Friday, October 18, 2013

I really like Bram Stoker's Dracula. The book has this incredible feel to it.

I'm just now beginning to appreciate how Stoker wrote that wonderful novel. The story is quite simple: Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, journeys by train and carriage to Count Dracula's crumbling, remote castle on the border between Transylvania and Moldavia. Count Dracula has hired Harker's employer, the solicitor Peter Hawkins, to buy numerous properties in England and help arrange for the Count's move to London. Harker soon discovers that he is a prisoner. He has several eerie encounters, and explores much of the ruined castle (although he cannot leave it, for he is locked in). One night, he falls asleep outside his room and is nearly killed by three female vampires, but Dracula saves him. He sees Dracula kill two children, and watches in horror as the vampire exits the castle by crawling down an outside wall face-down. As Dracula prepares to depart for England, Harker escapes by imitating the Count and climbing down the wall.

Back in England, Harker's fiancee, Mina Murray, spends her days lounging around the northeastern English town of Whitby. One day, a Russian ship, the Demeter, runs aground in Whitby harbor during a horrific storm. A huge dog leaps from the wrecked vessel and runs into the hills. The crew is dead, the captain lashed to the ship's helm. The captain's log relates a tale of a terrifying "thing" on board which picks off the crew one by one. Soon thereafter, Mina's best friend, Lucy Westenra, begins to sleepwalk. They see a strange man in the local cemetery (where they like to sit at dusk and watch the sun set), several local people die, and Lucy begins to suffer from some sort of wasting disease.

Lucy is the target of affection of three men: local asylum psychiatrist Dr. John Seward; American adventurer Quincy Morris; and regional nobleman Arthur Holmwood. All three men propose, but Lucy accepts Holmdwood's offer of marriage. Dr. Seward, meanwhile, tries to heal a mentally ill inmate, Renfield, who keeps consuming larger and larger animals (first flies, then spiders, etc.) to gain "life". At times, Renfield acts more insane than others, and no one knows why.

Seward becomes worried about Lucy's condition, and calls in his old medical school mentor, Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing almost immediately realizes that a vampire is sucking down Lucy's blood, but keeps quiet so that Seward and the others won't deem him mad. Lucy is given a blood transfusion and her room secured against the undead, but the maid unwittingly opens a window and lets the vampire in. Lucy's condition worsens. Another transfusion is tried, and again the room secured. This time, a massive wolf crashes through Lucy's window (giving her mother a heart attack and killing her) and again the vampire has his way with Lucy. After yet another transfusion, they realize it's too late. Lucy dies. Soon afterward small children in the area are attacked by a woman in white. Van Helsing finally tells Seward that they are dealing with a vampire. They see the undead Lucy Westenra in the graveyard, and the following day return with Holmwood and Morris and decapitate her.

Meanwhile, Mina has heard that Jonathan Harker has been found in Budapest, nearly insane. She rushes to be with him, and nurses him to health. Mina and Jonathan are married, and return to England. Van Helsing and the other men try to deduce who the vampire is, and where he might be hiding. Jonathan Harker accidentally sees Count Dracula in London, and tells Van Helsing. Using the law firm's files, they realize Dracula has purchased a number of properties in and around London and intends to disperse some 40 coffins around the city. Although Mina Harker is pale and ill (a sign the men foolishly ignore), they begin hunting down Dracula's other lairs. They destroy all but two. Unfortunately, they realize too late that the vampire has been slurping down Mina Harker's blood. When Van Helsing finally realizes what's going on, the men burst into her bedroom -- finding Jonathan Harker in a daze, and Dracula forcing Mina to suck blood out of his pectoral. The vampire flees, but it is too late: Mina is a quasi-vampire, and Dracula can hear and see everything through her.

The men destroy the coffins in the abby next door, and then rush off to Dracula's final lair in Picadilly. Although they destroy the coffins there, they realize one box has survived. But Dracula's link to Mina works both ways: Van Helsing realizes that at sun-up and sun-down, Mina can be hypnotized so that they can learn where Dracula is. They quickly realize that Dracula has hired a ship and is heading back to Transylvania. Going by rail overland, they beat him to Varna (the Bulgarian port city he used last time). But Dracula has outwitted them: The ship has landed at Galatz in Romania, and Dracula is already rushing toward his home via a gypsy board which is going upriver. The group breaks into three: Jonathan Harker and Holmwood (now Lord Godalming, after the death of his father to natural causes) hire a small boat and start upriver after Dracula. Seward and Morris ride overland on horses. Meanwhile, Van Helsing and Mina Harker go to Veresti by rail and then ride in a carriage alone to Dracula's castle. The hope is that whoever gets there first can kill the Count.

Van Helsing and Mina arrived first. Dracula has whipped up a massive snowstorm to try to stop them, but they managed to get to the castle. The vampire women attack in the night, but Van Helsing puts up a circle of sanctified communion wafer around himself and Mina and stops them. (The horses die from terror.) The next day Van Helsing leaves Mina alone and destroy the three women and Dracula's tomb. Mina is increasingly under Dracula's spell, sleeping all day and in a near-trance at night. They spot the gypsy boat finally making landfall. Right behind it are Harker and Holmwood, and arriving overland at the same time are Seward and Morris. The gypsies nearly make it to the castle, but are stopped short. During a ferocious knife and gun battle, Quincy Morris is stabbed to death. Jonathan Harker manages to get through to the coffin, throws it open, and cuts Dracula's throat with a knife. The Count dies, and Mina is released from his curse.

* * * * *

Dracula is an epistolary novel -- a book written as if it were a series of documents (letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc.). The first epistolary novel was Prison of Love (Cárcel de amor), written in Spain about 1485 CE. It had become very popular by the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897.

But what I like about Dracula isn't its epistolary form.

What I like about it is the leisurely, almost lazy, way the novel takes its time in getting places. There are nearly 35 pages of text before Jonathan Harker even begins to suspect anything is wrong with Count Dracula. A third of the novel is done with by the time Harker decides to escape Castle Dracula (and his escape is never shown). From the point where the novel catches up with Mina and Lucy spending their days slowly walking around Whitby and teasing old fishermen to the point where Lucy Westenra is finally beheaded and her mouth stuffed with garlic, another third of the novel runs by.

For most people, the thrilling bit in Dracula is when the group departs London via train for Varna and tries to intercept the Count on his way home.

Geez, that doesn't take up 30 pages!

But isn't that wonderful? The part of the book which is all chase music and hunting the undead -- the fastest plotted part of the book -- is also the part which is most tersely written. Once things move faster in the plot, they move faster on the page, too. That's an amazing trick. And I swear to god, if you read the novel you will be shocked that Stoker accomplishes what he does in so few pages. You'll swear that it took just as many pages as Jonathan Harker's stay in Castle Vlad.

But that immensely slow introduction to the book is what really makes the final 30 pages work. As Van Helsing tells Dr. Seward, if all this stuff about vampires, the undead, sucking blood, and then like were revealed too soon, the reader simply wouldn't buy into it. We'd dismiss the book as yet another fantastic tale of schlock. But in very slowly drawing the reader in, Stoker seduces us: We get to know and to like Jonathan Harker. We get to know and to like Mina Murray. We get to know and to like Dr. Seward. The utter weirdness that is Renfield seems puzzling and sad, not terrifying and ludicrous. To the reader, it is obvious that Renfield is some sort of barometer. If Dracula is close, Renfield acts a lot crazier. When Dracula is far off, Renfield is almost normal. We don't know how Renfield got this way, or if perhaps his insanity was taken advantage of by Dracula, or just how this works. In fact, Renfield's behavior is so odd and variable that it's not entirely clear that he is a "motion sensor" for Dracula's proximity. More likely, he is a barometer of the amount of evil that Dracula is doing.

Dracula, along with a number of other books and films, has made me realize just how valuable "time" is in fiction. Whether it is a novel or a work of history or a motion picture, a narrator has to take the time to introduce the viewer/reader to the characters, the situation, the context. It's not enough to do a little backstory. It's not enough to let the character "develop" over the next two hours or next two hundred pages. The fully-fleshed character must be introduced in a relatively short period of time, so that we can see that character act, react, behave, think, and feel. It's not about character development, per se, as it is about character revelation. In the revelation, we buy in, emotionally, into the character. We feel for him, or we hate him. But we accept the character, and accept that this character is real. And in so doing, we care about the story, and what happens next.

Dracula is serious fun, serious literature, and seriously good. I'm realizing more and more just why it is so good.

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