Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Celebrate Veterans Day with Halloween Leftovers

I thought it would be cute to write something about Dracula for Halloween. Y’know, vampires and terror and stuff like that. Unfortunately, it took me about two weeks longer to read the book than I expected.

Consequently, I present to you—just in time for Veterans Day: Four thoughts I had while reading Dracula.

1. Bram Stoker has some issues with women. He seems to characterize them as only angelic victims or voluptuous succubae. Lucy and Mina are both placed on pedestals until they are transformed into something unholy. The only other female characters that appear in more than one scene are a trio of lascivious vampires who threaten to seduce and suck male victims dry.

While Count Dracula is portrayed as unattractive, the female vampires are described as beautiful but vulgar. They use their looks to beguile victims. (Men, I should say. They never attempt to prey on another woman.) Simply put, they’re diseased whores. They use their bodies to seduce and infect men.

But what about Mina and Lucy? Stoker is effusive in his praise of them. He even credits Mina with having a “man brain.” (His words, not mine.) This is a different type of sexism, but sexism none the less. If you call someone an angel, you may mean it as a compliment, but you’re still dehumanizing them. A person can’t be both divine and human. (Except in Greek and Roman myth, and those gods weren’t very angelic anyhow.)

Stoker creates an angel/demon dichotomy for his women. They can be one or the other, but not human.

2. Stoker uses several characters’ journals to tell the story of Dracula. It’s a cool idea to switch viewpoints between chapters.

The only problem is Stoker doesn’t shift voice, even when he shifts narrators. Almost all of the six or so characters who share narration duties write in the exact same style—Stoker’s. (The one exception is when Stoker adopts the style of a late 1800s newspaper writer.)

My city editor John Bertosa—you may remember him as the bane of my existence—can’t do imitations to save his life. All of them sound like a high-pitched John Wayne. Stoker has the same problem. No matter who he’s trying to write as, it always sounds like Stoker.

3. Dracula must have been terrifying when it was first written; but now that all of its ideas have been re-used a million times, a reader can see all of the surprises coming about 50 pages in advance.

For example, when Van Helsing reveals that Lucy’s been bitten by a vampire, all the characters are shocked. Meanwhile, the reader will think, “Well, of course! Why do you think she had two holes in her freakin’ neck?”

I can’t blame Stoker or Dracula for that. It’s not his fault that his story was so popular that everybody decided to co-opt his ideas. I have no reason to believe that Stoker’s tactics were horror clichés when he wrote Dracula. Rather, they became clichés because of it.

However, there is one genuine surprise in Dracula. It involves a communion wafer and Mina. It’s the one scare that Stoker doesn’t oversell with 30 pages of foreshadowing.

4. Finally, most anticlimactic ending ever.

I can’t call Dracula a bad story or even a bad novel. It just hasn’t aged well. People borrowed its ideas so heavily that even the source material seems derivative now.

That’s all I got for now. I might have more vampire-related stuff for you soon.

-Jason Lea,

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