Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Rating: 4 Stars

Pity the Vampire. He’s been sadly diminished in the ranks of mythical monsters. Whereas once he was a demonic menace to be thwarted with holy relics and garlands of garlic; now he’s the love-object of moony-eyed women in frothy fantasies. In movies he’s portrayed by preternaturally pale pretty boys who engage in soulful romances. It’s enough to make any self-respecting vampire gnash his long canines in rage. Meanwhile, serious readers cling to their classics like they were almighty crucifixes, in an attempt to ward off this terrifying surge of inanity. If you want to see evil, shorn of any pretense of glamor, it’s better to turn to the original.

The conjunction of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, and ‘Dracula’ forms the unholy trinity that laid the foundation for Horror fiction, which truly came into its element in the 20th. century. Though I have an unabashed preference for classics, Horror is not a genre that I’m enthusiastic about. I certainly did not expect to enjoy ‘Dracula’ to the extent I did.

There are three main strands to the plot. First, we see Jonathan Harker, a newly-minted solicitor on business in Transylvania. He’s been engaged by Count Dracula to act as his agent in the purchase of estates in England. The meticulous-minded but naïve young man soon realizes that he’s a prisoner, not a guest of the sinister count. Leaving him locked up in his castle, Dracula makes his way to England, where Lucy Westenra, a fluffy-brained but sweet-natured young woman pays a high price for her sleep-walking tendencies. Alerted to the menace that threatens London, four gallant young vampire-hunters under the leadership of the steely-willed Professor Van Helsing make it their mission to hunt down the monster.

It’s a commonly known fact that Bram Stoker based his 1897 book, on a Romanian prince – Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul – whose cruelty was legendary, and far more shudder-invoking than any work of fiction. Stoker was a journalist, and this reveals itself in the book, as the entire story unfolds in the form of journals, letters, or news articles. Not the most direct form of narration but it’s a testament to Stoker’s story-telling skills that despite this circuitous technique, the story loses not an iota of suspense or narrative tension. Stoker’s oeuvre is a page-turner; and you cannot say that about too many books that are more than a hundred years old.

 The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and each journal entry or letter conveys with a charming ring of realism the character of the person writing – whether it’s in the intimate confidences between two young women, or a memo by a traveller to get the recipes of new dishes for his fiancée. On the whole, the sensibility pervading the book is refreshingly modern. The book’s main characters are each individuated, but they have one thing in common, a touching but quite believable earnestness and nobility of purpose. In his depiction of evil too, Stoker shows nuanced subtlety; as in the deranged behavior of Renfield, an inmate at the lunatic asylum; the victims who become victimizers in their turn; and, the count who is a monster now but was not always so.

The problem with the slew of contemporary publications dealing with the undead as their subject is that, they glorify and romanticize that which should be reviled. For horror to be taken seriously as literature, the work has to be informed with a moral intelligence – an awareness of the existence of good and evil, and allotting each to its rightful place in the scheme of the universe. Lacking that, it’s nothing more than junk food for the brain.

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