It is so easy to reinterpret Dracula because none of the book is admissible in court. Every word of it is hearsay.
I was eight when I first read Dracula. I can be specific about that because it was the year Frank Langella played the Count on the silver screen. My father, as an apology of sorts for a particularly nasty bout of drinking and coming home to throw furniture around, brought me to see it. In retrospect, he must have been feeling particularly guilty. We didn't do "father-son" stuff, and when we did, it was usually him trying to get me to throw a football around rather than stay in my room with my horror comics. Taking me to Dracula was almost sorta kinda like actually condoning my weird tastes.
He devoured books the way the Count went through English virgins.
Whatever else might be said of my father, he was a reader. A voracious one. He devoured books the way the Count went through English virgins. He also had a gift, and I have been frustrated all my life that I didn't inherit it, for remembering every word he read. Right down to the page it was on. So over a burger and fries after the film, he mentioned to me that Dracula was a novel. A "classic." Maybe, he suggested, I should read it. Again, this was mind-blowing. Dad was always trying to get me to read, but books about Babe Ruth and Sitting Bull. This was Dracula. My interest piqued, he then took me to the bookstore to pick up the paperback.
I didn't go for the movie tie-in one, with a blow-dried Langella on the cover looming over a woman clearly in the midst of a massive orgasm (not that at eight I picked that up, mind you). No...I was intrigued by the one beside it, showing a pale, balding old man with white hair, a mustache, and fangs. "That's what he really looks like," my father told me. "The movies all get that wrong."
Those words were magic to me. It meant that my father had actually read Dracula in the past, something inconceivable to me at that stage of our relationship. But the wording, what he really looks like, was more magical still. It meant the Counts in the movies were just actors; the real Dracula was out there somewhere looking like an old man.
I went home with that edition.
In modern terms, the Count is Hannibal Lecter. He is brilliant, sophisticated, and Old World. He also happens to be a remorseless killer that eats people.
Stoker's novel is nothing like any of the film versions. No, not even Coppola's over-the-top exploration of Catholic guilt or Louis Jourdan's suave Continental seducer come close. In modern terms, the Count is Hannibal Lecter. He is brilliant, sophisticated, and Old World. He also happens to be a remorseless killer that eats people. Yes, there is sexual tension there, but we all know there was a bit of that between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster too. It doesn't make Lecter a Byronic hero, and neither should it make Dracula. But with the exception of Murnau's Nosferatu, film makers seem obsessed with the sex. It has gotten so bad that these days vampires even sparkle. But I digress.
Giving (Dracula) a sympathetic backstory makes as much sense as giving the shark in Jaws one.
The point is, of course, that Stoker was writing about a monster...not a man looking for the reincarnation of his lost love (a part of the Dracula myth stolen from Karloff's The Mummy via Barnabas Collins), not a man who surrenders his humanity in a heroic bid to save his land (as per the plot of the new Dracula Untold). A monster. Giving him a sympathetic backstory makes as much sense as giving the shark in Jaws one.
But of course, this is something that plagues horror in general and Dracula in particular. Uncomfortable with the idea that we get off on the sick little thrill of being afraid, we keep looking for ways to make horror intellectual. "Dracula," an English teacher once informed me, "was about Anglo-Saxon England's fear of the Eastern European. A dark and swarthy aristocrat comes and rapes Lucy Westerna, whose name means 'light of the West.'" Then she sneered when I told her I thought it was about 'a vampire.'
Dracula lends itself to this sort of thing because Stoker wrote a four-hundred page Rorschach blot. The master stroke of the novel is that we barely ever see Count Dracula at all. Again, like the damn shark in Jaws, he only pops up when it is time to feed. But we feel him. His presence saturates every page. And these days, when people keep going on about Gone Girl and the novel's use of the unreliable narrator, it is useful to point out this is exactly what made Dracula work. The novel is told through diary entries and newspaper clippings, and half the time the narrators are writing about things they don't understand the significance of. Stoker's book is the equivalent of rounding up witnesses to a crime...each of whom gives a slightly different account. It is so easy to reinterpret Dracula because none of the book is admissible in court. Every word of it is hearsay.
What does Dracula look like? Old? Young? Is he clean-shaven or does he have a pointy black beard? What is he doing in London, really? Does he kill Lucy or is it that quack Van Helsing, who is a "devout Catholic" despite having no problems desecrating the Host, is a "polymath linguist" who can barely speak English, and gives his patient dozens of transfusions from multiple donors despite not knowing the first fucking thing about blood types? This is why there have been 170 film versions, countless TV appearances, and hundreds of literary retellings. Because we don't know any of the answers. Alongside Jack the Ripper, the Count remains Victorian England's grisliest unsolved mystery.
We don't even know if he is dead. After painstaking reams of vampire lore are poured on us by Van Helsing, all telling us how difficult Dracula will be to kill and how he needs to be staked in his grave, his head cut off and mouth stuffed with garlic before burning the body...he is dispatched by getting stabbed with a knife. Maybe. At sunset his body vanishes into a cloud of dust, and the vampire hunters celebrate. But Van Helsing told us the vampire can shapeshift at sunset, midnight, or sunrise (not at will as in the movies), and witnesses have already seen the Count turn into motes of dust before. Has Van Helsing suddenly acquired Alzheimer's and forgotten all his lore? Have they all?
It is these cracks, these plot holes, that Dracula achieves greatness, because everyone fills them in differently. It is why we can keep going back to it. While each retelling seizes a shadow of the story and rides it, the original is a whirlwind of uncertainty. And nothing scares like the unknown.
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