Tuesday Terror! Dracula by Bram Stoker read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves

Get out the garlic!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

If Jonathan Harker had only wasted some of his youth watching Hammer Horror films instead of studying to be a solicitor, he’d have known that a visit to Transylvania to meet a mysterious Count in his Gothic castle probably wasn’t going to turn out well. And if Lucy Westenra had accompanied him on those youthful trips to the cinema, she’d have been less likely to leave her window open when a large bat was flying around outside.

It’s years since I last read Dracula, and I enjoyed it considerably more this time round, maybe because I’ve been reading lots of Gothic horror over the last few years and am therefore more in tune with the conventions, or maybe because Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves do such a great job with the narration.

My major reservation about it is that it’s far too long in places, especially at the beginning and end, where for long periods of time nothing much happens except everyone writing up their journals in an angst-filled and overly dramatic style, filling page after page with nauseating glowing admiration of the other characters’ many perfections. But the bulk of the book in between is excellent, with some true Gothic horror and the occasional bit of humour to prevent it all becoming too overblown. As with any hugely influential classic, it’s quite hard for a modern reader to feel the full impact of how original and terrifying the ideas in the book would have been to contemporary readers. So many of them have become clichés now – jokes, even – such as the crucifix-wielding and the garlic, and so on. And because that feeling of originality is missing, it becomes easy to start nit-picking, especially on those occasions when the action slows to a crawl. (See below.)

However, there are other parts of the book that don’t seem to have been recycled quite as often in subsequent vampire culture (in my extremely limited experience), and these add a lot of interest. The lunatic Renfield is actually scarier than the Count in my opinion, because he’s fully human and mad, rather than a monster. His fascination with flies and spiders is enough to give me the creeps even before he starts eating them! His philosophy that devouring living things will give him extended life has just enough insane logic to make it frightening and of course ties in to the vampires’ blood-sucking.

The Count’s Gothic castle is wonderfully done, as is Jonathan’s growing realisation that all is not well, followed by his discovery that he can’t get away. I was rather sorry to leave the castle and return to England, although I liked the humour in Mina and Lucy’s correspondence. Mina starts out as a great female character, strong, intelligent and resourceful. Sadly, she is turned into some kind of angelic idealised female victim in the end, constantly banging on about the men being so gallant and full of honour, while they kneel to her (literally) on more than one occasion, as if they are worshipping her perfect womanhood. Oh dear! She becomes nearly as vomit-inducing as some of Dickens’ more sickly-sweet heroines at times!

Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves share the narration. The whole book is presented in the form of letters and journal entries, so Wise reads all the ones written by men, while Reeves does those written by women. This means that sometimes they have to “do” the same character, where, for instance, Mina and Dr Seward both relate conversations they have had with Dr Van Helsing, the vampire expert of the group. It seemed to me that Wise and Reeves did very well at co-ordinating these characters, so that they both gave Van Helsing the same accent and speech pattern, for example. At first it was discombobulating to hear Reeves “do” Mina, closely followed by Wise recounting Mina through someone else’s “voice”, but it soon all gels and works very well. I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook presentation.

After all the long, long story, the ending is oddly abrupt, and not nearly as chilling as some of the earlier parts of the story. And that’s because… well, spoilers below, because I need to have a bit of a rant! So if you haven’t read it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading my review now, and read the book instead. Despite some flaws and pacing problems, it’s a great read – although not the first vampire novel, certainly the most influential on subsequent vampire culture.

* * * * *

Spoiler-filled nit-picking rant!

OK, look, fine, vampires are scary – I get it. But they’re also so ridiculously easy to defeat that I can’t imagine why any of them survive longer than a night! Let’s examine a few of their design faults…

1. Garlic. I mean, seriously, you wear garlic round your neck and you’re safe? Well, why on earth didn’t the Transylvanians just do that, then, instead of letting Dracula and his harem prey on their children for generations? I mean, I’m not the biggest fan of kids, but there are limits! And, more to the point, once our little group knew that Dracula was in the vicinity and liked to prey on women, why in heaven’s name didn’t Mina invest in a garlic necklace?? Think of the trouble that would have been saved.

2. Communion wafers. So all you have to do to make a vampire homeless is sneak a communion wafer into its coffin while it’s out? Too easy!

3. Crucifixes. Need to use your garlic for your pasta sauce? Never mind, just wear a crucifix around your neck and you’re invulnerable to even the wickedest vampire. I guess it must be like masks – people were simply too lazy/stupid* (*delete according to preference) to wear them…

4. Bedtime. Vampires have to sleep while the sun is up. Assuming you haven’t already spoiled their bed by sticking a communion wafer in it, this gives you many, many hours each day when the vampire is completely unable to defend itself. Handy for the human, but not such a great thing for the vampire.

5. Death. Stake through the heart, cut off the head – job done. I refer you back to bedtime above. Since the vampire is helpless for most of the time, why do any of them survive once the secret of how to kill them is known? And known it must be, or how could Van Helsing have known what to do? And that leads me to another point – how did Van Helsing know so much about vampires anyway? Suspicious, if you ask me…

So I couldn’t really feel that vampires present much of a real threat to humanity, unless there’s ever a world-wide garlic shortage.

Still a great book, though… 😉

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Carmilla: A Critical Edition by J Sheridan Le Fanu

‘But dreams come through stone walls…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Carmilla book coverAlthough overshadowed by the later Dracula, Carmilla still stands out as one of the best of the gothic vampire stories. This book includes the story itself in its original form, together with an introduction and four critical essays that set out to analyse the text from a variety of perspectives.

Atmospheric and chilling, Carmilla has everything we could want – gothic ruins, beautiful victim, even more beautiful and extremely sexy vampire, midnight terrors and a climactic graveyard scene. Throw in some very Victorian-style lesbian eroticism and Le Fanu’s fine writing and it’s no surprise that Carmilla continues to be influential on writers and filmmakers even today. It’s been years since I read it last, as part of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I found I enjoyed it very much on re-reading.

However the main purpose of this book is to critically re-analyse Carmilla and (somewhat to my surprise) I found the critical essays at least as enjoyable, if not more so, than the story itself. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan’s introduction describes how the story’s psychological aspects, representations of gender and sexuality, and aesthetic and narrative characteristics have led to scholars returning again and again to re-assess the book over the years. She also justifies its inclusion in this Irish Studies series on the grounds that it is generally accepted that the story is drawing parallels with the political and cultural life of Le Fanu’s Ireland.

(One of the three engravings in the book)
(One of the three engravings in the book)

The first essay is by Jarlath Killeen, who takes this Irish aspect of the story and argues that the picture Le Fanu gives us of Laura and her father as English people clinging to their Englishness while living abroad is representative of Le Fanu’s own position as an Anglo-Irish protestant at a time when the Church was being disestablished and Home Rule was a major topic. So far, so convincing. However, I found Killeen’s positioning of Carmilla within this Irish-ing of the story less convincing. He seems on the one hand to be arguing against a Catholic Carmilla (based on her disgust at the Catholic forms followed by the villagers) and then claiming her as a metaphor for the Catholic aristocracy on grounds that I felt were either shaky or not well enough explained.

J Sheridan Le Fanu(source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu
(source: wikipedia)
In the second essay, Renee Fox suggests that the mutual attraction between Laura and Carmilla prevents a simple reading of Carmilla as a Catholic metaphor rising to crush the Laura-as-Protestant metaphor. In fact, she sets out to show the ‘indistinguishability’ of victim and vampire, the blurring of which is predator and which is prey. ‘The attraction and affinity between Laura and Carmilla functions not to demonize the Catholic Irish, but to express an ‘atrocious’ cycle of political vampirism in which Protestants and Catholics make monsters of each other, reproduce each other’s aggression, and ultimately become indistinguishable from one another.’ From a rather tetchy beginning in which Fox ticks off previous academics somewhat testily, this turned out to be a particularly interesting and well-argued analysis providing much food for thought.

Next up is Lisabeth C Buchelt who examines the ‘aesthetic’ positioning of the book. A subject about which I knew nothing, I found Buchelt’s arguments clear and easy to absorb. She argues that the story ‘forges a connection between popular ideas about the picturesque and what constitutes the vampiric’ and that Le Fanu uses the ‘popular literary trope of medievalism’ in constructing a ‘vampire aesthetic’. My initial reaction to that was to gulp a bit – quite a bit, in fact. However, she then goes on to explain this in a way that meant I not only understood it but was convinced by her argument. An interesting and informative essay.

Terror in the CryptLastly, Nancy M West takes us on a run through of the films that have been either adapted from or influenced by Carmilla, with a look at how the lesbianism in the story has been dealt with over the years as social mores and, perhaps more importantly, censorship rules have changed. Lighter than the other essays, this was an enjoyable finish to the book.

In conclusion, if you are interested in the story but not the criticism, then much better to get this as part of In a Glass Darkly. However, I found the criticisms very interesting, much more than I anticipated to be honest, and for me they have enhanced the story without destroying any of its original impact. I therefore heartily recommend this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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