Thursday, August 23, 2007

Books: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Two classic horror novels shocked me in their disparate pleasures. Frankenstein, half as long as Dracula, took me twice the time to read, as I slogged through its three narratives, nested like Russian dolls, lurching through an overwrought fog, whereas I devoured each page of Dracula, sucking up each page like lifeblood. What happened between 1818 and 1897? Sex, I guess. It's clear that Dracula is a sexier monster than that of Dr. Frankenstein (who doesn't even have a name, for chrissakes)—look at the disparity in the number of movies made (IMDB lists 83 Frankensteins, and 148 Draculas), or consider the fact that Goth culture emulates vampires, not zombies (and Frankenstein's monster isn't really even a zombie, now, is he; in fact, he's quite an eloquent self-taught speaker), or that Sesame Street features a Count from Transylwania, but no Frankenstein's Monster-type monster.

In the case that you don't know that Frankenstein's monster is an eloquent speaker, I will here synopsize the novel. It opens and closes with Captain Walton, who writes letters and a diary to his sister as he leads his ship to the North Pole (reading this at the beginning, one wonders how the story will ever come around to the fateful stormy night in a dank laboratory when Frankenstein woodenly sits up as lightning strikes). The captain picks up an extremely sick man he encounters on the ice floes a few days after seeing a great beast driving a pack of horses on a sledge across the ice; this man is Dr. Frankenstein, and he tells the captain his story. The story is one we all know—a curious young scientist, he worked on the project of bringing life to a body cobbled together from dead bodies' parts, but as soon as he was successful, he realized that he had created a monster, and fled. The monster, meanwhile, rampaged the countryside and killed Dr. Frankenstein's young brother, by strangling. An innocent girl goes to the gallows for the murder. Frankenstein tries to flee, but the monster follows him, finds him, and then tells him his own story.

The story is filled with existential pathos, that of a creature with no understanding of who he is, where he is, or what he ought to do, who encounters fear, horror, and therefore violence whenever he comes into contact with another person. He spends months secretly living in a hovel adjacent to a farmhouse, through which he observes the poor but tender family and, by listening to them and studying carefully, learns their language. He performs a variety of "secret Santa" tasks for them—bringing firewood daily, for example—but when he finally introduces himself to them in the flesh, they attack him and then flee. He is desperate for companionship, and has tracked the Doctor in order to ask him to create a female partner of his kind, so that he will not be alone. Frankenstein is horrified and conflicted, but after threats, he agrees. He does not have the wherewithal to complete the project, though, and he destroys his work, again fleeing. As punishment, the monster kills his best friend and traveling companion, and then his foster-sister/fiance (again by strangulation). Frankenstein's father dies from grief. Now as alone as his monster, the Doctor pursues the beast in order to put an end to his life, chasing him all the way into the Arctic, where the Captain found them. It is on the ship after this story is told that Frankenstein dies, sick and exhausted. The monster appears for a short discussion with the Captain, and the story is ended.

Dracula, of course, is much more dishy, although it isn't the first vampire book (that seems to be The Vampyre by John Polidori, conceived in the same contest as Shelley's Frankenstein, and which I haven't read). The narrative here is comprised from a series of documents—letters and journal entries—from a variety of key characters: Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who goes to Transylvania and first meets the Count, his fiance, Mina, the three suitors of Mina's friend Lucy—a doctor, Seward, a Texan, Quincey, and her fiance, Arthur—and Seward's mentor, Dr. Van Helsing. Things are thrilling from the start when Harker travels to the dreary castle and meets the Count, slowly observing that there is no domestic help, that the Count never eats, and that the Count is never to be seen in the daylight, but stays awake all night. One frightening thing after another happens, and Harker realizes that he's trapped; the Count is monitoring all of his correspondence, and has locked him into a small wing of the castle. By the time Harker escapes, we have had enough thrills for one novel already, but more are to come. Mina has been at Lucy's estate, where Lucy has been sleepwalking—she goes out to the graveyard one night, and though Mina finds her and brings her home, she is never the same again afterward, for she has been bitten, by the Count.

But we don't know that yet. Seward sends for Van Helsing, who seems to have an inkling of what is going on, although he doesn't tell anyone yet. He knows that Lucy is dying from lack of blood, and performs transfusions repeatedly, from Arthur, Seward, Quincey, and eventually himself, and does his utmost to ensure that she's watched through the night and protected with garlic blossoms and crucifixes. A combination of fate and cunning confound his efforts though, and not only does Lucy die, but she becomes a vampire. Van Helsing has by now met Mina and Jonathan Harker, and heard their stories; he explains the threat of the Count to his comrades and they band together to hunt him down. Lucy must be found in her grave, a stake thrust through her heart, and her head cut off and filled with garlic, in order to stop her from praying on the blood of local children. All this time, we have also been following the odd doings of one of Seward's patients, who has been an eater of flies, then spiders, and even small mammals; he is obsessed with consuming lives. He has interactions with the Count as well, at first longing for his arrival, but then fearing him; finally dying at his hands.

All of this work is so dangerous and gruesome that the men decide to do their utmost to protect Mina from it, isolating her alone in her home. This proves to be an unwise idea as, one day, they notice that she is not looking well, and find the twin tooth punctures at her throat. In a dramatic and highly-sexualized scene, the Count comes to her in her bedroom where she sleeps beside Jonathan and forces her to drink his own blood. From that point on, her teeth grow longer, her face grows paler, and a fragment of the holy host, which Van Helsing tries to touch to her forehead, burns a deep red scar into her skin. It is now more imperative than ever that the Count be found and killed; he has moved fifty boxes of earth from his Transylvanian estate to his new home in London, but is scattering them around the city so that he will have many places of refuge. Our scrappy coalition must find each box and make it uninhabitable for the Count by leaving a fragment of the host inside. They succeed, but now the Count decides to flee back home to Transylvania, and the group now chases him, by train, steamer, and horse and cart, with the assistance of a hypnotized Mina, who can channel the Count's whereabouts. At last, they come upon him, Mina becoming fainter by the moment; he is asleep in his casket, carried by the band of local gypsies that serve him. Van Helsing leads his small company in an attack, and they are able to pry open the coffin and drive a stake through the Count's heart. He crumbles to dust, Mina's features immediately flush with regained humanity, and the story is ended; a brief epilogue tells us that Mina and Jonathan are doing quite well.

In the recounting, Dracula provides much less in the way of philosophical/emotional/existential musing than Frankenstein, and yet Shelley's heavy prose and narrative structure strangle the raw pain of the Doctor's creation, and the lamentations (particularly effeminate) burden the reader such that he could not care less how anyone feels about anything. And so, the sexy fluff outperforms the weighty meditation.


Jim said...

My grandmother in secret gave me the 20 cents to see HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies in 1958. It scared me witless for 5 or 6 yrs.
I read Bram Stoker's novel
when I was 25 in daylight hours only and it continued
to be frightening, esepcially the scenes of Lucy's demise.

Jim said...

The theme of FRANKENSTEIN that hits me the hardest is the pantheistic one: we were created and abandoned.
"God" took one look and ran for the hills--giving us a sporting chance to stumble our way through.