WHISTLING IN THE DARK:
Stoker Took Me to School
I have been very aware lately, of the sense in which I still feel like a 20 year old - sadly not so much in terms of weighing less or being able to hold my drink well, but rather in terms of feeling how much there is left to learn. Of course, when I was twenty there was very little left to learn and I understood the world almost completely, so I suppose there is some symmetry.
If I can pass one life lesson on to my daughter it will be a little more humility in the face of culture. Things become great cultural texts for a reason - it may not be a reason you agree with, but there's a reason.
So for me, it's back to remedial culture school. In particular, in the last few months I have been correcting my abysmal ignorance of Dracula; Jorge Luis Borges and opera in general.
I got my copy of Dracula after discovering that I could download an electronic copy for free on my iPod Touch. I'm not sure what I had expected really, and I suppose that change in my own ideas about Dracula is what made it possible for me to finally read it - I had finally got enough distance from my own days of fascination with vampire stories to leave behind my expectations about the novel and approach it with something like an open mind.
You see, where I came from, Dracula was a kind of spiritual antithesis of a genre of vampire stories that I was really dedicated to. I laboured for years in the underground Anne Rice mines and continue to think of The Lost Boys as probably my favourite film in the 'secret magic, urban fantasy, pulp magic realist' genre that I have invested a lot of time and energy into. But Dracula was held up as the other polarity from the "Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die" through-line that informed so much of the post-Anne Rice vampire genre: even in texts that implicitly condemned the vampires, like Buffy or Lost Boys, the Byronic anti-hero elements were embraced with infinitely more conviction and style than the rather formulaic moral condemnation that was trotted out as justification at the end. Against this, I had quite often heard Dracula invoked as a purer or more traditional approach to vampires in which vampires are unequivocally evil and slaves of the devil ('she is,' as Anthony Hopkin's truly-gonzo van Helsing put it, 'the Devil's cooooooncubine!').
But of course, what I was really getting involved in, in those arguments, was a debate about morality and art - whether being the precursor to modern vampire fiction gave Stoker an implicit superiority in terms of determining how vampires should be represented on the one hand and, on the other, whether there was something morally questionable about portraying the implicitly evil state of vampirism as attractive. I was unwilling to accord Stoker any creative privilege based on his having gotten there first and I was, I confess, a total sucker for the doomed-tragically-misunderstood-moved-to-evil-only-by-his-anger-at-a-world-that-he-never-made anti-hero portrayed in the Coppola version of the film, which seemed like the ultimate expression of the post Anne Rice image of vampires. This is interesting because Dracula in Coppola’s film didn't, in retrospect, have much to do with Stoker's Dracula at all.
As a result of this, for years I refused to engage Stoker's Dracula at all, somehow convincing myself that it would read like an evangelical tract. In my angry young mind, Stoker had become a species of crypto-nazi-apologist (like all melodramatic intellectuals, I was not afraid to drop a Godwin bomb... or two...) who advocated a ruthless pogrom against the flawed but so terribly human Gary Oldman Dracula merely because he was Somehow Different. And if one could advocate the genocide of handsome, sad-eyed, romantic white-guys who just wanted to get back together with the reincarnation of their former girlfriends (who were, by the way, totally screwed by The Man) then Where Would Stoker's Madness End!?!? Um... yeah... so maybe a little embarrassing in retrospect but there it is - remember, when I was younger, I knew everything...
Needless to say, Stoker's Dracula was very different than I thought it would be. It was, first of all, quite good. There was a bit of flab around the long-winded war council / cognitive behaviourial therapy / team building exercises that heroes were constantly engaged in, but that aside it had quite a solid pace and parts of it were really magically atmospheric. I loved the creeping dread in Castle Dracula. I was also quite surprised by how the story felt. It really felt a lot like an episode of the X-files - with an ensemble cast - of roleplaying gamers.
But moreover, it was nowhere near as macho as I was expecting: in the final analysis Mina is the most useful of the core characters (certainly she would have made the best spy or actual detective with her constant memo writing). But also, implicit in the absolute morality that had often been hyped to me as the main note about the story, was a certain assumption of cowboyish, Captain Kirk-esque heroism (though this may have been partly because of who represented this view in my life) so I was surprised to see how thoughtful the characters were. They spend a great deal of time analyzing evidence, having staff meetings and, most interestingly (and most stereotypically 'feminine') of all: working on maintaining the integrity of their community. I think, for example, of how many episodes of the X-files would have ended before the second commercial break if Mulder had been as deliberate or diplomatic about recruiting people to his crazy theories as Van Helsing was.
Finally, there was the figure of Dracula himself - far more than evil, the character of Dracula struck me as silent. In a book in which there are probably less then 10 recurring characters, we have frequent privileged access to the inner monologues of at least three characters, and are treated to extensive self-explication or even internal monologues at one remove, from almost every other character. Even Renfield speaks about himself at length, and is recklessly honest by the end. Count Dracula is notable because he is, for the most part, silent - and in fact the majority of what he does say (I'm thinking of his dialog at the beginning) is an obvious deception of some kind or another. Indeed, we really only have the flawed perceptions of the main narrator's instincts to lead us to the conclusion that Dracula is wholly evil - there is no omniscient narrator who condemns him in the text. I hasten to add that I think his being evil is a safe bet in the narrative, but the point is: far from dogmatically insisted, it's not definitively stated at all. Not surprisingly, I think that silence, that inscrutability and the way he lurks out of sight for most of the story, is tremendously effective in building the dread of him.
But finally, reading it gave me a much greater insight into the history of the vampire genre in general. I think we can all agree that the contemporary vampire genre owes it's existence pretty directly to Dracula (and yes, I am familiar with Varney and Polidori's Vampyre - the point is, when you go to Walmart and ask for a 'vampire costume', you don’t get a Varney costume) and one of the most striking things about Dracula, for me, as a wannabe author, is the silence of the antagonist. I believe part of the power of Dracula is that very incompleteness - it is a text that asks questions. What was he thinking? Who was he? And I think it's quite natural that a book that authors fall in love with, that asks a question, should be the beginning of a dialogue between the authors moved by the work, and the work itself. And I suspect that Anne Rice and her imitators, that I had so long assumed existed in a kind of rebellion against Stoker, are in fact, taking part in this dialogue.
Indeed, I would like to suggest that the modern vampire genre, as epitomized by authors like Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, is essentially an effort to answer the implicit question asked in Dracula - who was The Vampire?
And I think that's a very human way to carry on literary tradition, frankly.