Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Dark Muse#2: Dracula in My Bookshelf

It took me two years from when I saw Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula to find the Bram Stoker novel from which it —after being wrung through the wringer of a stage adaptation—took flight. 

1965. I was around ten. Believe it or not, despite its eerie shadow over western culture, a copy of Dracula was hard to come by back then. In fact, it had never been a real bestseller. Critics liked it more than readers. It was one of the most highly-praised novels of its day. 

But it failed to provide for the security of Stoker and his family. After the novel's 1897 publication, its author kept his day job as theater manager and over-worked secretary to Victorian
stage superstar Henry Irving,  thought to be the fire for Stoker’s magnificent titular character.

Both an aunt and a grandmother (on my mother’s side) recalled having a copy, but it had vanished. I recall a family friend describing it as a “very thick book.” It remained a glinting flash from the corner of my eye.

 [And so now I see Mina Harker returning home one evening, looking up to see Lucy Westenra slumped across her bedroom window sill “fast asleep, and by her, seated on the window sill was something that looked like a good-sized bird.”

The bird has of course, vanished when Mina reaches Lucy’s bedroom.]

You can imagine the leap in my boy-soul when I finally found a Laurel/Dell paperback edition in a local department store (maybe Caldor’s, one of the first discount department stores, known for its book section). I must have pained my poor mother as I pleaded with her to buy it for me. I was on an
allowance of 25 cents a week then; I’d probably already spent my weekly quarter.

The cover seemed coated in blue frost. It portrayed Dracula in a cameo profile, against ancient bricked castle walls, exactly as Stoker so well described him: blue-white face, skin like a coarse alabaster, bladed teeth, pin-point ears, high cheekbones, aquiline nose, vicious fire-yellow eyes,
fine mustache and long silver hair. (A bit, I realized some years later, like Charlton Heston, who, mysteriously, never played the Caped Conniver. He would have been great, equal to the triumvirate of Schreck, Lugosi and Lee, maybe even better . . .  but we’ll talk movies later.)

I read Dracula every night in bed, aloud to myself, with great whispered flourishes, over a period of a few weeks, in the little upstairs bedroom I’d recently taken over from my oldest brother, in the small bed whose mattress sagged on the right side. I quickly sensed it was better than the sometimes stiff, undernourished movie whose dark star had snared my psyche.

I’ve read it fives times since, most recently in an edition annotated by Leslie S. Klinger. No matter how I matured, how my literary tastes were refined over the decades by canon classics by Steinbeck, Kantor, Shakespeare, Joyce, Williams, Chekov, Twain, Pynchon, Heller, Hemingway and many more,
its title would pop from my mouth whenever the question of favorite novels slipped into conversation.

I’ve always been easily embarrassed, but even though eyes rolled, noses sniffed, and pursed looks of puritan disapproval snapped my way—often from prudish lofty-minded types, disdainful of the energy and imagination found in the best genre literature--I always called it one of my favorite novels.

In 1974, I was delighted to discover that I was not alone in this amoral enchanted castle. A scholar named Leonard Wolf (father of feminist author Naomi Wolf) assembled the first Annotated Dracula. It remains nearly the best of the illustrated editions, thanks to an artist named Wilfried Sätty. Inspired by Gustave Dore, Sätty captures the eerie Gothicism of Stoker’s tale in pen-and-ink collages. They’re sunk in ancient atmosphere, with the buried energy of a dark world trembling under their elaborate cross-hatched surfaces. That Wolf himself was born in Transylvania only added to this version’s mystique. I found the annotations informative and captivating, though I gather Wolf updated them in a later edition.

Wolf was one of Dracula’s Freudian interpreters, as he made more explicit in his later non-fiction book, A Dream of Dracula. This book clarified for me how the novel was very much about forbidden sex, as seen by Victorians. I have no stake to pound through that view—Stoker would certainly agree with it. But in the hundred years since, that interpretation has ossified into another of those limiting ideologies that leads, among other things, towers of unimaginative formula fiction and boring movies.

Like all ideologies, Leonard Wolf’s leaves out a lot, crowding out other, equally worthy, representations. Before Freud and Stoker, for example, the Dracula figure was portrayed (in folklore and penny dreadfuls such as Varney the Vampire) as an aristocrat draining the life from the powerless bourgeois or peasants who lived under his brute bloody thumb. Dragon’s Ark nods back to this notion, with extra Nietzschean pizzazz. “Like a Superman of Evil,” someone once remarked to me . . .
but now, you should go buy the book for yourself.

Dracula is a palimpsest, a totem to carve our imaginations from. Artists and writers can see him as they please.

In recent years, I’ve taken to collecting illustrated editions of the novel whenever funds allow. For a brief moment, I considered collecting every single edition ever published . . . there are hundreds upon hundreds by now . . . but then that would have marked me a Renfieldien madman, wouldn’t it?

My favorite illustrated edition is Charles Keeping’s, published in 1988, horrific pen and ink drawings that interpret Dracula and his world as otherworldly savages, steeped in foul aggressive
decay. Keeping draws Dracula in near Lovecraftian terms--a bald, wormy Invader from Beyond the Stars, merciless, grotesque.

The edition illustrated by Edward Gorey seems hastily assembled and disappointed, while another with oil paintings by Greg Hildebrandt feels posed, stagy and lacks energy, its characters stiff and waxy.

There are two new versions out yet to slip into my shelf, one with illustrations by an artist named Jae Lee and a recent edition with illustrations by Ben Templesmith, which looks very intriguing.

Leslie Klinger’s annotation contains no illustrations and could use them. Despite the commendable research done for this volume, Klinger takes a Po-Mo approach, teasingly treating the novel as being based on actual real events, with both Dracula and Stoker masterminding a cover up of “what really
happened.” Some may find this amusing, and cannot criticize the idea of re-imagining Dracula, since I’ve done so myself.

Still, I found Klinger’s annotations distracting. They obscure the actual history and literature behind Stoker’s only masterwork. Whatever opinions we might hold of Stoker as a writer, this
approach seems to diminish the strange fever that drives this work and its remarkable accomplishment—a novel that, in the hands of most other writers, might well have been a forgotten
potboiler, but it has haunted along the borders of western consciousness for over a hundred years.

But what about Dracula the novel anyway? Is it really any good? I’ll take that up next time.

Photo by Author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark  is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing and can be ordered through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and will be available as an e-book by the end of April. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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