WARNING: This piece veers into Gothic lit, Venezuelan politics, a brief exposition of Victorian hangups on sexuality, and ends with the mention of another of the joys of Halloween. These seemingly random shifts occur without warning.
Halloween fast approacheth. I just finished rereading one of my favorite novels, probably the first Gothic novel I ever read and a classic of 19th century literature (though in its day it wasn’t considered much more than an exciting adventure story): Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I still remember my first encounter with the book, and how it cemented my belief that classic books can be just as riveting as any thriller. Perhaps, though, I was also primed towards seeking escape in the uncertain darkness of the Gothic in the face of the political unease and uncertainty of the time:
The date I began the book was early February, 2003. I had just purchased the novel at a Barnes and Noble on a recent trip to Florida for Christmas. I was in 8th grade, and it was the first Christmas I had spent in Florida since 1998. We chose not to remain in Caracas, but we couldn’t go to Kingston, Jamaica, where my family usually spent Christmas. This was because that Christmas we were in the midst of the Venezuelan paro: the country-wide general strike initiated by the opposition against Hugo Chavez’s despotic regime.
It was a very political year: preceded by an attempted presidential coup d’état in the spring, the strike meant, among many things, that from December 2002 to February 2003, many businesses closed their doors, universities and schools shut down, and political protests took place daily, sometimes with explosive results: for example, on December 6th, my father was called in the evening to work at the hospital (on his birthday, no less): 3 people had been killed, and 28 wounded, at the Altamira Plaza (in a busy urban district of town) in the wake of a protest. Doesn’t sound too serious I suppose, but it’s hard for me to imagine such a thing happening at the Boston Common, vague yet spirited efforts by movements such as Occupy Boston notwithstanding.
While the strike was an exciting, tangible move on the part of the opposition, it was doomed to fail from the start since the strike was not, could not be unanimous: the most politically fervent of the strikers went out of business when faced with, shall we say, “less passionate” competition who kept their doors open. Ultimately, the strike caused several economic and unemployment problems, not to mention a strong dip in the Opposition’s morale.
The strike, at least from this 13 year old’s perspective, meant pretty basic things. I was out of school for approximately 3 months; I had to find my school assignments posted online (which was not at ALL the norm back then; I barely used my email back then, and then just for Messenger); I didn’t see my friends often; the lines for gasoline were horrendous and averaged 2-4 hours, but it wasn’t my parents’ problem since they were both doctors, and thus exempt from said lines.
That was the year my dad took me for walks in the trails of the Avila mountains (see below) to take his mind of his worries; that was the year I decided to give every family member a Christmas present I would make myself, and I had plenty of time to put them together; that was the year I taught myself how to play several Christmas carols on the piano; that was the year I first experienced tear-gas, as a bus my nanny and I were riding (a novelty for me) towards downtown got caught in a skirmish between cops and protesters. I remember less vividly the burning sensation that hits your eyes and throat way before you notice anything different about the air, and more vividly the fact that I struggled to close a bus window, and those around me calmly discouraged me, telling me doing so would keep the gas in and that it was better to air it out; they had sat through the experience many times before.
I lay in bed, and looked at the clock. It was 12:38 AM, and I was wide awake. After three months out of school, I was so excited about seeing my friends and going back to class that I, quite literally, couldn’t sleep, a very rare occurrence for me. I felt so ridiculously wide awake, that I reached for my new book on my bedside table. I opened to the first page and read:
“Left Munich at 8:35 p.m. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but the train was an hour late.” (Chapter 1, Dracula)
Not exactly a candidate for the “Exciting or Memorable Opening Lines of Novels” Hall of Fame.
But believe it or not, I read straight through til 6:00 AM, when I had to get up for school, and felt just as wide awake when I put it down. I was immediately drawn to the novel, despite it’s seemingly choppy form, consisting of journal entries and letters from various protagonists in the novel. This book was my entry into a world where tidy or untidy human concerns took a backseat to dark, unnatural influences: tear gas could only concern you so much when the ominous presence of a bat with red eyes made itself known in the dead of night, or a suspicious mist rolled across your yard and crept, slowly and surely, towards your slightly cracked window…
* * *
If you want to know all the important things about vampires, stop reading this post and buy this book immediately. Don’t be deceived by its appearance as a kids book: Martin Jenkins’ work contains all the vital basics and several more toothsome tidbits. It includes a short graphic-novel version of Stoker’s Dracula (what motivated me to read the original), a review of real world “vampires” (creatures of the natural world that actually feed on blood, such as vampire bats and leeches), a summary of vampire lore, ranging from ancient Hindu and Chinese myths to the classic, languorous, evil black-caped count (insert quick rant: thank the Heavens and the Earth and all the gods which inhabit them that this book was published in 2000, before that abomination known as Twilight and its ilk managed to wriggle their way into public perceptions of “modern vampires” (read: sublimated teenage romantic and sex fantasies expressed “safely” by the media through the use of mythical creatures)), and finally, a movie guide to the best vampire films, from the creepy Nosferatu to the rather silly Plan 9 from Outer Space, and everything in between. And look at the cool cover!
Basically, vampires (when they’re not running around showing off their glimmering, Greek-physique-inspired torsos) are fun to read about and watch. They’re creepy, they’ve changed plenty over the centuries, but one thing is for sure: they want to suck your blood. And they are EVIL: end of story.
But to bring it back to Dracula: I think that, for me, that’s what made the book so exciting. I’m no Victorian responding with delight to Stoker’s new novel, or to John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, the 1819 novella which started the whole “modern” (to use this inaccurate term quite loosely) craze with vampires in fiction. Knowing what I did about vampires made the book suspenseful in a different way for me: I couldn’t help but be galvanized that while Van Helsing and John Seward puzzled over Lucy’s mysterious wasting disease, they didn’t notice as I did the soft flapping wings of the Count (in his bat form) at the window. I knew what dangers the Count entailed, and watching these Victorians run around trying to escape his evil grasp was made all the more fun by my omniscient knowledge.
Of course, besides establishing modern vampire lore which future generations would cling to (often erroneously: e.g. in Stoker’s book, the Count sleeps in his coffin by day, but there is no suggestion the sun would harm him; this detail was added later), there are also plenty of sociological themes in Stoker’s book. To make one small mention: I knew I had to be on the lookout for blatant examples of Victorian sexual repression. While I had mostly ignored in my youth said expressions of sexuality in the book, I had to laugh when I reread the following passage describing the bite marks Dracula has left on Lucy Westenra’s throat:
“…there were two punctures, not large, but not wholesome-looking. There was no sign of disease, but the edges were white and worn-looking, as if by trituration.” (pg. 134, Penguin Classics edition).
I might add that this lovely edition of Stoker’s classic defines trituration as “rubbing or bruising”. In short: the Count keeps drawing blood from Lucy, by thrusting into those holes continuously and draining her life force, chaffing her all the while. Crass? I know. But it’s still funny.
It was a good reread. Action-packed at some moments, full of compelling and endearing, if occasionally two-dimensional, characters throughout, so sexist at times it made me want to scream: I highly recommend it.
As Halloween draws closer, I plan on describing my experiences with that other dark, bloodstained, evil-infused work: Macbeth. Stay tuned.