Vampires. I’ve never been that fascinated by vampires. They’re just one sort of monster among many. In terms of physical appearance, your traditional vampire isn’t even interesting: a human with fangs and a pale complexion. Now, with a werewolf, or a lake monster, or a living corpse made from stitched-together body parts–now that’s a physically interesting monster.
Yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the subject, I find myself immersed in vampire-related media. My girlfriend has me watching Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. My two most recent Xbox game purchases were a Buffy game and Bloodrayne. I recently re-read Dracula and watched Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version. I also read a Buffy tie-in novel as well as an original novel about vampires by the same author. Then there are the Blade movies, which I’m fond of.
It might seem that I’m actively seeking out this vampire material and, perhaps, actually do like vampires. But in truth, I’ll take your average Lovecraftian tentacled beastie over some greased-up trenchcoat-wearing poseur with nasty pointy teeth any day. Frankly, I have no explanation for the ubiquity of bloodsuckers in my life at the moment.
I decided to re-read Dracula because I’d seen an interview with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Mignola claimed the novel inspired his career when he read it in fourth grade; then and there, he knew he wanted to make monsters his career. I vaguely recalled Dracula as being rather boring, so I decided to try it again.
I went out and bought the Norton Critical edition of the text, thinking, in my snooty way, that this would have the purest version of the text. But this purchase proved to be a mistake. The Norton Critical series publishes “literary” texts that are usually part of the generally accepted Western Canon. There are only two horror novels in the Norton Critical series: Dracula and Frankenstein. I’ve read both, and while Norton gives Mrs. Shelley her due, Mr. Stoker comes in for something of a beating.
The annotations in the Norton Dracula constantly call attention to errors in the manuscript, and sadly, most of these are legitimate complaints. For instance, the novel is epistolary, and Stoker makes a number of mistakes in the dates of the journals. The editors also note several points on which Stoker contradicts himself. These are mostly related to Van Helsing’s various claims about vampires.
Reading the Norton edition, one gets the sense that Dracula was included in the collection very reluctantly, and the annotations seem to reflect a certain unforgiving attitude on the part of the editors. Both the copy on the back of the book and the introduction make a point to tell the reader that the Victorians considered Dracula just another potboiler. The implication is that Dracula owes its reputation not to Stoker’s skill, but to that of his cinematic successors–the filmmakers who used the story to create such films such as Nosferatu, Tod Browning’s Dracula, the Hammer Horror of Dracula and Coppola’s aforementioned extravaganza.
After re-reading the novel, I’m inclined to agree with the editors. There are a number of factors that make Dracula a not-so-thrilling read. First off, it’s epistolary. I’ve often argued with fellow writers that I don’t like first-person horror or thriller novels because, by having a first-person past tense narrator, a level of suspense has already been removed–if the narrator’s telling the story, then obviously he or she is alive (and if the narrator is killed at the end of the novel anyway, the reader feels cheated). An epistolary novel works similarly: whoever is writing in the journal (or recording on the Victrola) is obviously alive.
But at least in a first-person novels, events are narrated in “real-time”; while the verbs may be in the past-tense, the story progresses in a way that feels natural and forward-moving. An epistolary novel doesn’t even have that; the events of each section are related with a very clear awareness that they’ve already happened.
But the epistolary aspect is only part of the problem. As an aspiring writer, I’m calling Stoker out: Dracula is a sloppy novel.
There are numerous inconsistencies. I suspect Stoker wrote the thing in a rush and didn’t bother to go back and check what he’d written in earlier sections. There are also many redundant scenes. How many times do we need to see Lucy get a blood transfusion? (And with each one, the implausibility of all these men having the same blood type as Lucy becomes ludicrous–though it’s not really fair to blame that on Stoker, since he only went with what science knew at the time.) The sloppy plotting is often distracting, especially when the annotations are pointing them out at every turn.
But what bothered me the most, by the end, were the speeches. For a purported Gothic thriller, Dracula is pretty light on the action, atmosphere, and horror, and pretty heavy on the jawing. The worst offender is Van Helsing, who goes on and on in most of his scenes. Stoker clearly loved the character, and Van Helsing is wonderfully bizarre (only Anthony Hopkins’s performance in Coppola’s version has come close to capturing Van Helsing as Stoker wrote him). But the good doctor talks too much. I suspect Stoker’s aware of this–there are a few scenes where the other characters make note of how over-the-top his behavior is–but Stoker still can’t seem to help himself. And so we get three or four pages of Van Helsing praising Mina’s virtues and the virtues of women in general.
On the other hand, after the first fifth of the novel where Jonathan goes to see Dracula in his castle, we get maybe ten more pages with Dracula himself. For the rest of the novel he’s simply a vague presence, hovering on the fringes of the story as our hapless Victorian heroes strive to overcome their credulity and ally themselves with an arguably insane Dutchman to defeat the supernatural menace.
The various film adaptations–culminating in Coppola’s lavish production–have recognized the obvious: Dracula himself is much more interesting than the other characters. While I tend to prefer a certain degree of faithfulness in film adaptations of literary works, I think films like Nosferatu and Stoker’s version do a lot more with the material than Stoker did.
Stoker works his ass off to make the reader believe that vampires could exist in the real world. For this reason, he eschews showing much of Dracula–lest we notice the stage trickery–and fills the novel with as much up-to-date science as possible. The idea isn’t dissimilar from the way fantasy authors tend to ground their material in as realistic a style as possible. By emphasizing up-to-date technology–and keeping the folklore monster out of the picture, for the most part–Stoker tries to minimize how much disbelief his readers have to suspend.
Stoker created an indelible connection between horror fiction and technology. Later authors, such as H.P. Lovecraft, would use science as a way of grounding their horrific menaces in reality. The most deliberate attempt to do this with vampires is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Many vampire stories have taken their cue from Matheson’s novel. Most modern vampire fiction splits into two categories: supernatural vampires (such as those in Buffy and the works of Ann Rice) or “scientific” vampires (Blade, Underworld, and various other comics).
Personally, when it comes to vampires, I prefer scary, ugly things like Count Orlok from Nosferatu to the brooding, Anne Rice-style goths who run rampant through much modern vampire fiction.
And I would have hated Dracula in fourth grade.