Well this is quickly becoming the year of the vampire. Having torn through a streak of Castlevania games like a box of Oreos the day after abandoning a diet, I thought it best to remind myself that actual horror aims to be frightening. Since fear necessarily requires some degree of permanency in death, anything truly horrifying about these games tends to be mitigated by chronic resurrection and the power to murder hoards of tiny monsters to do a few extra points of damage against Dracula. Other than possibly explaining Renfield’s behavior, these video game conventions don’t so much hit the spirit of vampire horror as they do an episode of American Ninja Warriors where all the competitors are professional dominatrixes. So since October somehow became my month to call up all things Halloweenish, I thought I’d go back and read the original Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Dracula is best described in several parts, the first part being “Jonathan Harker Becomes the Victim of History’s Most Passive-Aggressive Serial Killer.” Don’t get me wrong; the first four chapters of the novel on their own make a story terrifying enough to sell adult diapers to anyone who isn’t Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter. But if we had any doubt if the Count was dead, his neurons definitely need a fresh set of spark plugs. After imprisoning Jonathan Harker, haunting him, threatening him, climbing up the wall like a lizard, and murdering children plainly and openly, Harker asks to leave, saying he’ll walk if necessary, and the Count feels it necessary to give him his blessing, open the front door and kindly wishing him a safe trip as they both stare down a ravenous pack of wolves. I’ve never understood why some people insist on keeping up pretenses like this when their sadistic evil shines out for the world to see, but I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out why my grandmother does.
Part two, I call, “Everyone is Sad When the Hot Chick is Dying.” Here, Dracula has packed up and moved from the whithering, dwindling Transylvanian countryside to the bustling, overpopulated London, which for the Count must be like a starving Somalian kid renting an apartment in the produce aisle of a Cub Foods. Yet somehow, despite being surrounded by an afterlifetime supply of giant walking Twinkies, Dracula decides to pick one girl—coincidentally and inexplicably a friend of his tormented house guest—and slowly drain her over the course of several months. He must have been a real fun guy to take to Old Country Buffet. Spend twenty bucks to get in and he spends the entire time nibbling on half a pack of oyster crackers. The vampire himself more or less drops out of the story at this point and turns into the creepy roommate who never leaves his room; there’s a smell like something died, but you know it’s not him because stuff keeps disappearing from the fridge. However unlike the creepy roommate, I was disappointed when he disappeared. He’s the main antagonist of the book–which is named after him–and has become one of the most iconic villains of all time. So why the fuck did Stoker decide to give the titular character less screen time than Waiting for Godot?
The other side of the equation, of course, is the legendary vampire hunter himself, Abraham Van Helsing, everyone’s favorite badass, grizzled, genius, super-hero slayer. At least, that’s how pop culture envisions him. In the novel, he’s just grandpa in a tinfoil hat who finally has the proof that he was right all along. Actually, I treat him unfairly. Stoker wrote him as an impressive man, but then I’m almost positive that Stoker wrote him as a self-insertion (Note: “Bram” is short for “Abraham.”). Reading Mina’s descriptive paean of Van Helsing—right down to his “sensitive nostrils”–I wondered why she didn’t just ditch Jonathan and mount the geezer right there.
Anyway, Van Helsing really shines in part three, “Revenge for Killing the Hot Chick.” It is here that he swoops in to slay the vampire with the frightful speed of medical research. Fitting, as he is a doctor, and moves at the pace you’d expect from modern medicine. (Call to make an appointment for a staking and his earliest opening will be about three months from now.) I mean, the care he puts into Lucy, both as she’s dying and then after she turns, is complete and thorough and slightly less exciting to watch than someone’s battle with leukemia. If Stoker wrote a sequel, the most horrifying thing in it would likely be Van Helsing’s bill, followed by Dr. Seward learning that his insurance considers “unholy purification” elective surgery. You don’t often see Buffy staking out tombs, watching individual vampires, learning their patterns and stalking them for months like some crazed serial killer. The only reason she wouldn’t stake a vampire immediately is that she isn’t strong enough (or, I guess, that she’d prefer the vampire stake her instead). Van Helsing, though, does just this, cautiously scoping out the grounds and seemingly passing up dozens of chances to shave the heads off some vampires, as well as about 150 pages off the book.
I may have given away a few more spoilers than I normally do in my reviews, but I’m calling in the statute of limitations—the book is a hundred twenty fucking years old. Here’s another spoiler: the vampire dies. But we don’t get the epic boss fight with Simon Belmont, or even the showdown between Sirius Black and the guy from Princess Bride. In fact, our Great Evil sleeps through the whole thing. The most fascinating thing about stories like this come down to the interactions between the heroes and the villains. I can’t remember more than a single line of dialogue that the Count has from chapter five onward. At the end, they catch up to his box of dirt, rip it open, and knife it, making the hero-villain interaction akin to the DEA seizing a shipment of cocaine.
Let’s face the truth, World, Dracula is an awesome, classic, and enduring novel; however, except for Van Helsing somehow reaching Boba Fett levels of popularity, the book’s reputation today rests entirely on the first four chapters. Read those chapters and save yourself sometime—Nosferatu is free on Youtube. The film with Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins is another good choice. Personally, if you want a recommendation, though, you can’t go wrong with Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It.