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Entries in Stoker (6)

Thursday
Dec222016

Dracula

Let us forget for a moment all associations with the name of this novel, the subject of hundreds of books and films and owner of permanent territory in the landscape of our nightmares. While such an exercise is almost impossible, we might imagine a world in which the vampire had not yet been accorded the title of legend and to a certain segment of Europe was still very real. What then would be the response to a Western work that tried with solemn research and Victorian restraint to capture the essence of fear? Fear of an aristocratic and evil genius, practically immortal and unstoppable, capable of feats of superhuman strength and diabolical skill? Do not think that I subscribe to the ridiculous theories about the sexuality and foreignness of Dracula as indicative of Victorian England’s threatened moral structure and pending hoards of migrants who will suck the British Crown dry. Nor is the repetition of the Mongol invasion to blame; instead, it is the fear of esoteric truths that conflicts the minds of the steady, righteous Victorian citizen, and of lust, greed, and cruelty as the new traits of the new century. England is not afraid for England; rather, it is humans who are afraid for humanity.   

As it were, these predictions were hideously accurate. The book itself, a masterpiece of the epistolary genre, is composed in the lush style of the Gothic romances such as these earlier novels, with a scrupulous eye for detail and no frail moral backbone. Stoker was never quite able to replicate the magic of Dracula in any other of his many works, perhaps because the subject matter was not as compelling. Consider this novel or this one and their forays into, respectively, the pagan worship of a giant snake and the revivification of an Egyptian mummy, and we see that these are generally subjects for horror buffs, even if the books themselves are fantastically beautiful. But a vampire has an added element that urges us to read on and wonder about the damnation that may ensue, however silly the whole premise must seem to a logical mind, if certain criteria are not met. The legend was born because death itself remains a mystery.

Dracula’s beginning has no parallel in modern literature: it is simply the best opening to a modern novel of suspense or horror ever written. Until Jonathan Harker is abandoned in Castle Dracula to the whims of a triptych of female bloodsuckers, the book is hypnotic and impeccable. An excerpt does small justice to the precision with which Stoker describes the indescribable: 
Suddenly, away on our left I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment. He at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do, the less as the howling of the wolves grew closer. But while I wondered, the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey. I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions. He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose, it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all, and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.  
One wonders whether a better account could be rendered of the hellfire that will surround and plague Jonathan for the entirety of the novel. How is a modern author able to present demons on earth without evoking suffocating laughter? Perhaps as the most evil of humans, with communion with the vilest beasts (although I have a soft spot for wolves), and control over the harshest weather. This is the world into which a naive young barrister enters for the sake of career advancement and for his fiancée, Mina Murray, and which they may never leave unscathed.

What happens after this first seventh of the novel is less satisfying: Dracula comes to England aboard a ship whose crew meets with a horrific fate; he seduces Lucy, a close friend of Mina’s and tries to get to Mina herself; and he is supported (if mostly in spirit) by Renfield, a former barrister now held in a London asylum. Fraught with twists typical of any modern thriller, the end chase is decidedly humdrum in comparison with the onset of this great expedition. In the intermediate scenes we are plagued by the stratagems of scholar and physician Abraham van Helsing, destined to become almost as famous as the monstrosity he has hunted for decades. Van Helsing’s diction is curious to an English ear, and has much of his native Dutch about it although it often makes for poetic interludes. His organization of a team to destroy a centuries-old source of evil is undermined by the frenetic pace of the plot, needlessly weaving together side stories to make it seem that Dracula is fenced in on many fronts, which he certainly isn’t. In the end, he is forced to scamper back to his native Transylvania, and we still do not know why he chose to forsake his local omnipotence to brave the dangers that the distant post of London provides. No particular explanation, apart from plot furtherance, is ever given. If it is boredom or isolation that drives the Count to pick up and move, one wonders what he has really been doing all these centuries. Why not take London during the Great Fire or interregnum? Let us hope that it is indeed boredom, which would be much more plausible for a character of ambition.                
 
The origin of Dracula is notably never revealed in full. He may very well be this historical figure known for impaling his opponents in battle, but he is hardly the first despot to inflict horrific suffering on his enemies. Why then would he be chosen as king of the damned? Many modern films and books have delved in speculation ranging from the most mundane (psychological and scientific references to acute taphephobia and the concomitant madness) to the most vivid (this most famous of betrayers). If it is indeed Judas behind the slaughter of centuries, then the character is well chosen and portrayed. There can be no greater penalty on a soul than a mockery of life sustained by death after death.
Thursday
Nov262015

The Jewel of Seven Stars

There is little in the way of evidence that we understand what this ancient civilization truly accomplished. We have disinterred tombs, deciphered a hieratic language of obscure characters and darker gods, and mimicked the Egyptians’ customs and designs endlessly in an array of films and media (to the last any self-respecting horror fan will attest). Yet what we haven’t understood so dwarfs our discoveries that pensive minds tend to consider a rather terrible alternative: the Egyptians were so far ahead of their age as to remain uncanny forever. Canopic jars, thurification that has proven irreproducible, astronomy that may be more accurate than we care to imagine, mummifying techniques never seen before or since – never mind the everlasting monuments that have symbolized the country in our imagination. For a number of reasons the Egypt of today has little in common with its glorious past, but one thing from which it has not strayed is its ability to enchant and attract. One of the prototypes of Egypt’s mysteries can be found in this seminal novel.

Our hero and first-person narrator is Malcolm Ross, a nice name for a nice fellow. He is a single London barrister, quite professional and Victorian in the sense that he feels a deeply rooted repulsion towards the easy virtues that men in his position routinely enjoy. What he wants is a wife, a goddess he can place upon a pedestal and focus his awe upon until his ghost departs. We learn these facts quickly but as sidelights to another tale. A certain Margaret Trelawny, a young, retiring, raven-haired beauty, calls upon Ross to help her tend to her father Abel, who just happens to be a wealthy, world-famous Egyptologist and also just happens to have fallen into an unexplained hypnotic stupor. Ross comes racing in heart and leg only to find a wicked scene: the explorer is unconscious, bleeding from an odd scratch on a bangled wrist, his room of Egyptian antiquities sealed from within; he also lies at a strange angle to a safe whose contents shall remain unidentified for most of our story. A physician, a couple of incredulous policemen, and a band of snooping household staff all combine for a plain body of voices and visions – not one being of any particular interest – yet as a whole they provide a fine chorus for what is essentially a romance cast against a Gothic landscape. In the face of upped precautions the next night the event repeats itself (with the added bonus of a catatonic nurse), at which point Ross, a hopeless Romantic to begin with, now comes to consider that something otherworldly may be the catalyst. The policemen wish to instill in Ross the notion of empirical proof; the servants are aghast at the poltergeist-like attacks and quit in droves. But Ross is in love (detractors may carp that the novel devotes far too many pages to hand-holding and unrequited affection) and nothing on earth or beyond could drag him away from the object of his obsession. That is, until the appearance of a frantic polymath by the name of Corbeck.

A leather-faced collaborator of Margaret’s father just arrived from an operose three-year excursion on his partner’s dime, Corbeck’s degrees and level of learning are so extraordinary as to broach the inhuman. After some debate on the theft of a set of seven Pharaonic lamps that Corbeck insists are unique, Ross is handed a 17th-century Dutch travelogue on a tomb, a jewel, and a sinister mummy hand that guards that same jewel outside of its sarcophagus. The hand, you see, has seven fingers, and the jewel it protects contains the constellation of seven stars that appear to compose a sort of mandate from heaven. In time, we hear of a young and beautiful Queen Tera who inherits the throne as very much the envy of a theocratic cabal thirsting for power. We are regaled on stories of the Queen’s innovation and intelligence as our novel progresses, but that is not how the Dutch traveler van Huyn recalls an episode from his journey:

The fellaheen absolutely refused to enter the valley at such a time, alleging that they might be caught by the night before they could emerge from the other end. At first they would give no reason for their fear. They had hitherto gone anywhere I wished, and at any time, without demur. On being pressed, however, they said that the place was the Valley of the Sorcerer, where none might come in the night. On being asked to tell of the Sorcerer, they refused, saying there was no name, and that they knew nothing. On the next morning, however, when the sun was up and shining down the valley, their fears had somewhat passed away. Then they told me that a great Sorcerer in ancient days – ‘millions of millions of years’ was the term they used – a King or a Queen, they could not say which, was buried there. They could not give the name, persisting to the last that there was no name; and that anyone who should name it would waste away in life so that at death nothing of him would remain to be raised again in the Other World.

Ross reads on to find a fantastic sepulcher as well as the sorcerer in question – or at least, the curse that followed the desecrators and their loot. If you’ve seen a couple of mummy movies, the consequences of such greed will be quite clear to you.  As will the oddly parallel lives of Margaret and the much-beleaguered seven-fingered Queen.  

There are a few conclusions to draw about the novel that recommend themselves upon re-reading. We have the very distinct impression that our opening scene may not appear to be what it claims; we also comprehend that a human being who has willed herself seven digits cannot be holy. There is also the not nugatory matter of the novel’s two editions. The original, published to much vitriol in 1903, features an ending quite in keeping with the cataclysmic predictions of the forerunning chapters. It also contains a chapter omitted in the 1912 edition entitled “Powers – Old and New,” that holds forth elegantly and quite reasonably on the implications of the discovery at hand. While the ‘happy ending’ of the 1912 can at best be termed lamentable and at worst incoherent, the omission of the 1903 edition’s sixteenth chapter might be the more egregious sin. It is in this brief chapter that Ross, an introspective and overly sensitive young man, mulls history as a whole, its myths and its gods, the visions of artists who looked askance at the basic notions of divine power and glory:

The whole possibility of the Great Experiment to which we were now pledged was based on the reality of the existence of the Old Forces which seemed to be coming in contact with the New Civilization. That there were, and are, such cosmic forces we cannot doubt, and that the Intelligence, which is behind them, was and is. Were those primal and elemental forces controlled at any time by other than that Final Cause which Christendom holds as its very essence? If there were truth at all in the belief of Ancient Egypt then their Gods had real existence, real power, real force …. If then the Old Gods held their forces, wherein was the supremacy of the new? ….What was it that Milton saw with his blind eyes in the rays of poetic light falling between him and Heaven? Whence came that stupendous vision of the Evangelist which has for eighteen centuries held spellbound the intelligence of Christendom?

This is the precise reasoning of a Christian, but also of any monotheist gazing at the dynasties that allegedly yielded only one ruler who wished to believe in a single universal force. There is, anyway, something more than a little off-putting about gods with the heads of hyenas or birds. Not that you'd ever know that from all their modern acolytes. 

Friday
Jul112014

The Lair of the White Worm

We cannot realistically expect trifles in a work with such a name. There should be a gigantic worm and a commensurate lair (and here I find myself already echoing a famous review of the novel's loose and dreadful movie adaptation); there should also be victims for that worm – ideally, lured to the lair and left to scream themselves into agonizing death – a simple formula that could easily be botched by too much meddling and melodrama. There is, wonderful to say, only a moderate portion of the latter among pages of sparkling prose in this author's final novel. 

Our protagonist is Adam Salton, a young, roughly hewn Australian of proper upbringing who stands to inherit substantial wealth and territory from his British forebears. His plans for this turn of fortune are no different than those of any callow Victorian hero: survey the lay of the land, see what benefits might exist to abandoning the volatile adventure of youth for a sedentary life as a member of the provincial gentry, gain the trust and succor of the commonalty, and, of course, keep his eyes peeled for a nubile lass with whom his house can be made into a home. Two lovely possibilities immediately appear. Lilla Watford, "as good as she is pretty," and, a less obvious choice, her first cousin Mimi, half-Burmese with "black eyes [that] can glow .... as do the eyes of a bird when her young are threatened." As bright as the prospects for Adam and one of these women remain – being a man of inexperience, he is instinctively more attracted to the blonde Lilla – a long aquiline shadow is cast by the form of Edgar Caswall. I struggle now to recall a literary Edgar who was both gentle and sane, but no matter. The "history of the Caswall family is coeval with that of England," and our Edgar has been generated from like-minded snobs unaccustomed to challenges or laughter. In fact, their only custom seems to have been one of acquist:

Now, it will be well for you to bear in mind the prevailing characteristics of this race. These were well preserved and unchanging; one and all they are the same: cold, selfish, dominant, reckless of consequences in pursuit of their own will. It was not that they did not keep faith, though that was a matter which gave them little concern, but that they took care to think beforehand of what they should do in order to gain their ends. If they should make a mistake someone else should bear the burthen of it. This was so perpetually recurrent that it seemed to be a part of a fixed policy. It was no wonder indeed that whatever changes took place they were always ensured in their own possessions. They were absolutely of cold, hard nature. Not one of them so far as we have any knowledge was ever known to be touched by the softer sentiments, to swerve from his purpose, or hold his hand in obedience to the dictates of his heart. Part of this was due to their dominant, masterful nature. The aquiline features which marked them seemed to justify every personal harshness. The pictures and effigies of them all show their adherence to the early Roman type. Their eyes were full; their hair, of raven blackness, grew thick and close and curly. Their figures were massive and typical of strength.

It takes no great effort of our imagination to ponder the "idea that in the race there is some demoniac possession"; indeed, the experienced Gothicist would anticipate nothing less. Caswall will pin his cruel eyes on several characters, and they will squirm in various degrees of mesmerism until a filthy secret of his family's legacy is partially revealed, at which point Caswall assumes in our tale a very different role. But it is the appearance of an even more cunning and wicked character that unbalances our equation, and that being is Lady Arabella March.

Even if the contours of her thoughts are allotted relatively few paragraphs, Lady Arabella is one of literature's vilest creations. No one is surprised that her looks have the baleful sleekness and refinement of nature's most devilish predators, nor that her history with these lands – the ancient pagan Kingdom of Mercia, we are duly informed – seems to stretch as far back as that of dear old Edgar. Lady Arabella develops two mortal foes in the course of her attempts to get the very wealthy Edgar to marry her and forgive the mounting debts of her freshly deceased ex-husband: Oolanga, Caswall's ferocious and calculating African man-at-arms, and Sir Nathaniel de Salis, diplomatist, scholar, and President of the Mercian Archaeological Society. Sir Nathaniel is also necessarily somewhat of an expert on the local occult, making him a dramatic counterpart to this famed doctor. The diplomatist will consult regularly with Adam and smartly keep his distance from Lady Arabella, about whom he weaves theory and odd fact into terrible conclusions, but Oolanga cannot seem to let the woman out of his sight. Perhaps it is owing to her excitement at the portage to and fro of an old family chest said to contain "the secrets of Mesmer" himself; perhaps to the simple intuition that once Lady Arabella has Edgar and his rapidly declining mental health in her power, neither Caswall nor his new wife will have any use for an erstwhile witch doctor. Luck will be pressed, as well as a few triggers (rarely outside of modern noir novels does one find so many references to concealed revolvers), and unfortunately for some, most of the village is quite out of earshot.     

Modern readers will surely be repulsed at some of the characterizations of women, and, especially, of dark-skinned Africans, but the novel does not make our man-at-arms into anything more than a vulgar mercenary, which, if he's supposed to be friendly with Edgar Caswall, is well in keeping with the personalities of both villains. What is more, almost all the deprecations directed at him come from an even more abhorrent source. Lair of the White Worm may never be counted among Stoker's masterpieces, but it contains a fullness and ease that eluded many of his earlier works. Sumptuous lines, sometimes on the most banal of topics, are strewn on every page ("He found Sir Nathaniel in the study having an early cup of tea, amplified to the dimensions of possible breakfast"; "He was on the high road to mental disturbance"; "The rest and sleep in ignorance would help her and make a gap between the horrors"; "I don't believe in a partial liar. This art does not deal in veneer"). The storytelling vacillates at the natural unevenness of oral narrative, and confusion over some of the details forces the careful reader to retreat and verify just as a rapt listener would have asked a speaker to revisit a certain scene. Praise should likewise be accorded for the restraint through which our eponymous reptile crawls, literally and figuratively, to the surface towards all the other players. There is also an almost understated deduction that begins with, "if we followed it out" and ends with "is a snake." Even in books of this subject matter, logic has no true peer. And some islands, we remember, don't have snakes for a reason.

Sunday
May112014

The Judge's House

Happy people will agree that life above all other things is sacrosanct; unhappy people will care about little details or none at all. The qualms of conscience from which the vast majority of us suffer should therefore reflect our concerns, and the unhappy cannot be expected to worry themselves about the big picture. That is to say, if what plagues you is your coworker's hairstyle, salary, or ability, we cannot hope that you will have empathy for those who cannot afford meat much less envy. Some particularly woeful shades will even look down upon those who have nothing and claim that they are lazy and complacent (and I think I need not share my opinions on that approach to humanity). Yet it is true that we all quietly mete out imaginary sentences to those who have offended or betrayed our ideals or pride – which brings us to this terrible tale.

The premise is plausible enough: Malcom Malcomson, an advanced student of that coldest of sciences, mathematics, frets over his upcoming exams for which he needs absolute serenity. As such, the young man betakes himself by train to "the first name on the local time-table which he did not know." I say plausible enough because an utterly unfamiliar location would be as time-costly as one's own neighborhood, if in a very different way. In any case, Malcomson is convinced, perhaps foolishly, that all English villages have enough in common to allow for easy adaptation. When he arrives in Benchurch, he puts up at the town's only inn all the while looking for "quarters more isolated than even so quiet an inn as 'The Good Traveller' afforded." As it were, there was "only one place which took his fancy," a house that has been empty for so long that it has made itself a victim of "absurd prejudice." What type of "absurd prejudice," you may ask? One can well imagine what the villagers have in mind; but the only details provided to Malcomson relate to a nameless Judge who was particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his docket. He is warned that staying in such a residence might be detrimental to his spiritual well-being, an admonition he summarily dismisses. A man reading for his mathematics exams "has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious 'somethings.'" A bold statement made, of course, well before he has encountered any of the somethings in question.

I am naturally loath to reveal too much of a bad thing, but I will add a few more pieces to our puzzle. The general temperament of the house is transformed by a loving charwoman whom Malcomson hires, and he falls into the very student routine of work, dinner, more work, and tea (some prefer coffee, but that would be a tad continental). Slowly Malcomson realizes that he is not alone. His company is a pack of hateful plague-carrying rodents who at first do not scare as much as annoy him. Yet a strange occurrence attends his unwillingness to rid himself of these beasts and instead examine his shadowy surroundings:

The carving of the oak on the panels of the wainscot was fine, and on and round the doors and windows it was beautiful and of rare merit. There were some old pictures on the walls, but they were coated so thick with dust and dirt that he could not distinguish any detail of them, though he held his lamp as high as he could over his head. Here and there as he went round he saw some crack or hole blocked for a moment by the face of a rat with its bright eyes glittering in the light, but in an instant it was gone, and a squeak and a scamper followed. The thing that most struck him, however, was the rope of the great alarm bell on the roof, which hung down in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace. He pulled up close to the hearth a great high-backed carved oak chair, and sat down to his last cup of tea. When this was done he made up the fire, and went back to his work, sitting at the corner of the table, having the fire to his left. For a little while the rats disturbed him somewhat with their perpetual scampering, but he got accustomed to the noise as one does to the ticking of the clock or to the roar of moving water, and he became so immersed in his work that everything in the world, except the problem which he was trying to solve, passed away from him.

He suddenly looked up, his problem was still unsolved, and there was in the air that sense of the hour before the dawn, which is so dread to doubtful life. The noise of the rats had ceased. Indeed it seemed to him that it must have ceased but lately and that it was the sudden cessation which had disturbed him. The fire had fallen low, but still it threw out a deep red glow. As he looked he started in spite of his sang-froid. There, on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fire-place sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.

Those familiar with how such narratives function will come to conclusions which they will wonder why Malcomson himself did not entertain. And yet he goes on in his studies, flinging books at the rats that seem to come from the very darkness that wreathes the top of his study like, well, a giant noose.

Our tale is collected in this slender tome, long since relegated to the dusty shelves of more eccentric booksellers because its first story is improved upon in the opening chapter in this most famous of horror novels. Stoker's style is better when he observes from a neutral perspective, as his first-person narratives tend to be overwrought with the emotion a conventional Victorian mind would never openly admit it enjoyed (although it would have likely comprised a secret pleasure). When separated by third-person distance, he paints in much more terrifying colors because so much of horror stems from not knowing your adversary. And even that ignorance doesn't stop some very bright people.

Monday
Apr212014

Crooken Sands

I am quite happy to report that according to the intergalactic weapon known as Google, the eponymous town of this story does not seem to exist. Why should I be so pleased? Because there is something wholesome about wholly devised fiction unfettered by the necessity of deferring to historical fact or, much more egregiously, of drawing its power from it. Admittedly, this sounds like a distinct paradox since what feeds fiction – real faces, real tones, real words, real emotions – is undoubtedly derived from the banalities of the everyday. The difference is that first-rate fiction tilts objects, obscures gestures, and drowns out voices to achieve the maximum aesthetic effect.  Some mechanized minds might interrupt at this point and spout off a long German word which they claim, with some pomposity, has 'no equivalent in English'; others, even less original, will drone on about a mysterious 'circle of thinkers' collectively summoned as the Russian structuralists, a name which always reminds me for some reason of a mechanical brassière. The truth is that these 'circles' invariably involve no thought whatsoever, being simply staffed by backslapping mediocrities huddled together like prepackaged ballot boxes, so their reinventions of many a wheel should not distract the discerning reader from his enjoyments. And in a lovely little work like Crooken Sands, we do not wish to be distracted at all.

Our protagonist is a certain Arthur Fernlee Markam, whom I ought to describe in extenso as his image will prove to be a monument amidst the plot's wafting winds. Markam is an English merchant ("essentially a cockney") whose abiding dream is "to provide an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain." Markam is also a dutiful husband and father of three, if by dutiful one understands that while he needs his space and quiet every evening after a long and profitable business day, he buys his family all the best clothes and appurtenances so that they may join him in the glorification of their social status ("The prosperity of the business allowed them all sorts of personal luxuries, amongst which was a wide latitude in the way of dress"). Readers of these pages will know what I think of such persons, and they will also know what fate tends to befall them. In any case, Markam, as stereotypical a Philistine as one could possibly find in the annals of literature, decides that his crowning achievement as a man of culture is to don the tartan of a clan to which he has never belonged and parade around a Scots fishing village in full regalia. Some faint apprehension, however, prevents him from simply borrowing the Royal Stuart pattern – probably the only one Markam could ever distinguish from a pincushion. Instead, and just as appropriately, he orders for a "pretty stiff" check a custom design:

Mr. Markam foresaw difficulties if he should by chance find himself in the locality of the clan whose colours he had usurped. The MacCallum at last undertook to have, at Markam's expense, a special pattern woven which would not be exactly the same as any existing tartan, though partaking of the characteristics of many. It was based on the Royal Stuart, but contained suggestions as to simplicity of pattern from the Macalister and Ogilvie clans, and as to neutrality of colour from the clans of Buchanan, Macbeth, Chief of Macintosh and Macleod. When the specimen had been shown to Markam he had feared somewhat lest it should strike the eye of his domestic circle as gaudy; but as Roderick MacDhu fell into perfect ecstasies over its beauty he did not make any objection to the completion of the piece. He thought, and wisely, that if a genuine Scotchman like MacDhu liked it, it must be right—especially as the junior partner was a man very much of his own build and appearance.

"The MacCallum," by the way, is neither a pub nor an inn, but the "junior partner very much of" Markam's "build and appearance"; almost as importantly, the sartorial deputy also speaks "with a remarkable cockney accent." Markam makes his purchase but does not "take his family into his confidence regarding his new costume" as he could not be certain that he would remain "free from ridicule." Once at the sands, Markum does indeed insist on wearing his outfit and his children laugh their necks red about it. A tableware accident invites more mockery from his wife, and it is at this point that Markum, by all indications pig-headed in that manner particular to smug, clueless boors, decides that on all outings henceforth he and his martial dress shall not be parted.

That our description has barely passed the first page of the text of Crooken Sands is cogent testimony to Stoker's foresight. The story ambles at an easy pace – almost as a metronome of Markum's aimless strolls near and around the village cliffs – and concludes at precisely the same speed, although by then our (and our English merchant's) pulses are beating noticeably faster. Without slipping into sly hints at the story's arc, one would do well to brush up on one's Scots, both the tongue and the nomenclature, before tackling this tale. And while I generally abhor dialect as a stooge-like conceit of the uninspired author, a cat's paw to generate some ancient truism from infallible rustics, it earns its place here. In fact, the very likelihood that Markum does not quite fully comprehend the local speech seems to heighten the danger in which he soon finds himself. What sort of danger? Well, one of the sorts you associate with 'sands,' although perhaps not the first that comes to mind. Thus during the plight – it does become a plight for more than one reason – of our Mr. Markum, we may find ourselves recurring to Kipling: "He may be festooned with the whole haberdashery of success and go to his grave a castaway." If that be his besetting sin, then surely we can forgive him.   

Monday
Jun222009

Bram Stoker's Dracula 

One wonders why certain works of art attract us, and the common answer is that they respond to something that we lack in our own lives.  Desperate housewives will devour hunky, everlasting romances; pimply lads will become superheroes in the furrows of their imagination; old men will wax sentimental over movies contemporaneous to their youth.  Our modern fascination with tales of horror has provoked a slew of interpretations so banal that one cannot but impute this banality to the interpreters themselves, and the less said about these silly theories the better.  Yet this fascination is long-standing.  For those of faith, evil is as real as goodness – even realer in the sense that evil invariably predicates the destruction of good and cannot exist in any sort of vacuum.  The tangibility of the horrors of war, famine, pestilence, or ethnic cleansing cannot be mimicked in art, only referenced.  So as we let our fancies drift into ancient castles, unlock rusted wards, and pore over wicked tomes, we feel a need to confront these baleful shapes – and then something very odd occurs.  Amidst every malediction and ghoul that might infect our thoughts, we desire for a brief moment – indeed, perhaps even a while longer – the possession of that shape because that shape is power over the commonality of our existence.  Each of us wants to be not only a superior among men, but also privy to what lies on the other side of the ineluctable modality of the visible.  Evil, for whatever you might conceive it to be, offers us the straightest path to knowledge, even if what it teaches us is that we should appreciate every iota of our earthbound life and treat it like the flaxen stream it is.  Which explains our First Disobedience, as well as this immortal tale.

As one might expect from a production bold enough to invoke a deceased author's blessing, the plot closely follows that of the book.  At the acme of Victorian storytelling in the late nineteenth century, a young barrister by the name of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) sits aboard an East European train on his way to meet a Romanian count (Gary Oldman) who needs little introduction.  His travels are true to the fantastic opening passages of the novel, and the aura of mystery and dread could not be richer or more imminent.  During this obvious precursor to very bad things Reeves remains unflurried and almost impassive, which led to some nastiness in the reviews of the film and whispers of mediocrity.  Whatever one may think of his thespian abilities, Reeves's casting is correct: his natural stiffness and timidity reflect the average citizen's view on unusual matters.  Harker may be the only one in the theater who does not find the wizened freakish count to resemble a grotesque, long-nailed cadaver, but he is also not in full possession of what else the count could be if not a human being.  The solipsistic age of reason (a most regrettable misnomer) bred a certain type of man: the skeptic who took the longest time to admit that he did not or could not know how to explain the phenomena of his immediate environment.  Harker is essential because as he overnights within the Count's lifeless walls, he will witness a host of terrible events and in some of them even be implicated.  These will include an abominable tower and moat, three vixens and a baby, a mirror and a razor, and a series of unspeakable occurrences that he confesses only to his diary and to us.

Whom he cannot inform is his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who awaits him in the company of her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Lucy's triptych of hapless suitors.  The difference between the book and the film is an element that could only be theatrical and which is actually revealed by Ryder's presence in the very first scene not as Mina Murray.  Whether this conceit simply panders to the juvenile whims of the target audience depends on rather subjective notions of coincidence in art, although it can be said that in context the addition does more good than harm.  I would even go as far to say that it solves, in an artistic fashion, the main structural weakness of the original: namely, why on earth Dracula wished to leave the country in which he was practically invulnerable to expose himself to constant danger in a city brimming with enemies.  Mina worries aloud, a tidy way of containing the novel's original epistolary format, whilst the Count approaches, communicating through former barrister Renfield (Tom Waits) as around Gibraltar heads a boat replete with crates of his native soil (perhaps never in cinematic history has there been a crew so doomed).  Upon landfall, the Count begins plotting and scheming his way into the lives of strangers, all of which serves an ulterior motive.  Lucy becomes very ill from a mysterious sickness unknown to conventional science; an old abbey is attorned to a certain tall, dark foreigner; Mina suspects that Jonathan has fallen on very black days in that distant kingdom even though he is forced to pre-write a number of calming if overly plain letters sporadically mailed by the Count; and Renfield, who languishes in an asylum, has been predicting the arrival of his Master.  And what happens next will involve a hunt of the implacable monster who will flash enough of his former humanity to inflate what could have been a unerring fable into something deeper and more plausible. 

The pleasantries of the film are so numerous that we forget how simple and operatic the plot machinations really are.  Apart from sumptuous wardrobes and effects that convince us we have entered another dimension, the casting of all the main characters betrays Coppola's intuition for harmony among actors whose looks could easily have them mistaken for the heartthrobs of a daytime soap.  The exception to these pretty people is Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), a grizzled Dutchman and specialist on obscure diseases, as well as a perfect foil to the monster he "has been pursuing all his life."  He hijacks the search for answers and is necessarily branded a mystagogue; in time the other parties concur with his outrageous conclusions and finally know almost as much as we do.  Van Helsing alters every aspect of the film's course while also becoming its true crusader and detective; in the book, by contrast, more is accomplished by the peripheral characters although this may be a function of its inflexible structure.  That we first meet the Dutchman as he is making an old academic pun on an unfortunate pair of near-homophones indicates we must change our perceptions accordingly, and his humor and foreignness are much needed in the otherwise morbid London alleyways.  Not that you would want to go anywhere near those places.