We Learn from Failure, not from Success
The next book on my quest to eighty was Dracula. Another classic that I somehow made it thirty years without ever reading. Seems crazy given the amount of cross-cultural influence Bram Stoker’s book has had over the years. I know that the idea of vampires predates Dracula, but surely it has done more to encourage this genre than anything that came before it in folklore. Dracula feels like one of those stories, that even if you haven’t read it, you could almost describe the whole plot thanks to decades of osmosis from adaptations.
Therefore, I won’t bother to summarize it anymore than to say that it jumps between a handful of main characters whose paths eventually converge and become united in their goal to find and destroy Count Dracula before he can build an army of the undead in England. One of the most fascinating things is the fashion in which it is written. Dracula is an epistolary novel: a book written using a series of documents (e.g. letters, journals, newspaper articles, etc.). It's something I would love to experiment with one day. The subtle effect of this narrative device is that once lost in the story, you believe you are reading history, not fiction.
In Dracula, there are journals by Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray Harker; diaries by Dr. Seward and Lucy Westenra; newspaper articles from ‘The Dailygraph’ and ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’; and several letters written by the characters and sent to each other. They all serve to bridge each character’s storyline and they use everything to piece together a timeline of events to help them track down Dracula. Brilliant.
My favourite one of these in the entire novel didn’t even involve any of the main characters. It was a brief four pages devoted to ‘the Log of the Demeter’; a captain’s log found on the ill-fated ship Dracula has charted to carry him to England.
Reading those pages, I thought to myself, this would make for an incredible adaptation, something menacing and eerie like the BBC mini-series And Then There Were None or AMC’s The Terror. The hopeful screenwriter in me raced with ideas for scenes. The series opening with the ship crashing through the silent fog in the dead of night, into the sleepy fishing village of Whitby. The grisly discovery of the crewman who somehow tied both hands together and fastened them to the wheel while clutching a bloodied crucifix. Finding the captain’s log which leads into the strange and horrible happenings aboard the doomed Demeter along its journey to England. Sailors vanishing without a trace, some driven mad and jumping overboard. Death and despair hanging in the air. Unnatural sounds coming from the massive crates in the cargo store. A tall thin man who we only catch fleeting glimpses. Has the crew gone mad? What is real? What unholy spirit torments them?
That starts me thinking, could I ever adapt this? Write a script? How would I even go about starting? Has it been done before? Then I look on IMDB and there’s already a film adaptation in the works called The Last Voyage of the Demeter. So… How do I get a part in that? Do I somehow get in touch with the director myself or nudge my agent? I digress. This is a blog about reading and writing so let’s get back on track. As far as the writing goes, Stoker is an inspiration.
His ability to make each character read uniquely with each journal, diary or letter adds to the authenticity of the story. It reinforces the feeling that you are reading history not fiction. Each character is so dissimilar that you can picture them and hear their distinct voice vividly in your mind. These are real people. They have lived these events. As for narrative description, take this passage from Jonathan Harker’s Journal when he first arrives at Castle Dracula for example:
“What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall. What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear—in awful fear—and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.”
Now I might have been reading that part in bed at night with just a book light on, but it gave me goosebumps. It was the kind of passage where I had to take a quick glance towards my bedroom window and make sure no such creature was scaling the walls outside. It’s writing that heightens your senses as you read. Again, brilliant.
If there was one thing I didn’t care much for, it was the way the two main female characters were portrayed. Both Lucy and Mina, while having some moments of strong character development, are stereotypical damsels in distress. The male characters are always espousing how delicate, innocent and weak willed the women are. How the horrific things they see and the terrible tasks they must undertake are no place for a women. When it comes down to it, the gritty work must fall to the men. Men are strong and brave. Now, women can be strong and brave too, just in more...'womanly ways'.
Even after Mina has worked tirelessly to piece together all these letters, journals, and diaries to collect every scrap of evidence that she can as to where Dracula might be hiding, Van Helsing recommends she sit out the climax of the story.
“Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us; after to-night she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined—nay, are we not pledged?—to destroy this monster; but it is no part for a woman.”
Basically, thank you for all your hard work, but now it’s time to step aside and let the men take over, it’s no part for a woman. It also doesn’t help that just before this he writes, “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain”. Really?
I don't know, but perhaps this was how most male writers of the time wrote their women characters. It was written in 1897 after all. Unfortunately, this sentiment was repeated throughout the book by all the male characters, even her husband. Coincidentally, while writing this blog I happened to see a promotion for an upcoming show called Dracula: The Untold Story. It’s a new adaptation from the perspective of Mina Harker herself! Maybe they can do this iron-willed character some justice by making her the star of the show.
A last little aside before I close out here. In my copy of Dracula, there’s a brief introduction about Bram’s life. It mentioned a short story collection set in the theatrical world called Snowbound. A group of actors snowed up on a train, telling each other stories around a fire, trying not to freeze to death! Being an actor, I thought that would make for a great read as well as potential adaptation material. I went to do an Amazon search for the paperback and somehow typed in Bam Stroker by mistake. I’ll let you imagine what search results that got me.
All in all, I adored Dracula and am very glad that I decided to finally read it. I know I said the same thing about Dune, but I would really like to give this another read at some point. It’s also got me invested in Bram Stoker as an author and now I want to check out some of his other less popular work like Snowbound, or The Lair of the White Worm. Perhaps I’ll be doing another blog post at some point this year on those titles. Until then, I’ve got a backlog of five books that I’ve read, but just haven’t found the time to write any blogs about. I don’t mind falling behind on that part, it’s the reading I must endeavour to keep up with if I’ll have any chance to make it to eighty books by the end of the year. It’s already May and I’ve only read six books. God! I really need to pick up the pace.