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Setting Bairns and Dizzy Women A-Belderin’

October 6, 2009

Saint Mary's graveyard, Whitby, by Flickr user Tasa M used under a Creative Commons license

Let’s compare Mina’s visits to crazy ol’ Mr. Swales with J-Hark’s experiences with the Transylvanian locals. Both Mina and Jonathan play the role of the sophisticated tourist out among the quaint but somewhat benighted peasant-folk. What’s interesting, though, is that Stoker places Jonathan’s Transylvanians and Mina’s Yorkshire residents at opposite ends of the belief/skepticism spectrum. We’ve seen that “every known superstition in the world” can be found among the Transylvanians, whereas old Mr. Swales delivers a downright blasphemous takedown of Christian burial rituals and the beliefs associated therewith.

Swales’ “sermons”* center largely around the fact that many of the graves in the churchyard are actually empty. Thus the phrase “here lies the body” is often a downright lie. Among other things, Stoker appears to be setting up a dichotomy between “empty” and “full” graves. But Dracula, and vampires in general, disrupt the dichotomy since they sleep in graves. If you’ve got a vampire in your grave, “here lies the body” may be true on some occasions and untrue on others — the line between truth and lies becomes blurry. A more accurate epitaph would read “here lies the body… sometimes.” It seems that Stoker isn’t content to set up the simple inversion between rationalism and superstition that I mentioned in a previous post — perhaps he’s inverting them and then muddying them up to further disorient the reader, an act of deliberate obfuscation that anticipates later acts of post-modern trickery.

I think there’s something similar going on at the end of Chapt. VI when Swales talkes about life and death:

For life be, after all, only a waitin’ for somethin’ else than what we’re doin’; and death be all that we can rightly depend on.

On the surface this seems pretty straightforward: You’ve got life on the one hand, and death on the other, and never shall the twain meet. Except that vampires, again, blur this distinction — they’re neither properly living nor dead. Consider the vampiric state and suddenly the phrase “somethin’ else than what we’re doin’” acquires a whole new creepy resonance.

Finally: I love the part where Lucy gets the fantods about sitting over the grave of a suicide, and Swales comically assures her by saying that “poor Geordie” would be happy to have “so trim a lass sittin’ on his lap.” Lucy’s such a hussy that she even sits on the laps of dead guys!

* I can’t say I found Swales’ dialect completely convincing, btw — it seemed like Stoker couldn’t quite capture the entire range of Yorkshire speech and had Swales speaking an odd mash-up that was half regular English and half Yorkshire, rather than a smooth blend between the two. For example, one of Swales’ lines starts with the very proper-sounding “And, as to hopes of a glorious resurrection,” and ends Yorkshire jive-style with “an’ he didn’t want to addle where she was.”

Genre Dysphoria

October 4, 2009

Photo by flickr user cbmd, used under a Creative Commons license

The opening chapters of Dracula have many of us asking ourselves, “WTF is Johnathan Harker thinking?” Infinite Zombie Daryl says “Parts of the first two chapters read to me the way the beginning of the movie Scream unfolds.” Zombie colleague Web Webster throws popcorn at the movie screen on behalf of readers everywhere and yells “Dude.  Do NOT get into that caleche.  DUDE!  DON’T.  Awwww maaaaan!” At the I.S. forums, ariel asks at what point do you pack your bags and head back to England and says “i just wish i could choose not to know all i know about vampires and horror plots.”

I think the use of movie metaphors in this line of questioning is important, because it drives us back to the key question of genre. One thing that might be easy to overlook in our reading of Dracula, particularly as we dive into it armed with annotated editions informed by scholarly inquiries on questions of race, class, gender and sexuality, is that Dracula is, at its heart, a work of genre fiction. As such there’s a certain set of rules that the book must deal with, and part of the fun for us, as readers, is to see which rules get followed and which get broken and which get bent all to hell in ways that we maybe didn’t expect.

As some commenters have noted, there’s an interesting interplay between ideas of superstition and rationality that Stoker is building up. Harker is a rational modern-day Englishman who brooks absolutely zero bullshit when it comes to things like evil eyes and hexes and old ladies with their crucifixes. But in the horror genre this dichotomy between the rational and the irrational gets reversed — in Dracula‘s supernatural world it’s the “superstitious” village-folk who are actually being completely sensible — if your town is besieged by a creepy old man who eats babies but who can be warded off with garlic, doesn’t it make perfect sense to carry garlic around all the time? And wouldn’t you have to be a totally irrational booger-eating moron to hop right into the Count’s carriage without even the most basic of anti-vampire prophylaxes?

And look at us, the presumably “rational” readers: we’re all standing in the crowd with the Transylvanian villagers, pointing and laughing at Harker and also cringing a bit, because can you believe what a dope this guy is and boy does he ever have it coming to him! The rational and the irrational are turned on their heads, and Stoker’s played us all like fiddles because we’ve no choice but to go with it. This sly little reversal is possible thanks to the conventions of the horror genre.

Let’s try to answer ariel’s question: at what point would you, dear reader, turn back? You, a hyper-rational product of the internet age, take a trip out to a remote Eastern European outpost for business. You get there and all the people are fucking crazy: they’re going on about witchcraft and hexes and offering you gifts of garlic and crucifixes. In all honesty, how do you react to this? Do you get creeped out and run away, or do you think to yourself “how deliciously authentic” and snap a few pics with your iPhone and upload them to Facebook and send out a few Tweets about the quaint customs of the locals? Dollars to doughnuts says you do the latter, and for Harker it was the same. Except that instead of an iPhone and social networking he had a journal.

Going There

October 3, 2009

Photo by Flickr user dobharrison, used under a Creative Commons license

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse — broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm.

Show of hands, please: who else read the hairy palms bit and thought “Chronic masturbator!”

Okay, yes, I am indulging my inner 13-year-old a bit here, but note that the super-serious Norton Critical Edition of Dracula does give a rather coy endorsement to the Transylvanian Monkey-Spanker interpretation in the following footnote:

These hairy palms are one of Dracula’s few affinities with the werewolf (and, in the opinion of some commentators, with the Victorian masturbator as well).

If we’re going to go 100% Freudian and read the book as a case study in repressed Victorian sexuality then yes, okay, this makes some sense. But I’d be hesitant to fully sign on with this unless we knew for certain when hairy palms became associated with jacking off — maybe we should page Dr. Miller on this? But regardless of which direction the influence runs — that is, whether anti-wanking crusaders adapted Stoker’s description of the vampire for their own uses, or whether Stoker used a well-known trope to convey conspicuous ickiness and imply that maybe Drac has been sucking his own blood, so to speak — it’s pretty interesting to see this imagery show up here.

The Center of the Whirlpool

October 2, 2009

The devil's own seasoning.

The devil's own seasoning.

I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.

I love this quote, from Chapter 1. Stoker is basically throwing the kitchen sink at us here: we’re going to be dealing with “every known superstition in the world.” “Heads up,” he seems to be saying, “from here on out anything goes.” Apparently it will be our task, along with Harker’s, to sift out the “reality” from the superstition in the midst of this maelstrom.

Stylistically the chatty imprecision of “some sort of” recalls (presages?) David Foster Wallace’s appropriation of conversational tics into his prose. Throughout this first chapter Harker is constantly hedging his bets and softening his declarations with the type of linguistic filler that we use when we’re not 100% sure what we’re talking about. To wit:

Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place

I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory

my stay may be very interesting

I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it

a sort of porridge of maize flour

All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country

They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other

a frightened sort of way

&c…

We talk like this when we want to leave open the possibility that the things that appear to us are not exactly as they seem, or that we are somehow characterizing them incorrectly due to ignorance or imprecision. Harker is essentially “reading” the people, places and situations he’s encountering here in Chapter 1, but with these little tics he, or Stoker, is self-consciously letting the specter of misreading come in through the linguistic back door. This ties right back in to the question of superstition vs. reality which, I suspect, will be one of the major themes of the book.

It seems we’re all on unfamiliar ground here: pay close attention, and go easy on the paprika.

The Origins of “Michael Pemulis”?

October 1, 2009

A little post-IJ miscellany, and sorry if this already made the rounds while I was out: The website of n + 1 recently ran a short piece about an album released way back in 1987 by one “Michael Pemulis”:

When I pulled the album out last September, though, I noticed it had been recorded in Phoenix, where some of Infinite Jest takes place, and released in 1987, the year that Wallace graduated with an MFA from the University of Arizona.

The article’s writer, Michael Casper, does some digging and sheds a little light on Wallace’s MFA days.

My Post-Modern Dracula

October 1, 2009
tags:

Photo by Flickr user funkandjazz, used under a Creative Commons license

So yeah! Dracula! I hemmed and hawed over whether I’d be doing this one or not, but then I saw the new Infinite Summer Dracula site go up and read the initial posts and I knew my fingers would start getting itchy as soon as it got underway in earnest. Blogging Infinite Jest with a whole crew of other readers was an incredible experience, but it’ll be nice now to be able to write about something that has, AFAIK, 0% to do with drugs or addiction. Part of my whole reasoning for starting this blog was to send my addiction/dependency issues through Infinite Jest‘s literary filter, but now that I’m close to 90 days out I find myself wanting to devote less mental real estate to drug-related things — after all who wants to be that guy who’s talking about his drug problem all the time? Not me.

So: Dracula. I’ll be reading the Norton Critical Edition because I’m a sucker for scholarly apparatus. The thing won’t get here for another couple days so until then I’ll be using Jonathan McNicol‘s bitchin’ typeset PDF version created for Infinite Summer. Aside from the myriad cultural references to Dracula and vampires that every U.S. kid absorbs, my specific context for Dracula is as follows: In 1992 Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out. I was 12 and had just started junior high and was in a profound state of social disorientation. The movie predictably spawned a number of video game tie-ins, one of which was for the ill-fated Sega CD system. I hadn’t seen the movie (rumor had it that it was full of titties and gore, maybe even at the same time), but for certain socially-disoriented junior high kid reasons I became obsessed with the game. The game was gorgeous for its time — I saw screenshots of sexy gothic dungeons and creepy cemeteries and wanted in, in a bad way. I was at that vulnerably cynical point in a kid’s development where all the magic has pretty much been drained out of the world, but you have this cognitive disconnect where you see something that promises a more fantastical, magical world and you want to believe in it so bad that you end up believing in it in spite of yourself. In 1993, the Dracula game was my promising something.

Also, interestingly, in my head the Dracula game was intimately tied up with the bombastic/romantic music video of Meatloaf’s I Would Do Anything For Love, which was directed by Michael Bay (yes, that Michael Bay) and also came out in ’93. I think this was due mostly to the aesthetic connotations of castles and candles and misshapen lovelorn men, rather than any substantial connection between the two.

But eventually, after much yearning and dreaming of immersing myself in a deliciously creepy candlelit world more numinous than ours, I got the game and surprise: it sucked. In a major way. The backdrops were indeed gorgeous but it was clear, even to my 12-year old self, that this was just like any other movie tie-in game produced hastily in the hopes of making a quick buck (Fuck you, Sony Interactive, by the way).

Interesting thing, though: to this day I still haven’t actually read Stoker’s book, and I haven’t really seen the movie either*. I’ve played the video game that was based on the movie that was based on the book, in other words to this point I’ve only experienced a representation of a representation of the actual story as conceived by Bram Stoker — I was being post-modern and I didn’t even know it! I look forward to correcting this.

* I think I actually saw parts of it in the summer of ’07, but I don’t remember anything other than a sexy vampire threesome scene. Plus in all likelihood I was hazed out on synthetic opiates at the time, so this doesn’t count for anything.

I’m In

September 29, 2009

Image from icanhazcheezeburger.com

Okay, this is just a brief FYI post that I’ll be reading along with Infinite Summer’s reading of Dracula. I got back into town a few days ago and am still getting my shit together, but just wanted to say that re: all the comments on my posts on Pemulis and the end of Infinite Jest, you guys are fucking brilliant! I’ll be posting some final IJ-related thoughts and segueing into Dracula in the coming days.

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