In the Blood (As published in the New Yorker)

Written on August 26, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Why do vampires still thrill?

by Joan Acocella

Part 7

Dracula" is full of faults. It is way overfull. Many scenes are superfluous. The novel is replete with sentimentality, and with oratory. Van Helsing cannot stop making soul-stirring speeches to his fellow vampire-hunters. "Do we not see our duty?" he asks. "We must go on," he urges them. "From no danger shall we shrink." His listeners grasp one another's hands and kneel and swear oaths and weep and flush and pale.

To these tiresome characteristics of Victorian fiction, Stoker adds problems all his own. The on-the-spot narration forces him, at times, into ridiculous situations. In Chapter 11, Lucy has a hard night. First, a wolf crashes through her bedroom window, splattering glass all over. This awakens her mother, who is in bed with her. Mrs. Westenra sits up, sees the wolf, and drops dead from shock. Then, to make matters worse, Dracula comes in and sucks Lucy's neck. What does she do when that's over with? Call the police? No. She pulls out her diary, and, sitting on her bed next to the rapidly cooling body of her mother, she records the episode, because Stoker needs to tell the reader about it.

None of this, however, outweighs the strengths of the novel, above all, its psychological acuity. The last quarter of the book, where the vampire-hunters, after the attack on Mina, go after Dracula in earnest, is very subtle, because at that point Mina's dealings with the fiend have rendered her half vampire. At times, she is coöperating with her rescuers. At other times, she is colluding with Dracula. She is a double agent. Her friends know this; she knows it, too, and knows that they know; they know that she knows that they know. This is complicated, and not always tidily worked out, but we cannot help but be impressed by Stoker's representation of the amoral contrivances of love, or of desire. In this bold clarity, "Dracula" is like the work of other nineteenth-century writers. You can complain that their novels were loose, baggy monsters, that their poems were crazy and unfinished. Still, you gasp at what they're saying: the truth.

Each of the annotated editions of "Dracula" has had its claim to attention. Leonard Wolf's "The Annotated Dracula," with six hundred notes, was the first, and it also did the job—which somebody had to do eventually—of picking through the psychoneurotic aspects of the novel. The next version, "The Essential Dracula," edited by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, had its own originality. These two history professors from Boston College had unearthed Stoker's working notes for the novel. They drew no important conclusions from that source, but never mind. They had a sexy new theory: that Stoker based the character of Dracula on a historical personage, Vlad Dracula—also known as Vlad Tepes—a fifteenth-century Walachian prince who, in defending his homeland against the Turks, acquired a reputation for cruelty unusual even among warriors of that period. Tepes means "the Impaler." Vlad's preferred method of dealing with enemies was to skewer them, together with their women and children, on wooden stakes. A fifteenth-century woodcut shows him dining at a table set up outdoors so that he could watch his prisoners wriggle to their deaths. McNally and Florescu's theory gave journalists a lot of exciting things to write about, and their articles were featured: if it bleeds, it leads. As a result, "The Essential Dracula" was very popular. (To add to the fun, Florescu claimed that he was an indirect descendant of Vlad.) The Vlad hypothesis has since been discredited. As scholars have figured out, Stoker, while working on "Dracula," read, or read in, a book that discussed Vlad, whereupon he changed his villain's name from Count Wampyr to Count Dracula, and moved him from Austria to Transylvania, which borders on Walachia. He picked up other details, too, but not many. This has not put later writers off Vlad's story. Matthew Beresford, in "From Demons to Dracula," acknowledges that Stoker's character "was not modeled, to any great extent, on Vlad Dracula." Yet he offers a whole chapter on the Walachian prince, including a long description of impalement methods, complete with illustrations. After reading this, you could impale someone yourself.

In 1998 came "Bram Stoker's Dracula Unearthed," by Clive Leatherdale, a Stoker scholar. This book did not get much attention, but it holds the record for annotation: thirty-five hundred notes, totalling a hundred and ten thousand words. Leatherdale's edition was also remarkable for its practice—common among fans, if not editors, of cult books—of treating the novel as if it were fact rather than fiction. When Harker, invading the cellar of Castle Dracula, finds the Count sleeping in his dirt-filled coffin, Leatherdale's note asks, "Is he lying on damp earth in his everyday clothes, or in his night-clothes, with no sheeting to prevent earth-stains?" This is a creature who has lived for centuries, and can fly, and raise storms at sea, and Leatherdale is worried about whether he's going to get his clothes dirty? The practice of "Dracula" annotation is both quite serious (Leatherdale, like the others, did a lot of work) and also, unashamedly, an amusement. It is an exercise in showing off—a demonstration of the editor's erudition, energy, interests—and a confession of love for the text.

Leslie Klinger, in his new annotated edition, claims that he has fresh material to go on. He has examined Stoker's typescript, which is owned by a "private collector." This source, he says, has yielded "startling results." In fact, like McNally and Florescu with Stoker's working notes, Klinger draws no important conclusions from his archival discovery, and he admits that he spent only two days studying the typescript. As with the McNally-Florescu version, however, the real sales angle of this edition is not a new source but a new theory. Klinger not only assumes, like Leatherdale, that all the events narrated in the novel are factual; he offers a hypothesis as to how Stoker came to publish them. Here goes. Harker, a real person (with a changed name), like everyone else in the book, gave his diary, together with the other documents that constitute the novel, to Bram Stoker so that Stoker might alert the English public that a vampire named Dracula, also real, was in their midst. Stoker agreed to issue the warning. But then Dracula got wind of this plan, whereupon he contacted Stoker and used on him the methods of persuasion famously at his disposal. Dracula decided that it was too late to suppress the Harker documents entirely, so instead he forced Stoker to distort them. He sat at the desk with Stoker and co-authored the novel, changing the facts in such a way as to convince the public that Dracula had been eliminated. That way, the Count could go on, unmolested, with his project of taking over the world.

Many of Klinger's fifteen hundred notes are devoted to revealing this plot. When Stoker makes a continuity error, or fails to supply verifiable information, this is part of the coverup. The book says that Dracula's London house is at 347 Piccadilly, but in the eighteen-nineties the only houses on that stretch of Piccadilly that would have answered Stoker's description were at 138 and 139. Clearly, Klinger says, Stoker is protecting the Count. Then, there's a problem about the hotel where Van Helsing is staying. In Chapter 9 it's the Great Eastern; in Chapter 11 it's the Berkeley. Again, Klinger concludes, Stoker is covering his characters' traces. He altered the name of the hotel—presumably, he had to prevent readers from running over to the place and checking the register—but then he forgot and changed the name again.

At first, you think that maybe Klinger's book is not actually an annotated edition of "Dracula" but, rather, like Nabokov's "Pale Fire," a novel about a paranoid, in the form of an annotated edition. But no: Klinger, in his introduction, lays out his conspiracy theory without qualification. So are we to understand that he himself is a maniac, whose delusions the editors at Norton thought it might be interesting to publish?

No again. Preceding Klinger's introduction there is a little note, titled "Editor's Preface"—exactly the kind of thing that readers would skip—in which he tells us that his great hypothesis is a "gentle fiction." (He used a similar contrivance, he says, in his Sherlock Holmes edition.) Recently, in a book-tour appearance at the New York Public Library, Klinger again admitted that his theory was a game. "If you like that sort of thing, there's a lot of that in there," he said. April fool!

That's too bad, first, because it means that a serious novel has been taken as a species of camp, and, second, because it discredits Klinger's non-joke, scholarly footnotes, of which there are many, and carefully researched. Even after the other annotated editions, this volume gives us useful information. Maybe we didn't need to be told what Dover is, or the Bosporus, but when Klinger writes about the rise of the New Woman, or about the popularity of spiritualism in the late nineteenth century, this gives us knowledge that Victorian readers would have brought to the novel, and which could help us. It won't, though, because readers, having had their chain pulled by the conspiracy theory, will disregard those notes, if, improbably, they have bought the book. Every generation, it seems, gets the annotated "Dracula" that it deserves. This is the postmodern version: playful, "performative," with a smiling disdain for any claim of truth. It found the perfect author. A tax attorney would know about gentle fictions.

Whoosh! Why is the curtain blowing so strangely? Oh, my God! There is a man in my study, with a briefcase—he claims he is a lawyer, from Los Angeles—and, by his side, another, taller figure, in black, with pointy teeth. They say they want to help me revise my article. I must break off!


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