The Case Against Dracula: Circumstantial Evidence and the Novel

I'm a moderate fan of literary-alternative stories.  The stories that retell a story that's been told before.  The most recent and well-known version of this is Gregory Maguire's Wicked (now a series, containing 3 books), which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz, through the eyes of the Wicked Witch.  In doing so, Maguire, makes the Witch, the misunderstood and tragic character while the others are bad or questionable people.  The most literary of these attempts to re-visit a past story is most likely John Gardner's Grendel; the retelling of the epic poem, Beowulf, through the monster's eyes.  Indeed, the act has been described as post-modern by some; reinvent the narrative to favor the villain and there might be some truth in that; and yet, we have other long-ago texts that do this same thing, including Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We are enamored with a shift in perspective and the ways an author will tease out a new narrative from the original material.

A retold tale is much like a sequel, a mash-up, a fan-fiction, an adaptation, etc in that it allows us to reengage with a particular narrative we enjoyed.  It can give us “more” of the story or just bring us back to those moments we so thoroughly enjoyed.  But often, the retold tale tries to re-imagine the story in a way that is oppositional to the original text, decentering the hero/protagonist in favor of other a lesser character(s), antagonist or villain.

Dracula Retold

Book cover to Renfield: A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed
This brings me to Dracula.  Given the deep and lasting influence of Dracula as “the vampire” and the instantaneous connection we all make when we hear Dracula or vampire separately,  (although, that could be currently usurped—at least of the time being with Edward Cullen),  a person could argue that all vampire stories are retold stories of Dracula.  While vampire tales do exist before him (Poldoris The Vampyre; Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, and of course, that sexy vixen Carmilla, by Joseph LeFanu—who was inspirational ground zero for Stoker’s Dracula), it seems the weight of each vampire story is held up against Dracula.  Defined in relation or against the Count’s definition.  Thus, Edward Cullen maintains the tall and dark alienated persona associated with Dracula, but does not given into his bloodlust (mostly) and attempts to coexist with humans instead of snack on them.

However, I’m more interested in discussing the most interesting pieces out there that attempt to re-interpret what Stoker has written.  There are four that come to mind, though I’m sure there are dozens more out there.  With these four, they perform some interesting re-interpretative feats.

Renfield:  A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed and Galen Showman (1995)

I mentioned this, mostly because I found it really enjoyable and a great example of getting more out of the story.  This graphic novel retells the story of Dracula, through the eyes of Renfield, who is my favorite character in the book (Mostly because I read this graphic novel before my first thorough reading of Dracula).

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1975)

This book serves as the starting point of a series by Saberhagen about Dracula with him living throughout the 20th century encountering all the changes and differences it brings and eventually coming face to face with the Harkers’ children.  In fact, the story starts with Dracula confronting the Harkers’ grandchildren and providing them with cassette tapes that record the story from his perspective.  He recounts how his acts were misconstrued—either accidentally or purposely by the protagonists as well as his loving relationship with Mina.  

Dracula, the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt (2009)

This is a “sequel” written in part by the great grand-nephew of Stoker, which attempts to give it some legitimacy.  The story picks up a generation later, when Quincy Harker is attempting to achieve his dream as an actor and stumbles upon Bram Stoker who has written a book called “Dracula” that’s all about his parents.  Dracula, again reemerges as a misnunderstood figure, trying to find true evil creature, the vampire, Elizabeth Bathory who is the embodiment of evil vampires (while Dracula is the epitome of “good”).  This version also has battles and scenes that are evocative of a modern-day superhero narrative and unlike other versions, chooses not to tell itself in the epistolary manner that the original and other texts tend to utilize.
Book cover to The Dracula Tapes by Fred Saberhagen

Dracula, My Love by Syrie James (2010)

Here again, Dracula’s story is retold by Mina; who in addition to aspiring wife of Harker, also is seeking her own origin (being an orphan), and having inner battles about being appropriate in Victorian culture.  Her falling in love with Dracula comes from a series of interactions that she chose not to write in her journal that she submitted for the events, but kept to herself.

Within the pieces discussed above and many other pieces, we find that there are several elements that are continually reconsidered and negotiated due to plot holes, cultural privileging, and reflection on interpretations of the text.

Mina’s Relationship With Dracula

There’s lots of room for interpretation on this one; after all, when Mina is caught in the bed with Dracula and Jonathan is out cold; one has trouble believing her innocence.  Typically, it is cast as a love affair.

What Happened on the Demeter

This interesting tidbit provides lots of food for thought.  Both James and Saberhagen argue that it was indeed a mad man who did it and not Dracula.  Saberhagen has Dracula admit that he was actually stuck within his coffin, unable to escape, while Syrie points out that it would not be useful for Dracula to kill everyone on board and risk losing his precious cargo of boxes of native earth.

Overreliance on Van Helsing and his Knowledge

I think this is the most intriguing element.  If the 19th century privileged knowledgeable people (except when there was a fear of them learning too much or “the wrong things” a la Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll), then the 2nd half of the 20th century has been to challenge, undermine, and be highly suspicious of privileged authorities such as doctors.  And given that Van Helsing is an authority on nearly everything (he has several different degrees and everyone seems to roll over and play dead for him), Dracula the Undead, Dracula, My Love, and The Dracula Tape all open up this line of questioning.  How does Van Helsing know what he knows?

Lucy’s Death

Intriguing because, taken with the bit above about Van Helsing, Lucy’s death falls at his feet.  Since blood types aren’t established till after the publication of the book, many writers are quick to attack Van Helsing for injecting Lucy with no less than 4 people’s blood in a very short period, not knowing their blood type and thereby, quite possibly being the true cause of her death.
Book cover to Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

Dracula’s Death

Obviously, if Dracula is then considered the protagonist, he is spared his death since it is evident that Van Helsing doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Dracula’s death turns out to only be temporarily or even faked.

So going way back to the top, I did name this post as the “The Case Against Dracula” and I’m actually getting to my point here.  What these writers do is pin together various narratives based upon the shortcomings of Stoker’s writings and this is where it gets interesting.  The goal of an author is to lead the reader through a narrative, but at times, the narrator, to create mystery, suspense, curiosity, etc, will not take the most direct route.  In fact, to do so, undoes the darker nature of many stories or transitions the suspense into gore.  It gives away too much; too easy.  Thus, the author tries to let the reader connect events.  In the case of Dracula, not only is the reader supposed to connect facts and understand what’s going on; but Stoker has his characters doing the same thing.  After all, the book is a collection of journal entries, newspaper articles, and letters that become a central part of the story at one point.

Therefore, Dracula has both intentional gray areas and actual mistakes by the author.  A good example of an intentional gray area are the events on the Demeter.  No firsthand account comes forward to say that Dracula drank his way through the crew, but by the fact that it’s included in the collection of writings for the protagonists’ case, leads us to believe that it is.  As for actual mistakes, there are several inconsistencies within Stoker’s writings about the nature of the vampire.

The circumstantial evidence when properly aligned, leads us to believe Dracula is the anti-Christ as Stoker implies through his characters.  However, if Dracula were put on trial, what actual evidence would there be against him?  The baby in the bag?  Harker never sees the baby; only hears noise; and so Saberhagen calls it a piglet.  His actions on the Demeter, again, are never proven.  His murdering of Lucy?  Of Renfield?  Still no dice.    It’s interesting that there are college courses and written works other there that look to apply the standards of the law against the facts in a piece of literature (whether an actual courtroom scene, a mystery, or something other debatable element within a story).  In some ways, that’s what the writer does when he/she first starts to explore the idea of re-telling a tale.

QUESTIONS

What are other stories (besides the ones mentioned) that attempt to reinterpret the text?  (Don’t just name them, actually discuss them if you have firsthand knowledge).

Are there examples of stories where the reinterpretation surpasses (in some capacity) the original?

What other gaps are there in Dracula?  What other alternative Dracula texts are there?

Why would an author tackle a story that’s already been told? 



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Spreading the Word: Intolerance?

This article sparks some rather interesting albeit for many challenging issues.  At its center is a study that finds devout religious people to be more likely to have more prejudice views of different minorities.  Some of the explanation stems from the fact that as a group such as monotheistic believers fixates on their religion/superior being as the sole one, they often slip into a dualistic mentality of followers and nonbelievers, with the nonbelievers inferior or wrong.  The article goes into a great more detail and is worth checking out.

Articles like these can be hard to digest, process, or accept.  Some may read it and feel that “well, I’m religious and that’s not me, so it must be wrong.”  But it’s not quite that simple.  So often when we read something that paints something we highly regard in a negative light, we are instantly resistant.  Our barriers are quickly drawn up and quite hard to pull down.  To that, I would say, that some of that might actually also have relevance to what the article is trying to get at with regards to challenging our fundamental or traditional beliefs as well.

Though it’s easy to either blindly accept or reject what the article has to say about some kind of pre-programmed bias, I think it’s more useful to step back and ask several different questions about what inherent biases you might be operating under or influenced by.

Do I do that?  And this might be the hardest one of all since it requires a degree of reflection, self-awareness, and honesty that many of us have trouble attaining or maintaining.  If you answer is an immediate and resolute “no” without thinking, reflecting, or running over in your head the various times you’ve had negative encounters with any person of any type, I think you might be not really digging as deep as such a question asks.  Getting outside our heads is an impossible task, but also a good exercise to better understand one another.  In this case, looking at how you act towards not just specific minorities, but particular social situations; such as the waitress who is slow with your order or gets it wrong, or the person at the coffee shop getting you the latest fashionable coffee drink, or the person doing your nails, or the person in the beat-down car in front of you, not moving as fast as you’d like them.  We often say these are situational circumstances that tick and tweak our negative response, but how much quicker are you to be triggered when the person doing it is part of some “Other” group to which you don’t identify, know about, or feel hostile to?

Another question to ask is what the culture at large (or my particular sub-culture) has to say about something.  In this case, I’ve included the two videos below.  One is of Pat Robertson blaming the major earthquake that struck Haiti in winter of 2010 on Haitians making a pact with the Devil and suffering the consequences.  The other is Jerry Falwell and Robertson again, discussing the destruction on September 11, 2001 to be the fault of feminists, gays, and other people of “alternative lifestyles.”  In both, the rhetoric of the minority as being dubious and troubling is pretty loud.  Both illustrate in some way; how cultures shape and influence, direct us to “right” and “wrong” answers.









It’s also useful to try to make analogies or comparisons with other situations of that may not always be equal in comparison, but help you to frame where your biases fit.  I often step back from any situation where I feel that a person is not doing the “right thing” and ask myself, if I am sure that I’m angry/frustrated/annoyed at the proper thing.  So let’s take the case of the coffee.  If I’ve gone into a store and ordered it.  If the order is taking a long time; and I get annoyed, I may find myself feeling negative toward the server.  But I step back and ask, am I always angry waiting this long?  Is it because of how I’m interpreting his actions?  Do I feel that she isn’t being nice enough (and yes, I intentionally switch the gender-pronouns to show what else might be having an effect in the situation)?  Is it because I’m tired?  Running late?  If I’m running late, then I’m much more aware and conscious of time, than this person may be and their lack of expedient delivery of my coffee might not be a slight towards me, but it can be hard not to think of it as.

All of this brings us back to the problematic “Other”  (Problematic in the sense that we find problem with the “Other”—not that the “Other” is inherently problematic of its own accord).    The one who is not me and whom I have trouble identifying and connecting with.  Within history, these differences have been the source of anger, resentment, violence, destruction, but we still are challenged by and fearful of outsiders of many different sorts.  The general answer to why there’s such problems around the “Other is just that we fear strangers, but I think articles like this help us to better understand why and how we fear others.  

Thoughts?




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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.