Thursday, April 11, 2013

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Dracula is one of those immortal stories that pretty much any intelligent person knows, even if they haven’t read the story themselves. It’s right up there with Hamlet, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and A Christmas Carol. I had read Dracula before, but for reasons I will clarify in a moment, I wanted to revisit the classic novel.

So, here’s a really brief overview of the story for anyone who doesn’t know it: Dracula is an evil vampire who leaves his native land of Transylvania to come to England. He wreaks havoc there, draining the blood of a young woman without being suspected… that is, until someone calls in Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who realises that Dracula is behind it all.

I was always terrified of Dracula, and revisiting the novel all these years later, I can see why. While the storytelling can occasionally be melodramatic, for the most part it is effectively told and genuinely creepy. We spend time developing character and atmosphere before any carnage occurs, and so when bad things happen, we genuinely care who they happen to, and a lot of this stuff is genuinely creepy. Dracula quite frankly seems unstoppable: a ruthless, calculating opponent who is always one step ahead of his pursuers and whose powers seem inexhaustible. This guy is friggin’ terrifying.

I guess that, until now, I never really realized just how sexually charged a novel Dracula is. You’ll have to forgive ten-year-old-me, who was never very good at spotting sexual undertones. Even now they can fly right over my head, but re-reading Dracula I was left wondering how I could have ever overlooked the sexual tones to the story. For instance, in the first act of the novel, Jonathan Harker is confined at the Castle Dracula, where he comes across the vampire’s brides. He knows them to be evil, but they attract and fascinate him to the point where he desires to be one with them, and the imagery used at this point is very clearly invoking the idea of sex. The way that the vampires suck the blood out of their victims is described in what I can only call erotic detail: it is an orgy to them and in a very twisted way, an orgy for their victims as well, finding themselves “liberated” from life only to be chained by the shackles of the undead once the sun comes up.

But why on earth did I read Dracula when this is a mystery blog? Well, the reason is elementary: I wanted to read a few novels where Sherlock Holmes does battle with the legendary king of the vampires. And so I wanted to read this novel, remind myself of the plot, and see how various authors’ takes on Dracula stack up with the original. It was also a perfect opportunity to listen to a fascinating audiobook – and although I have nothing original to add about the book itself, I think my comments on this audio production might interest readers.

You see, the original novel is episodic, composed of various letters, articles, etc. that form a cohesive plot when put together. These are written by the various characters, and as a result nearly everyone gets a chance to tell the story from their point of view. So an audiobook was recorded, fully cast with a veritable dream team. These actors take turns reading the letters that their individual characters wrote, and as a result this really helps to immerse you into the reading experience.

Some of the best audiobook readers I’ve ever heard joined in on this project, such as Simon Vance reading the letters of Jonathan Harker. The top billing, however, went to Alan Cumming (Dr. Seward) and Tim Curry (Van Helsing). Cumming does quite a bit of reading, but Tim Curry barely shows up at all until you get to the exciting climax at Castle Dracula. But to make things worse, when the other actors do a voice for Van Helsing, they can’t transmit that quality that only Tim Curry’s voice has, especially when he’s busy doing a Silly Accent – some of them just do a high-pitched lisp, which is basically Tim Curry’s anti-voice.

But when Curry does show up to read something, boy is he a delight! He’s just so damn perfect as Van Helsing, and the only reason they didn’t make him play Dracula is because we never see the Count’s side of the story, so the only Silly Accent available was Van Helsing. And Curry throws all his energy into the part. It’s delightful.

Alan Cumming also does a terrific job in the role of Dr. Seward. There’s no Silly Accent to report here for Cumming, but he does a fine job transmitting Seward’s emotions, fears, and doubts. He witnesses some terrible stuff, including the death of his lady love, but he must soldier on bravely for her sake and this pains him. Cumming transmits that quality beautifully.

In general, the actors really immerse themselves into their various roles, and that helps to set the atmosphere. The story Dracula doesn’t quite hold the power it once had, after years of campy cinematic performances and portrayals. Many have tried to counter this. Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula tried to restore the character to his dark origins by really ramping up the novel’s sexually charged content. It worked… sort-of… but I found it a pretty uncomfortable film, especially the rape. My audiobook tried a different approach, with a group of narrators who were cast for their individual roles. I don’t think the director rolled some dice and then said to Alan Cumming “How about being Dr. Seward, then?” Everyone feels right in their individual parts, and it helped to suck me into the story and briefly made me feel like that kid who refused to go into the basement for months after reading Dracula.

In my defense, it was a scary-looking basement, especially when you knew Count Dracula was down there waiting for you.

4 comments:

  1. I have two or three copies of Dracula, which shows intend to read, but never got around to even one of them. Anyway, great idea to lay the ground work by reading the originals before tackling the pastiches. No idea why you would like to read Sherlock Holmes taking on Dracula, but hey, at least you got a plan. ;)

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    1. Well, I sort-of tried explaining this in my next review, but I'm kind of surprised I caved in myself. I have a bit of a track record avoiding the Dracula/Holmes books, so it's probably my first exposure to them.

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  2. It's rather exciting to see how you tackle the Sherlock Holmes and Dracula novels. I'll be very interested in seeing what you think of them since they're obviously not canon, but quite fun. Even if you do not care much for "Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula" by Loren D. Estleman, don't give up on his pastiches. His Sherlock Holmes meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story is on of the best pastiches I have ever come across because he is able to portray Holmes and Watson brilliantly and seamlessly integrate Robert Louis Stevenson's novel into his own.

    When you get around to "The Tangled Skien" I still suggest that you try the Big Finish audio adaptation. It's where I started with their recordings, and I really cannot give it high enough praise. And while I'm on the subject of audio recordings, I have to say that I am very, very intrigued by the audio adaptation you spoke of above. It looks to me as though Audible has it affordable price - do I see a purchase in the near future?

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    1. A-ha! You're too late! I've already heard the audio production! I guess you'll find out all about it soon enough though...

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