Big Town Vampires and Small Town Demons

September 3, 2009

I am reading a classic horror novel–Bram Stoker’s Dracula–set (most of it anyway) in London. I also just finished a novel about a demonic figure plaguing the small town of Castle Rock, Maine–Stephen King’s Needful Things.

It’s taken me a while to get as far as I’ve gotten in Dracula (around page 200), as it starts kind of slow. It’s not really the most exciting read, both because of the pacing and because of the plot, but it is helping me to have a better idea of the characters. Lucy Westenra has 3 men in love with her, and it’s always been hard to keep who’s who straight from the movie versions, and I’ve seen a number of them. Off the top of my head, I remember seeing: the Bela Lugosi Dracula, Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (w/the inimitable Christopher Lee), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula Dead and Loving It, and Dracula 2000. There was even a TV show set in modern times with the Van Helsing family set against a Dracula who doubled as a ruthless corporate bigwhig.

Not much time is actually spent on describing and exploring Dracula’s character. The epistolary format of the book makes this hard; we are only given letters, diary entries, and other miscellaneous documents and correspondence, so our impressions of the Count come from other characters’ descriptions, and so far Jonathan Harker is the only one who has properly met him (Lucy does not seem to remember her night-time rendezvous; her diary entries speak only of vague fears, disrupted sleep, and a large bat that appears but she does not connect to a certain hypnotizing undead).

The descriptions of him we do get are not of the suave, seductive character we know from the movies. Perhaps this is because we only know of him from mostly Jonathan’s encounters, but he finds him very off-putting and somewhat grotesque, even when he only thinks of him as a business client, and writes of having to repress his disgust. And in a particularly creepy scene, Drac even seems slightly reptilian:

“…I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings….I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of mortar by the stress of years, and thus by using every projection and inequality move downward with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall (p. 35, Ch. III).”

There is a surprising amount of space given to Mina’s & Lucy’s correspondence and diaries, with much that has little to do with anything supernatural. I suppose this is necessary to a certain extent for the plot, although at least some of it seems more for characterization. Just as I was confused about Lucy’s suitors, I never had a good sense of Mina’s and Lucy’s characters. Lucy is definitely still mysterious, and Mina is perhaps not far off from what the stereotype of what a proper English woman should be–virtuous, longing for her beloved Jonathan, and jubilant when reunited. But through her extensive writing and contemplation of matters both practical and profound, she comes across as more intelligent and shrewd than in any of the movie portrayals.

Renfield’s character also yields more nuances and differences from the movies. Firstly, he’s much scarier than in the movies. In film, I think he’s portrayed as a sniveling, simpering idiot who is just a fool pawn of Dracula’s. However, in the book, he is a physically powerful presence of his own, often overpowering several attendants at the assylum or others he gets into scraps with. The depth of his insanity is also frightening in and of itself; these come across more in-depth through Dr. Seward’s diary entries. He also seems to have a off-and-on relationship with the Master, worshipping him at times, abandoning him at others.

So, it’s not the greatest piece of literature, but it is an interesting horror classic and definitely helps get a better sense of the characters.

As for Needful Things –people can denounce Stephen King all they want, but I was left satisfied after finishing it. It shows how one man (or demon in a man’s guise) can play on an entire small town population’s greed, fear, and cruelty. It was partly painful and partly fun watching the lives of all these simple, mostly good people unravel their own lives by being tempted by his merchandise–he sold objects that brought out whatever insecurities people had so as to turn them against their neighbors. A modern parable perhaps of the evils of our consumeristic, mentally unhealthy culture.