nice meaty BBC TV production to sink our teeth into.

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