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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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2009 10:51 am

    Great post, Detox. I find myself perplexed at Harker’s inability to notice the death trap he’s walking into. But your reading of it helps justify it.

  2. October 5, 2009 10:55 am

    “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? ”

    BEAUTIFUL! Wish I’d written that.

  3. October 5, 2009 10:59 am

    I swear, I’m going to start saying “how deliciously authentic!” at every opportunity.

  4. October 5, 2009 3:17 pm

    ‘Oh, those quaint villagers. They’ll come to their senses one of these days. For now I’m going to continue following this wolf-charming semi-transparent coach driver to that completely loony looking castle and sell that man some real estate, and not think twice about it.’

    Nice post.

  5. ecorwin permalink
    October 5, 2009 9:28 pm

    This is such a great post. I’ve come to enjoy your deeply thought out ideas both here on Dracula and your Infinite Jest comments as well. Wish I could do as well. I’ve shared this on my Facebook page BTW.

  6. October 5, 2009 10:30 pm

    Thanks dudes:)

  7. arne permalink
    October 6, 2009 5:00 pm

    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

    Might it not be anachronistic to call Dracula, published in 1897, a “work of genre fiction”? Was the concept of genre fiction, in the way you mean it, even around then? And had there appeared, by 1897, enough works in the horror “genre” that audiences would have any sense of the “set of rules” definitive of the genre?

    In other words, I suspect the head-scratching at Harker’s obtuseness is largely a result of reading an 1897 book through a 2009 filter.

    • October 6, 2009 5:07 pm

      I think we’re okay calling Dracula genre fiction. I guess I was referring specifically to what we now call “Gothic fiction” (wikipedia has a good entry on this at ). I’m pretty sure Dracula would fall squarely within this mold, and that contemporary audiences would have been familiar with many of the common tropes by then. I probably shouldn’t be conflating the notions of “horror genre” with “Gothic fiction,” though, so thanks for bringing this up:)

    • October 7, 2009 9:30 am

      Infinitedetox is right. While Dracula is an early entry into the genre of vampire fiction, there’s a long tradition of gothic stories and tropes that goes back about as far as you’d care to look (consider the Ghost scenes in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth). All of Edgar Allan Poe’s work predates Dracula (he was dead almost fifty years before this novel came out). You’re right that it’s a challenge to avoid anachronistic readings, but it’s also a challenge not to lay too much credit at Stoker’s feet.


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