Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dracula, Part 4 and Final

This is the final entry in my series on Dracula by Bram Stoker. (Read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 for previous comments.)

'My friends, we are going into a terrible danger, and we need arms of many kinds. Our enemy is not merely spiritual...A stronger man, or a body of men more strong in all than him, can at certain times hold him; but yet they cannot hurt him as we can be hurt by him. We must, therefore, guard ourselves from his touch. Keep this near your heart"—as he spoke he lifted a little silver crucifix... .
(emphasis mine)
"Our enemy is not merely spiritual." Hmmm. Another strike against the argument that Dracula was just an ethereal emanation called into life by the characters' fears or desires. But that was a point made in the previous post, so I shall move onward.

In Dracula, the characters learn that the soul of one who has been overtaken by the vampire becomes lost for eternity, therefore lending urgency to the quest to stop Dracula and to save Lucy—who, unfortunately, becomes one of the undead, and must therefore not only be staked but beheaded in order to save her soul. Then Mina becomes the vampire's next victim, and the race ramps up.

From an e-mail to a friend, written shortly after reacquainting myself with the classic novel:
The whole "damned forever" idea bugs me. So does the notion that a person could become damned without having a choice in the matter, as happens to Lucy in Dracula, or that repeated prayers to God for salvation from such evil / damnation (as are also given in the novel) would not result in Him stepping into the situation and saving anyone who asked Him. After all, He's not willing that any should perish, and He has provided a way of escape. Our bodies may die, but our souls need not be damned. However, though "the good guys" win in the end, God is not really in the picture as the ultimate good standing in aid of humanity against ultimate evil.
Why, then, does holy water work? Or a crucifix? Or a Communion wafer? In reality, there's nothing inherently powerful in the objects themselves. They are metal or flour or liquid. Nothing much to fear there. So, the power must come from what or Whom they represent.

However, where's the power in the objects if the Deity in Whose name they are employed does not answer the prayers of those who call on Him? After all, He lets Lucy be taken, right?

One may argue He doesn't answer because He doesn't exist; or, if He does, He's not intimately involved with the lives of humans. Why, then, the vampires' reactions to the items employed in the search-and-destroy mission? It's as if Stoker wanted the story both ways: God was the ultimate good Whom the vampires couldn't tolerate, and yet humans—frail and prone to failure already in this endeavor—are the ones whose efforts finally succeed.
In the time since writing the message quoted above, I have come to a slightly different conclusion about the story. God is the unacknowledged character throughout, and I am reminded of all the times in real life in which I wanted to be rescued—and there have been many times I have been, some of them miraculously and as a direct result of prayerbut constant rescue would make a person passive, make him think he is entitled, make her think she need not put forth any effort.

We know a new butterfly must struggle to leave its cocoonthe struggle strengthens its wings. Therefore, we can take courage from the realization that, although we may be rescued or helped at various times in our lives, it is the striving that makes us strong. And makes us that much more grateful when help is offered.

Although I still think the novel's theology is "off" concerning the soul and salvation, I see the real-life parallels to vampires: activities that suck away our time, people that subvert our successes or leech away our energy, attitudes or behaviors that drain us of joy or ambition or strength.

Look around. Where's the vampire in your life?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Another Editorial Rant

When a writer sends me his/her work to read before publication, I do my best to be thorough and honest, and to catch all the missteps I can, so that when the work finally does reach publication, it can be polished and professional.

Of course, the end result is not my responsibility but the author's. Still, it can be irksome and somewhat embarrassing to read the published version of manuscript I worked on, and find that the author didn't hear a thing I said about (fill in the blank). Usually -- no, always -- these circumstances are the result of an amateur author who has not yet learned the value of a good and merciless rewrite, or who thinks the first draft is "most pure" and therefore inviolable. Generally, the authors can't find any takers for their masterpieces, and therefore the manuscripts end up being self-published, or being accepted by "low-rent" publishers who play on writers' egos but don't do the hard work of making sure the material is truly ready.

Self-publishing one's work has legitimate and practical uses (niche markets, short runs just for family and friends, and so on), so I can't and won't knock its existence. And there are rare -- I repeat, rare -- occasions when a self-published work is picked up by a larger publisher and becomes a bestseller.

And then there are the writers whose work must be proofed, and sometimes edited, before publication in a magazine. Wow, is there some authorial arrogance there, when writers whose work -- in obvious need of some spit-and-shine -- refuse the polish and demand a return to the stumbling sentences, rambling paragraphs, or confusing dialogue that was their original piece. These people have obviously never worked for a newspaper, where the editor gets the final say on how a story appears in print.

I know what it's like to be edited or critiqued, and to have my work picked apart. I know what it's like to receive advice or suggestions from someone who knows what he's talking about, and from someone who has absolutely no clue. I've learned when to accept advice and when to pitch it out the window. And I'm still learning. (Case in point: the stumbling around, getting-lost-and-finding-my-way-again method of storytelling that has been my experience so far with the science fiction serial for Ray Gun Revival.)

But I also know that my hardest critic must be myself. My most acerbic and ruthless editor must be myself. Nothing is precious. Nothing is too sacred to be re-examined, re-arranged, or deleted. The end result is a stronger story -- and that's what it's all about.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dracula, Part 3

'...Oh, but I am grateful to you, you so clever woman. Madam'he said this very solemnly'if ever Abraham Van Helsing can do anything for you or yours, I trust you will let me know. It will be pleasure and delight if I may serve you as a friend...all I have ever learned, all I can ever do, shall be for you and those you love. There are darknesses in life, and there are lights; you are one of the lights. You will have happy life and good life, and your husband will be blessed in you.'

In the last installment concerning this topic (previous posts on Dracula can be read here: Part 1 and Part 2), I expressed my doubts that Bram Stoker was making any sort of point about female sexuality in his classic horror novel.

Of all the commentary presented in the edition of Dracula I recently read, the material I can most readily accept as being part of Stoker's intentional vision for the material is the inclusion of possible jabs concerning the tensions between Ireland and England. As a writer, I have included names or versions of events that are jokes or jabs or homages, and it's kinda fun when a reader recognizes them, too, and tells me so.

But over-analyzing the work of a long-dead author can lead us in directions he or she never intended. And he or she, being dead, cannot correct our errors.

I find it interesting that, with all the history and scholarship revealed in the commentary, no mention was made to the Biblical allusion in the above dialogue from Van Helsing, which also later includes this:
'Your husband is noble nature, and you are noble too, for you trust, and trust cannot be where there is mean nature.'
The Biblical reference that came to mind when I read this passage is found in Proverbs 31, verses 28 and 29:
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: "Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all."
Funny. Among all the other bits of trivia, historical references, suggestions of repressed sexuality, that didn't make it into the notes at the back of the book.

The volume's commentary was prepared by Joseph Valente, a professor who has studied and written about Stoker. That means his word is gospel, right?


Euripides, a Greek playwright from way back, said this: "Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing." So, I'm questioning.

Valente also asserts that, since Dracula casts no reflection in a mirror, he doesn't really exist.

The notion of the immortal count being only a projection of one's inhibitions or subconscious desires doesn't stand. After all, Stoker writes that Dracula has been around for centuries before the novel's characters meet him, and he has been served by the gypsies for generations. Sounds pretty corporeal to me.

Valente states in the notes, "The manner of Dracula's death tends to confirm his status as a psychic emanation rather than an autonomous being."

Uh, you sure about that? He crumbles into dust. As in "from dust we were made, to dust we shall return." Again, sounds pretty corporeal to me.

There is also an argument made that blood in the novel can be seen as a metaphor for racism i.e. "bad blood" that is undesirable for mixing with one of pure blood. That, and the fact that Dracula is proud of his varied and warrior heritage. I can sorta see that idea (refer to my above remark about the conflict between Irish and English, that is referenced subtly in the book), but it has the look of reaching about it; as if, once again, more is being read into Stoker's words than he may have intended.

to be continued

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dracula, Part 2

(Dracula, Part 1 can be read here.)

So, carrying on with the discussion about

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there's the whole neck-biting schtick
—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There's a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there's a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there's not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they're presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They're rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn't about sex or mutual expression or love. It's about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he's offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count's London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued