Monday, October 26, 2015
Down for the Count
When I was eleven, my grammar school had a book fair, and I bought a copy of Dracula, the original Bram Stoker novel. It was in December, I remember, and later that day, my sister and I found out that our beloved grandmother had died. I fled into the book, the stunning opening sequence of which--Jonathan Harker's trip to Transylvania, his meeting Count Dracula, his encounter with Dracula's wives--gave me a nightmare that kept me from reading any further for some time. (I strongly suspect, but don't know, that this nightmare was some part of my processing my sense of loss.) Two years later, I saw the Frank Langella version, and returned to Stoker's original.
I have visited Dracula recurrently ever since.
The book itself is brilliant, and no film adaptation has done it justice--Francis Ford Coppola's misleadingly namedBram Stoker's Dracula (1992) flirts with elements of the book, but overlays a romanticized version of Vlad the Impaler and a cheapening of the core group hunting him--Coppola deprives Jonathan Harker of his stature in the novel, and Anthony Hopkins's Van Helsing is, well...
Yeah. "She is the Devil's concubine" is probably the nadir of a great acting career.
Another not-so-much version at least had the benefit of introducing me to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, and to classical music, so, that's another one I owe the Count.
In any event, every year around Halloween I read a supernaturally themed work--ranging from classics to modern genre fiction. I'm not a snob about it; Peter Straub's underrated, chilling Julia, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, even the deservedly despised Varney the Vampyre (James Malcolm Ryder or Thomas Preskett Prest, depending on whom you believe). My late, lamented professor and thesis adviser, Walter Kendrick boasted of being the only man to actually finish reading Varney, and, alas, he still holds the title.
Two years ago, I read Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, in which he felt free to hijack not only Stoker's plot and characters but those of other Victorian writers, and of other novels set in the era. (Yes, I was writing Phineas at Bay at the time, and Newman's borrowings, like Trollope's own, encouraged me to let rip and follow my own allusive turn of mind.) Newman knew enough to keep the Count offstage as much as possible, and his presence, almost never seen, but always looming over the scene, makes the book work--a trick he repeats in his Johnny Alucard, a seemingly disconnected series of stories that suddenly clicks into a coherent whole, with a brilliant twist.
This year I am re-reading one of the very few Dracula pastiches to restore the Count's mystery and ability to frighten, despite his cultural ubiquity. I refer to Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 debut novel The Historian, a subtle, slowly unravelling skein that I am enjoying on this go as much as I did when I first read it, ten years ago.
All because, in a time of terrible loss, a book gave a child a lesser fear to distract him from a very much greater one.
Thank you, Bram Stoker.