Saturday, December 18, 2004

That Heart-Warming Holiday Chestnut

Dracula, by Bram Stoker, Read by Eric Martin, Sound Room Publishers, 2001

Dear Reader, you almost missed out on this holiday classic, as disc one was so horrifically scratched as though the previous readers had been using the disc in place of a Frisbee or dog chew. I mastered my disgust at the fools who mistreat library materials and sat through an hour and fifteen minutes of narration coupled with a soft skip-skip noise and an occasional lapse in narration or repeat spot. The remaining thirteen discs were pristine as though all other readers had been thwarted at disc one.

The book is a chilling account, though the basic plot outlines are so familiar that it’s difficult for it to be truly frightening. Never mind that I’m rational enough not to believe in vampires; I consider myself capable of accomplishing a rather generous suspension of disbelief. But I’ve seen so many adaptations and variations on the story, even having read the Illustrated Classics in grade school, that there are no genuine surprises in the narrative. In my mind, a good description, apt choices in language, poetic moments of terror, can affect a decent chill up and down the spine, but without the element of surprise no real fright is possible. As an example of a well chilled passage, I append the following account given by the madman Renfield:

Then he began to whisper. ‘Rats, rats, rats! Hundreds, thousands, millions of them, and every one a life. And dogs to eat them, and cats too. All lives! All red blood, with years of life in it, and not merely buzzing flies!’ I laughed at him, for I wanted to see what he could do. Then the dogs howled, away beyond the dark trees in His house. He beckoned me to the window. I got up and looked out, and He raised his hands, and seemed to call out without using any words. A dark mass spread over the grass, coming on like the shape of a flame of fire. And then He moved the mist to the right and left, and I could see that there were thousands of rats with their eyes blazing red, like His only smaller. He held up his hand, and they all stopped, and I thought he seemed to be saying, ‘All these lives will I give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!’ And then a red cloud, like the color of blood, seemed to close over my eyes, and before I knew what I was doing, I found myself opening the sash and saying to Him, ‘Come in, Lord and Master!’”

This is a quite nice bit, the kind of near-on purple prose that flourished in the Victorian era, but that, if read in the proper mood, can be quite effective.

What seems strange to me, though, is how through the years Dracula has been appropriated by the Tiger Beat pin-up crowd as some kind of dreamy, ageless sex symbol. Vampires are so often considered sexy, but when you hear the description of Dracula at the novel’s beginning (rank breath, hair growing out of the center of his palms, nails clipped into points, pale, malignant, saturnine, waxen-faced) it’s hard to imagine how that could be so. This is more a Hollywood construct, the sexiness of vampires, as American audiences wouldn’t have gone for more authentic European visions like Max Schrek’s Nosferatu. While there is an obvious sexual element to biting the neck, hypnotizing with your presence, and even the sucking of blood, early vampires were seen as wolfish, animalistic, eastern European swarthy beasts. Certainly the three hot, young vampire women who linger over Jonathan Harker as he lies peeking through his lashes at him are attractive, but Dracula himself is not at all described in an even remotely attractive fashion. For example, “He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.”

That doesn’t sound so terribly dishy now, does it?

Further, though rarely remarked on as far as I’m aware, is how the nature of the vampire myth, as demonstrated in Stoker’s novel and by most subsequent renderings, has two major theological consequences. The first is a cosmological unfairness — that the soul of one made into a vampire against her will is damned to hell. From a Christian theological perspective, this is illogical, as one can not be damned for the actions of another, yet made vampires are indeed condemned to the pit. The second issue ought to have all who fight vampires becoming Catholics. If crucifixes, holy water, and consecrated Hosts are repellant to vampires, then that is highly suggestive of a theological superiority accorded to one particular sect of Christianity. Any non-Christians would most likely convert as well. No story has yet been told of vampires being driven back by a matzo or mezuzah. (Granted, Stoker was born in Dublin which would explain the prominence given to icons of Catholicism over say, Anglican or Judaism, yet the general acceptance of Roman Catholic weaponry has endured through non-dogmatic vampire movies and books.)

Quite curious throughout the book is that perhaps the most common weakness of vampires considered today — that they die in sunlight — is not remotely given play in the novel. Dracula usually sleeps during the day, but sometimes he is out and about when the sun is up. The strongest of Dracula’s particular weaknesses in the novel are based around the element of water. The vampire can only cross rivers at low tide and when on a ship upon the water, he is trapped even if he can turn into a bat. Much is made about the periods of sunset and sunrise being of particular strength and/or vulnerability to the Count. What seems weakest here is that Stoker didn’t set down all the various vampire superstitions before he wrote the book and pull together those which were consistent and discard those that contradicted each other. Instead, Stoker seemed to try to fit in nearly every local variant to the mythology. Thus, Dracula must sleep on earth from Transylvania in a coffin, and when in the coffin he is apparently weakened to the point of being helpless, yet he can turn into mist and disappear or into a bat or wolf or moth or whatever and this without any sunset or sunrise provision. It all makes Van Helsing’s plans to capture Dracula a bit confusing and makes the planning seem haphazard or thoughtless.
For instance, a blessed bullet shot through the coffin while Dracula is inside it would kill him. Okay, so why not just load up some revolvers with blessed bullets and shoot him when you see him? Why go to the trouble of opening the coffin and cutting off his head, filling his mouth with garlic, and driving a stake through his heart? At the very least, why not riddle the coffin with blessed bullets before opening it, just to be on the safe side?

It also seems a stupidity on the part of vampires that no matter how clever they are portrayed, when they are finally being hunted by humans they try to fight or escape only by using their vampirish wiles. They try the mental dominance trick or their superior strength; they get in close where a stake can be employed or holy water splashed. Why no vampire ever picked up a long range rifle and merely sniped his enemies from a distance as they approached the castle, I’ll never know.

This edition of Dracula is put out by Commuters Library, now InAudio, the master of public domain audiobooks.

Eric Martin, the reader, provides lovely accents for the many characters that show up in the book. Especially enjoyable is his rendition, early in the book and as such gone too soon, of Mr. Swales, an old Scottish man who talks to Mina Murray when she picnic lunches on a hill at home in Whitby. His gruff salty sea dog Swales is filled with verbal oddities and expressions, comical in its impiety and bitterness, although he mispronounces more than a few words throughout. I’d personally deliver the dialect “ma’sel” as “mah sell” a broad-vowelled, shortened “myself.” Martin, clearly in an ether haze, renders this as “mayzell.” His particularly major drawback is how incredibly slow he reads. Martin is perhaps the slowest reader I’ve ever heard, leaving long deep pauses for the commas. A semicolon can last what seems minutes and I use the CD player’s fast forward on the full-stops. In comparison with some other audio versions of the book, Martin’s reading clocks in some four hours longer than other unabridged renditions.

And so, as the book wound down to its conclusion, believe me, I was more eager than all the characters put together that Dracula should die. I found myself nodding my head and thinking “Die, die, die, come on and fucking die already!”

No comments: