When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Original Sources Are Sometimes Better Than Modern Interpretations

I don't like vampire stories, as a rule. I tend to shy away from them whenever possible. I will admit to a brief liking of the movie "Interview with a Vampire"--I was a teen and had a short-lived fascination with Brad Pitt after seeing "Legends of the Fall," so I can be forgiven. But I haven't really been able to get into the whole vampire craze. You will most likely never catch me reading a Twilight book. I'm not judging those who do. I do know that the premise does not appeal to me. So, I was a little reluctant to read Dracula by Brahm Stoker. I'm really glad I did, though.

Why did I pick it up in the first place if I don't like vampires? I got this crazy idea to read as many of the source materials/novels that formed the basis for the old classic movie monsters from Universal Studios. I happened to have a copy of Dracula that I picked up during one of my book-buying binges many years ago. I thought I should at least give it a shot since it started this whole vampire movement. I don't remember if I actually ever saw the 1930s Dracula with Bela Lugosi in its entirety, though it's been referenced in so many movies, shows, books, etc. that I feel almost as if I have. I do vaguely remember bits and pieces of "Brahm Stoker's Dracula" with Keanu Reeves, mostly because this version was spoofed in a Simpsons Halloween special. Therefore, I did not go into this reading with a clean slate, but a mostly ignorant one at least.

It did take me a while to get into story, as the language is a bit different from what I'm used to reading or hearing or speaking. Then again, as I tend to be quite verbose myself, I could begin to relate after a while. I do love the novel approach of writing the story as a collection of journal and diary entries. At first I thought the entire book would be from Jonathan Harker's journal, but I was pleased when it switched perspectives. Stoker did an excellent job of infusing each journal with the character's personality while still maintaining the flow of the story. You don't worry about missing any story while one character is narrating and you don't have to deal with overlap as journaling characters interact. I would have very much liked to learn a little more background on Dr. Van Helsing and Renfield, however. These two main characters were left shrouded in mystery still. There is a website, Dracula Bites, that attempts to fill in some holes or imagine more background information for the story.

I'm sure some people will complain about the perceived sexist issues in the story. However, you must remember the time in which the book was actually written. This is Victorian England and society, especially middle-class and high society, was quite different from our modern post-sexual revolution American ideas. Even so, Mina Harker is a surprisingly strong individual who embodies both the feminine ideals of caring and tenderness and the more masculine trait of a quick analytical mind. I also like the touch of strong faith she has, even though no character ever seems to go to a church service of any kind. Still, there is more to religion than ritual meetings. It's nice to see the protective stance that the men take toward Mina, while she does her best to make a contribution to their efforts to take down Count Dracula. She does not want to be a pretty bauble under glass. She wants to be a part of the team. And she proves to be a valuable team member indeed.

As a psychologist, I was originally interested in the take on Dr. John Seward and his representation of psychiatry. I was not surprised to find him representative of the stereotype of psychiatrists during this time period--extremely analytical, curious and dying to conduct experiments, sometimes coldly thinking more about the disease than the patient. At least he wasn't a homicidal psychopath like Hannibal Lector or Dr. Johnathan Crane or a wreck when it comes to personal relationships like many modern therapists in the media (e.g. Frasier Crane, Jennifer Melfi, Ben Sobel, Dr. Leo Marvin, etc.). The fact that he has a life outside his asylum, and yet spends so much time thinking of his patients, gives the impression that he has come close to finding a balance between work and home life. This is rare with many portrayals of professionals of any kind; audiences usually see mostly one side of their lives and only a tiny glimpse of the rest.

I also found the quick friendships and the hunters' general dynamic to be quite intriguing. It's amazing how quickly near-complete strangers became so close so quickly. It's endearing how much they actually cared for one another even as they agreed to face potential death in their endeavors. It is also interesting that expertise and ability, rather than status, lead to a change in leadership as the situation warranted. One could argue that Van Helsing was really in charge, yet everyone, even Mina, had a moment in which they directed the others on one point or another during their work.

One thing that really surprised me was the complexity of the superstition about vampires that is contained in this one book. I always thought that only a few powers were granted to Dracula in the original story (turning into a bat, hypnotizing his victims) and any other powers were inventions of later authors. I also assumed that there were only a few weapons that a vampire hunter could use against the Un-Dead. Nope. Van Helsing details a whole slew of other abilities--and weaknesses--of the vampire all in this one story. I guess what happened in subsequent vampire stories was a trimming down of the superstitions around them.Too bad. In Brahm Stoker's version the vampire is a truly formidable foe. There are many good reasons for the characters to fear him.

Overall, this was not nearly as bloody a story (in body count, anyhow) as one would expect from one of the premier horror monster stories. It's a mental thriller and a subtle mystery. Even if you know the story, as I did, from watching many of the other re-tellings over the years, it is refreshing to go back to the source. I found many plot points left out of the reincarnations that made the story that much more enjoyable. If anything, I can appreciate Brahm Stoker's work much more for its purity after having experienced some of the stories that he inspired in later generations. I can say the same thing for Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well. Although, Frankenstein did not have as abrupt an ending as Dracula did. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many people have built upon the mythology that Brahm Stoker began (in media, anyway) with his novel.

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