Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Dark Adventure - Dracula

As a kid I loved fantasy and sci-fi movies and stories and so I missed the whole fascination that many of peers had with horror films, classic and otherwise. Sure I knew about vampires and werewolves, but I never really saw a vampire movie till “The Lost Boys”. My first exposure to any form of Dracula was actually the 1992 Coppola version. I really like that film, in spite of its flaws, and at the time it really captured my imagination. I ended up seeking out Bram Stoker’s book and was amazed by two things. First, Coppola had stayed pretty true to the story (only adding the Beauty and the Beast romantic angle for the Count and Mina). Second, the book was duller than dirt.

I found the idea of a book comprised of journal entries and letters to be absurd. I was annoyed that Dracula never got a point of view in the story. I thought that any horror was horribly diluted by the style and that it took away from any punch the story made have had. I thought that Coppola was right to add the romance angle and crank up the sexiness that was buried in the narrative. I actually gave the book away, I was so annoyed with it.

Flash forward to this summer and for my birthday my wife gets me a Kindle. As I’m playing around with it, checking out all the public domain books I can choose, one title jumps out at me, “Dracula”. Having just enjoyed a successful reread of another horror classic, “The Haunting of Hill House”, I used that as my test book. I figured I’d just download it to see an example of how the public domain novel would look on my new device. I started reading Jonathan Harker’s journal entry… and was unable to put the book down until the end.

Safe to say that I really enjoyed it this time around. Why the big change of heart? I think it’s because I knew what to expect this time around. I also discovered that while the horror of the story is diluted, it instead turns into more of an adventure story. Well heck, I love a good adventure story. The letters and journals create interesting characters, with Stoker giving each a unique voice and perspective. Dracula is more enigmatic because we never see his point of view, only the view of the victims and hunters. I was also intrigued to see how loathsome and deadly the vampire was in this incarnation. Our modern vampires (yes I’m looking at you “Twilight” but Ann Rice’s sudsy creations are just as guilty) really look like whiney wimps compared to the count in this novel.

A quick check on the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells me that “Dracula” was actually considered an adventure story when it was first published. It was also considered a tale of invasion; with the dark force from central Europe creeping into England and threatening it’s women. But it wasn’t considered a classic tale of horror until the silent film “Nosferatu” was released in 1922 I’ve seen that film and yeah, it’s still pretty darn creepy.

What’s interesting is that Stephen King viewed the novel “Dracula” as an adventure novel too, but with a horror twist. He said he noticed it when he read “Lord of the Rings”. As he was reading Tolkien’s work he was amazed how many parallels he found with Stoker’s novel. So he always considered Stoker to the originator of the modern fantasy novel. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can see where King is coming from. Without having that horror stamp hanging over it, “Dracula” seems like a better novel, because it works well with its adventure and mystery elements. The macabre overtones act more as accents that make it distinctive. If you want a good vampire novel that actually chills, check out King’s “Salem’s Lot”. Not only does he take Stoker’s ideas and modernizes them, but he adds a bit of Lovecraft as well. It’s a very good book, especially for a second novel.

I’m getting off the track here. “Dracula” will always be a classic, and will probably always be considered a classic horror novel. But give it another read (or a first read if you’ve never tackled it before) and see if it works a little better as an adventure story.

What do you think of the novel “Dracula”? Ever read a book with a set of expectations that actually ruined the experience of the novel? You think King is right in calling Stoker the inventor of modern fantasy?

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