In the Blood (As published in the New Yorker)

Written on August 11, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Why do vampires still thrill?

by Joan Acocella

Part 4

What is all this about? Why do publishers think that readers will care? One could say that "Dracula," like certain other works—"Alice in Wonderland," the Sherlock Holmes stories (both, like Klinger's "Dracula," published in Norton's Annotated Editions series; Klinger was the editor of the Holmes)—is a cult favorite. But why does the book have a cult? Well, cults often gather around powerful works of the second rank. Fans feel that they have to root for them. What, then, is the source of "Dracula" 's power? A simple device, used in many notable works of art: the deployment of great and volatile forces within a very tight structure.

The narrative method of "Dracula" is to assemble a collage of purportedly authentic documents, most of them in the first person. Many of the materials are identified as excerpts from the diaries of the main characters. In addition, there are letters to and from these people—but also from lawyers, carting companies, and Hungarian nuns—plus telegrams, "newspaper" clippings, and a ship's log. This multiplicity of voices gives the book a wonderful liveliness. A long horror story could easily become suffocating. (That is one of the reasons that Poe's tales are tales, not novels.) "Dracula," in a regular, unannotated edition, runs about four hundred pages, but it is seldom tedious. It opens with four chapters from the diary of Jonathan Harker describing his visit, on legal business—he is a solicitor—to the castle of a certain Count Dracula, in Transylvania, and ending with Harker howling in horror over what he found there. Then we turn the page, and suddenly we are in England, reading a letter from Mina—at that point, Harker's fiancée—bubbling to her friend Lucy Westenra about how she's learning shorthand so that she can be useful to Jonathan in his work. This is a salutary jolt, and also witty. (Little does Mina know how Jonathan's work is going at that juncture.) The alternation of voices also lends texture. It's as if we were turning an interesting object around in our hands, looking at it from this angle, then that. And since the story is reported by so many different witnesses, we are more likely to believe it.

In addition, we are given the pleasure of assembling the pieces of a puzzle. No one narrator knows all that the others have told us, and this allows us to read between the lines. One evening, as Mina is returning to a house she is sharing with Lucy in Whitby, a seaside resort in Yorkshire, she sees her friend at the window, and by her side, on the sill, "something that looked like a good-sized bird." How strange! Mina thinks. It's not strange to us. By then we know that the "bird" is a bat—one of the Count's preferred incarnations. (Dracula will destroy Lucy before turning to Mina.) Such counterpoint, of course, increases the suspense. When are these people going to figure out what is going on? Finally, most of the narration is not just first person but on-the-moment, and therefore unglazed by memory. "We are to be married in an hour," Mina writes to Lucy as she sits by Jonathan's bed in a Budapest hospital. (That's where he landed, with a brain fever, after escaping from Castle Dracula.) He's sleeping now, Mina says. She'll write while she can. Oops! "Jonathan is waking!" She must break off. This minute-by-minute recording, as Samuel Richardson, its pioneer (in "Pamela"), discovered a century and a half earlier, lends urgency—you are there!—and, again, it seems a warrant of truth.

But the narrative method is not the only thing that provides a tight receptacle for the story. Most of this tale of the irrational is filtered through minds wedded to rationalism. "Dracula" has what Noël Carroll, in "The Philosophy of Horror" (1990), called a "complex discovery plot"—that is, a plot that involves not just the discovery of an evil force let loose in the world but the job of convincing skeptics (which takes a lot of time, allowing the monster to compound his crimes) that such a thing is happening. No people, we are told, were more confident than the citizens of Victorian England. The sun never set on their empire. They were also masters of science and technology. "Dracula" is full of exciting modern machinery—the telegraph, the typewriter, the "Kodak"—and the novel has an obsession with railway trains, probably the nineteenth century's most crucial invention. The new world held no terrors for these people. Nevertheless, they were bewildered by it, because of its challenge to religious faith, and to the emotions religion had taught: sweetness, comfort, reverence, resignation.


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