Monday, February 22, 2021

What Compelled Me to Reread Dracula During Lockdown?

I don't know how it started, but I think it was something in the NYT crossword, something to do with Keanu Reeves. My partner said, "Keanu Reeves was in Dracula." Wait, what? From the miracle of modern self-surveillance, I know that I looked it up and learned that Keanu Reeves did not play Dracula (thank god) but rather Jonathan Harker, the lawyer. Whether Gary Oldman is any less WTF as Dracula I leave as an exercise to the reader.

I have a long history with Dracula, a book that obsessed my father when I was a kid. My father was the kind of guy where a lot of things were like 80 percent jokes and 20 percent serious and others were 20 percent jokes and 80 percent serious and it was always a little murky, probably even in his own mind, where we stood on things. After his annual rereading, my father would sleep with garlic under his pillow out of fear. You might think that's the 80 percent joke, but this was a man whose nightmares tended to actual devils actually chasing him, so I'm not so sure.

Later, I had the widely shared adolescent girl experience of being "into" vampires, whatever that means. I watched the movie The Hunger over and over, and read a lot of Anne Rice. My first reading of Dracula, around that time, I had a vivid sense of the erotic in the vampires' ways -- you may not remember this, but these are literally described as "voluptuous" in the book. Poor Jonathan Harker, on meeting the women in the castle who want to drink his blood, describes their voluptuousness as "both thrilling and repulsive." I remembered the book as basically anti-vampire, but not in any particular way.

On this rereading, by contrast, I felt the full weight of the Christian anti-sex moralizing. As Lucy's appearance begins to shift toward the vampiric zone, her friends are disgusted by the new sensuality of her face; after they destroy her body to free her from Dracula's spell, they're thrilled to see her previous sweet, pure expression and physiognomy return. A "diabolical sweetness" allows vampires to express love and desire to seduce new recruits. I guess I'm as against killing people and sucking their blood as anyone else, but this framing struck me as depressing and dumb.

Rereading Dracula during lockdown, I couldn't help but notice that it's partly a travel book. The best part of the story is when Jonathan Harker first goes to Transylvania, ostensibly to help the Count with some clerical matters, and slowly gets caught up in Dracula's web. There are trains, and ships, and transfers to carriages, and rides on horses. I was like, "Oh yeah -- travel!" Of course, so much of that late nineteenth-century mode, of going to truly unknown places and being completely cut off from anything familiar, is totally lost to us now. These days, Jonathan Harker could read on Yelp, "Castle looks interesting but they will kill you and drink your blood. One star."

The most melancholy aspect of my reading experience was the way that it was stupidly mediated by all the ridiculous parodies, take-offs, and remakes of the Dracula story that I've encountered in my time. Chief among these was the 1979 film Love at First Bite, which as a kid I saw on TV multiple times and found hilarious and awesome. How could I not love a vampire movie that featured the classic disco song "I Love the Nightlife"? There's also Young Frankenstein, which takes place at a castle in Transylvania for who knows what reasons. Memories of those films made me see Renfield as an annoying twerp, the horses and wolves under Dracula's command as side-shows, and even the Count himself in the light of a ridiculous show-boater.

Overall, the whole thing was a sadder and less fun affair than I'd hoped it would be, though whether that's because I'm old, or because of lockdown, or because the book isn't really that good is totally unclear.


coltravision said...

Great read!

Katy said...

I love Dracula! Not so much for the book itself, but because I had so much fun reading the New Annotated Dracula a few years ago. It was my first read of the novel. The editor treats the book like a work of non-fiction, really, like a travel log. It is a mystery, and the editor must piece together the timeline from the book (a timeline which has many wholes in it).

My memory of Lucy was that she served as a way to forge relationships between men. She herself wasn't as important as how she served as that bridge. Very sad indeed.

thefringthing said...

The Icelandic "translation" of Dracula is a different story, which went unnoticed in the English-speaking world until very recently: