Monday, September 26, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: The Season of the Vampire King

by Rustbelt

Welcome back to Monsterpiece Theater, my friends. Last year, we looked at several classic horror stories and their treatments on the silver screen. It was a lot of fun, but there was one book that got away. That was too bad, as it’s a personal favorite of mine and truly stands out. For in this tome, evil is bound by no particular trait.

You see, the villain in The Hound of the Baskervilles was driven by greed and was willing to do whatever it took to take over the estate. Edward Hyde was but an alter ego that allowed Henry Jekyll an outlet to indulge in his unscrupulous desires. And Victor Frankenstein’s Creature was an experiment borne of its maker’s prideful hubris- its darker nature ultimately the result of neglect and isolation.
But this year, we’re going a little further than that. We’re looking at a purely wicked monster- evil for the sake of evil itself. Now, this kind of figure is hard to create. The temptations for the writer to go either too serious or too cartoonish are bountiful. But this book contains a villain that embodies the essence of evil perfectly- a character so beyond redemption and existing solely for the chaos that he brings. He is truly a blight upon humanity.

And what better creature for this being to be than a vampire? True vampires, mind you. This is before Joss Whedon and Stephanie Meyer turned the demons of the night into self-absorbed hipsters and glittering pixie sticks.
The vampire here is the animated embodiment of death: a corpse that gains an unholy extension to its own existence by stealing the life- via blood- from the living. And afterwards, its victims are condemned to the same damnation until a courageous soul comes forward to bring the cycle of death to an end. It’s a feat few can- or will- accomplish.
This Haunting Season, evil has a name, and a face.
“The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion…

“…I seized a shovel which the workmen had been using to fill the cases, and lifting it high, struck, with the edge downward, at the hateful face. But as I did so the head turned, and the eyes fell upon me, with all their blaze of basilisk horror. The sight seemed to paralyze me, and the shovel turned in my hand and glanced from the face, merely making a deep gash above the forehead. The shovel fell from my hand across the box, and as I pulled it away the flange of the blade caught the edge of the lid which fell over again, and hid the horrid thing from my sight. The last glimpse I had was of the bloated face, blood-stained and fixed with a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.”

And that name is Dracula.
…I heard a heavy step approaching behind the great door, and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.

Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere…The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will!" He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.”


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for restarting the series, Rustbelt!

In an interesting coincidence, I just finished Dracula a week or so ago. I read it many years ago as a kid and decided to read it again now that I'm older: I was blown away.

I'll say more later, but Stoker wrote a book that is packed with strong ideas, amazingly horrific images that still scare today, and some writing tricks that we think of as ultra-modern. It's a very impressive novel.

The only thing I didn't like was the Victorian feel that comes up in the middle and sticks around until near the end.

More later.

Rustbelt said...

Sorry I'm late to reply, Andrew. Busy day. Busy evening.

I'd like to know what tricks you enjoy from Stoker's writing. My favorite part is his 'show, don't tell' style. The Count is only a major character for the first 50 or so pages. After that, we only see the other characters' reactions to his deeds. It makes Dracula seem almost omnipotent while the other characters face the unknown in a state of terror.

The Victorian feel doesn't bug me too much. Stoker set it in his time. Interesting, he wanted to make all the technology up-to-date. Hence the use of telegrams, Kodak cameras, phonographic cylinders, blood transfusions, etc. And to make the doctor scenes authentic, he even had his surgeon brother, Dr. Thornley Stoker, check all those scenes and edit them accordingly.

PikeBishop said...

never read the classic, but do recall Stephen King's excellent essay on it in "Danse Macabre." Say what you will about recent King, but early on, he was excellent and he had a great eye and ear for what constitutes horror and what makes us jump in the darkness. If you have never read this collection of essays and lectures he gave at the University of Maine in the late 70s you should pick it up. Anyway, I do recall King mentioning that the main character pretty much disappears from the action during the second half of the novel, which I find a fascinating writer's trick to pull off

PikeBishop said...

One thing I do recall about King's essay was his discussion of sexuality in various horror archetypes and how the vampire was the most sensual and erotic of the traditional monsters. Bare skin, life giving juice (ahem), eternal youth and beauty (but with a cost of sleeping during the day and a need for Spray tans) etc. made the vampire the most alluring. He even points out the barely hidden dialagoue hints, as one of the wicked sisters "went on her knees" over the victim. King opined that even Stoker's Victorian audiences knew that a girl who "went on her knees" was not someone you took home to meet Mother.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, King had a brain once, but it rotted over time. His early work was really good.

A lot of horror is connected to sexual morality. The original slasher flicks, for example, always had that connection -- the immoral kids died, the moral kids survived.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Some of the stuff that amazed me:

1. Dracula not being a character in the second half. His story is told by the other characters who don't know what they are dealing with and it's up to the reader to understand what they mean.

2. Lots of out-of-sequence moments where you get mini-flashbacks which give a Tarantino style feel to the story.

3. The use of a character (Renfield) who isn't really relevant to the plot, but makes for a vital piece of the story. This violates the modern rule that all things must relate directly to the plot.

4. The death of a main character in the middle of the book. Usually is a climax or main character survives.

5. The description of the monster as something less that perfect. He's a "real" person here with flaws and strengths and hopes. It makes him very relatable.

6. And some amazing images that still scare today in films...

- a man crawling down the side of a castle like a spider

- a dead man steering a ship into the harbor in a storm

- a dead woman coming back to life

- a woman eaten by wolves "off screen"

These are all things that I think most people consider modern storytelling techniques. You don't expect to find them in books from this era.

Koshcat said...

It has been a long time since I read this book. I read Frankenstein later and thought it was better but I may have forgotten some of it. Maybe time to re-read.

Voz said...

What's the best film adaptation of Dracula? I've seen the one with Gary was kinda trippy, Dracula Dead and Loving It...Nielsen is always fun...and Dracula Untold more recently...I've never seen Bela Lugosi's version.

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