Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dracula: Supernatural Crime Thriller

Part Two: Supernatural Crime Thriller

The mood and pacing of the Dracula novel exists with such urgency—there is a life on the line nearly every page, to the last, fateful entry (November 6th—as is, coincidentally, today)-because it embraces its design as a sort of supernatural crime mystery story, as well as a thematic exercise in vicariously identifying with numerous behaviors exclusive to acceptable Victorian manners (and not only through the titular doppelganger). That urgency is spurred on by the first-hand account nature of the materials assembled (which are then reviewed in the hands of the characters themselves, providing a unique method of interpolating the readers and characters). The helplessness of mortal man or woman, alone, is established throughout the first third of the book. They inhabit such evocatively-described settings, cohesive establishing location; the concern of the voices for one another works with the emotionally-involving descriptions to engross us fully with a mystery containing ludicrous elements without breaking the spell of the story, which would be a rewarding study in technique, though here we concern ourselves mostly with content.

The unusual properties of Dracula the character re-shape the plot to its unique form, constructed out of Stoker’s experiences with modern England, southeastern Europe, and vampire folklore.

Interestingly, two aspects I always identified with Dracula are absent in the novel: a dependency on blood for Dracula’s survival, and a vulnerability to death by sunlight. Regarding the former, he drinks blood to restore vitality and youth to his appearance, as inspired by Madame Bathory’s legendary crimes. To the latter, he simply has an aversion, as he cannot change through most of the daytime hours. It is unclear if daylight completely immobilizes him against his will, but it doesn’t destroy him.

His famous vulnerabilities to religious objects empower Christianity’s value in the “rules” of the narrative. The care with which the human cast is presented provides reasonably believable people, around which Stoker then enshrouds supernatural menace. The absurdity and illogic of the “ vampiric rules and practices,” if you will, played ever on my modern mind through the middle chapters, especially as they invaded, essentially, a grounded romance narrative, but they are integral to the identity of the novel.

The one source of power which Stoker may not have yet envisioned which requires some revenue taxed from our imaginations, is the candle-lit, pre-electric night. When our sun goes down, we simply flip on a light, powered by the local electric company, if not a handy generator. What this lends to one’s paranoia, when the world was lit only by the stars and the reflective moon, must be added to the psychology of the characters, who live in the very times where the Wizard of Menlo Park and others would utilize the rationality they so champion to provide social and commercial life to the night. The sheer indecency of skulking about in the darkness, alone, was manifest in those gaslamp-lit days, particularly along the coastal Whitby countryside, where clouds could conspire for concealment. Once Van Helsing infuses his research of Dracula’s supposed powers into the group conversation, having objectively demonstrated something beyond empirical reason is athwart, the thought of those transgressive, fearsome powers allied with the night time world completes the sleepless specter that motivates them each to huddle for safety and accept, without experiment, his authority.

To maintain the mystery, having demonstrated his courtesy and thirst for knowledge, perhaps trying out an acceptable façade for interacting with English commerce, by necessity Dracula must disappear, to leave us and the vampire hunters in the wake, even the grip, of his power, moving at the psychological and physical fringes, during the time when sane, healthy people schedule their unconsciousness and vulnerability. Once his pretense falls aside, he takes his marginalizing place amidst the unknown and surprise and hazard, from which the terror of his unarticulated point of view exists.

Ahead, I will establish the powers enumerated and displayed, but if you have any understanding of Dracula, you realize what Johnathan Harker dreadfully discovers, alone in Castle Dracula. The means of battling so superhuman a foe require wiles, copious bribe money, and a working understanding of institutions, customs, and business paper work as well as nerve. It’s perfect that Stoker assemble physicians, psychologists, hunters, and solicitor (yes, a lawyer)---a bulwark of civilized men---to achieve the multi-faceted task of hounding the Lord of the Undead. (I waited to see if he were to command another vampire in the process.)

One notes the lack of any professional standing afforded the surviving woman in the party, Mina Murray, who functions as secretary, a keeper of train tables and, in reflection of her creative mind and intuition, advisory strategist. The reverse edge of their copious praise is the condescending, patronizing suggestion in their astonishment at her utility, resourcefulness and daring. They are rightly surprised, as they begin to believe Van Helsing, that their own mortal abilities can be leveraged to victory against Dracula. Her friends are not, at least, consciously misogynistic towards Mina; at heart, they are chivalrous in the face of chaos and supernatural crime. Van Helsing makes apparent the vulnerability of each of them to what Hollinger dubs “a metaphorical rapist”, but the convention she also cites plays out with the two main female characters as victims of the vampire’s thirst, with the males bonding to revisit the mayhem, which seems likely to be the chief effect of crossing Dracula’s path.

His powers also provide the plot device, as you would discover in reading, that makes Mina more useful as well as more dangerous to her party. That she is helpful in a way based on fantasy rather her profession or as an experienced hunter (like Quincey Morris, or Lord Goldaming’s ship experience) could be seen as a particularly Victorian sort of slight based on customarily narrow female roles, though Van Helsing’s role is primarily to convey the author’s research into vampirism---a fantastical, absurd sort of knowledge, however balanced with his competency, as a physician able to conduct four transfusions trying to save Lucy Westenra. However narrow her physical role, and however unfortunate her fleshly invasion, Mina’s mix of vulnerability and courage is reflected in all the protagonists at some point, and her determination to avenge herself and Lucy and stop an nigh-immortal killer provide a much more active role than the females in adventures scribed before. She wins a kind of equality that reflects a Victorian idea of enlightened perception of women. At the same time, she maintains dutiful praise of English men in general (sometimes in an unfavorable, generalized corollary about women), as well as a completely nurturing support and concern for her friends and most of all, this and utmost devotion to her badly-handled husband, a victim, himself, of Dracula’s emasculating cruelty, in which they share as much equality as Stoker can apparently allow. The somewhat-domestic quality of her ability at organization displays some active leadership on her part, as does her eventual insistence on chasing Dracula to Transylvania alongside the group.

Dracula’s criminal nature opens the gateway to license much morbid and extra-legal behavior (breaking into crypts, mutilating corpses) on the part of the protagonists, as well as the unconventional measure of their mixed-gender teamwork. Van Helsing describes the Count as “childish” in his discernment and appreciation of life, in contrast to their more mature ways of thought. For that matter, even, according to eyewitness Harker, the bizarre vampire ladies (the “brides” –though the relationship beyond his primacy among them is not otherwise described in any humanizing terms) criticize him as one who has never loved---emotional availability being encouraged, I suppose, along with the embrace of civilization. These observations are a clue to the dichotomy embraced, contemporary behavior versus medieval. That sort of present enmity with the past, of course, now has a third point of reference: our own, looking back at their preoccupations, looking back at his.

The individual viewpoint, here, is at its most rebellious, but rebellious in counterpoint to dominant, presumably Anglican-centric ideals which win in the end.
Primarily he is read as a Freudian doppelganger for sexual norms, but while we are not afforded Dracula’s diary (addressed later by Marv Wolfman in Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives), nor much of his voice, Dracula’s nocturnal life clashes with quotidian commercial and social customs, and his complete divorce with society (here he doesn’t trifle with much guise as a typical travelling nobleman to lurk as a monster) punctuates his trangessive spiritual existence, as well. (One might also surmise a polygamous nature with his three white ladies haunting Castle Dracula).

His silence in the narrative underscores how he is not afforded the eloquent status of Milton’s Lucifer, though he does maintain an unvoiced Byronic heroism in his lonely survival. His raw cunning is paired with a courage outlined by Van Helsing (the foreigner, though more similar in culture), who regards Dracula’s audacious planning and preparatory learning, to engage English customs, to invade, if you will, a foreign land. As he is said to be able to repose for years on end, he’s actually leaping into another time and set of rules, without a genuine, loyal friend.

Stoker paints the antagonist as so ideally evil, so out-of-step with norms---he is not seen to eat or drink in the weeks of his early companionship at Castle Dracula---as to justify the extraordinary lengths required to, frankly, murder a unique and sentient being. It is only acquitted in Stoker’s narrative by the observation of the vampire’s destruction returning the body again to God’s plans rather than Satan’s, and it is not hard to gain insight into how obedience to authority, as in the Milgran experiments, can, through persuasion, allow us to embrace behaviors to which we are empathetically averse.

The potentials for such insights, to me, elevate this prototypical supernatural crime thriller beyond a pot-boiler adventure yarn. A contemporary master of both adventure and mystery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, congratulated Stoker on the best tale of its sort he’d read in many a year.
Next: Dracula, Black Magician

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