Dracu-licious!

I’m vamped out. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched a number of recent Dracula adaptations as well as re-reading the book and chucking in a few other vampiric films and TV shows for good measure. There’s a reason for this – I swear – which I won’t go into here, but suffice to say that I’ve had my fill of fangs for the time being. Bite me already.

One peculiarity of the things that call themselves ‘Dracula’, however, is how leery of the original book these adaptations are. More specifically, how worried the adapters seem to be about depicting Dracula as what he really is: a straight-up, bona fide killer. There’s been a trend in these versions to re-vamp the vampire as a tortured soul, a grieving lover, a hard-done-by hero – unlike the horrifying monster of Stoker’s imagination.

The ill-starred NBC/Sky series, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyer, imagines that Mina is the reincarnated wife of Dracula. His beefy manservant Renfield asks why Dracula doesn’t just ‘take’ Mina; Drac’s response is that that would be “barbaric” – he wants Mina to love him, as he loves her. Thwarted lover Dracula?

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie, starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder doing some eyebrow-raising English accents and Gary Oldman with a dodgy tash, also turned on the notion that Mina is the reincarnation of (or just strikingly similar to? There’s plenty that’s unclear in this one) Dracula’s beloved wife. This film invents an entire love story between Mina and Dracula, in which they drink absinthe, go to a cinematograph together, and Mina begs Dracula to turn her into a vampire so they can be together forever. Drac tries to resist, but Mina drinks his blood anyway while he stares at the ceiling and looks tortured. Rape-victim Dracula??

Mina drinks a reluctant Dracula's blood.
Mina drinks a reluctant Dracula’s blood. From Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie.

The BBC’s 2006 film invents a completely different reason for Dracula to come to England. The horribly miscast Marc Warren is ‘invited’ by Arthur Holmwood, who in this version is suffering from syphilis, contracted from his mother who, in turn, caught the French disease from Arthur’s philandering father. Arthur thinks that Dracula can cure him of the illness, allowing him to properly ‘enjoy’ married life with Lucy, who is not a little frustrated to find that her husband won’t have sex with her. Of course, when Drac arrives, he turns out to have no interest in curing Arthur – though he’s happy to bang Lucy in Arthur’s bed and to form designs on Mina too. Gigolo Dracula???

Dracula Untold, the 2014 movie starring Luke Evans, Sarah Gaddon, and Charles Dance, constructs an origin myth for the vampire: Dracula is the leader of an embattled principality who will do anything to protect his people from the cruel Ottoman army. Rather than risk a single Transylvanian life, Dracula allows himself to be bitten by an unspeakable creature living in the Carpathian mountains: this will transfer the vampire’s strength and speed to Dracula, but if he can withstand the craving for human blood and not bite anyone, after three days he will become human again. Resurrected after three days… the sacrifice of self to save others… Christ-like Dracula??!

Why have we de-fanged the vampire? It seems as if the twisted sexuality of the novel has been sanitised into much more straightforward romance. The trend is everywhere: Buffy the Vampire Slayer imagined vampires being ‘cursed’ with their souls, so that they feel guilt and remorse and can become worthy lovers for the eponymous heroine. True Blood, despite being a darker show in many ways, also constructs a romance between the heroine and a vampire. Twilight went even further: not only is Edward a ‘good’ vampire, he’s a prude who won’t contemplate the idea of sex before marriage.

There are countless sociological and film-studies essays about why this phenomenon has arisen (see here, here, here, and many, many others) and I’m not going to go into my theories on it here. My question is a more straightforward one: can on-screen vampires even be scary anymore? I don’t mean in that “ooh, you’re so dangerous, please-don’t-bite-me-but-feel-free-to-have-sex-with-me” way, I mean genuinely terrifying. Can vampires be the subject of real horror? Can they be terrifying in the way that The Shining, or The Exorcist, were terrifying? The scariest vamps I’ve seen lately were Penny Dreadful’s creatures of the night, though with tremendous prosthetics and make-up, these eschewed the idea of vampires seeming human most of the time (which was the truly horrifying thing about Stoker’s vampire).

Vampire from Penny Dreadful
Vampire from Penny Dreadful.

So I shall end with a call-to-arms! Filmmakers who want to attempt an adaptation of Stoker’s novel, please, please, can you make Dracula scary again?

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Authors and Oeuvres

My seven-year-old niece M has just discovered the concept of authorship, and it’s pretty awesome. Until now, reading has been about individual stories and characters: a tiger who comes to tea, a hungry caterpillar, some bears who get scared in the night. Then last week, an email popped into my inbox (another new development – she has her own iPad now, believe it or not):

“JoJo, I just finished reading Matilda!”

I wrote back, “That’s one of my favourite books! Next you should read George’s Marvellous Medicine.

I got a phone call from her telling me she’d searched her bookcase, and she had Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, but not George’s Marvellous Medicine, so please could she borrow it?

Without either of us mentioning Roald Dahl, she understood why I recommended the book: not because the characters or story have anything to Matilda, but because of its author. M loved one book written by this guy, she’d probably like other books written by him too.

This is exciting on all kinds of levels. It means that she’s beginning to think about books in categories, starting with the most straightforward one: authorship. Right now, her books mainly fall into three categories: ‘Roald Dahl’, ‘David Walliams’, and – newest and most thrilling of all – ‘J. K. Rowling.’

Categorising books according to their authors is one of the earliest (developmentally, not historically) ways of thinking about literary classification. I certainly remember being the same age as M and reading on the front page of the newspaper that Roald Dahl had died. I cried that day when it sank in that my favourite category of books was now finite: Dahl had written his last ever story. But this kind of thinking – that authorship defines categories of literature – persists in a lot of the ways we teach English Literature at school and university. When we read Pride and Prejudice, we learn that it falls into the category ‘Jane Austen.’ In order to understand it better, we know we ought to read the other books in that category in order to figure out how Pride and Prejudice might be different from, or similar to, those other texts. At university, our weekly readings and essays were almost always defined by authorship: one week on Behn, the next on Dryden, the next on Swift.

Recently, there have been challenges to this kind of author-driven thinking. I’m not talking about a poststructuralist, Barthesian “The Author is dead”-type challenge, rather a pragmatic one: single-author research projects are no longer marketable in the way they once were and Ph.D. students are told that neither university hiring committees nor academic publishers are interested in that kind of dissertation. So students and faculty are encouraged to think about different categories and classifications of literature – not defined by author – on which research projects can be based: Romantic drama; medieval liturgical texts; Enlightenment life-writing. Pride and Prejudice might be recategorised into a grouping of ‘satirical courtship novels’, or ‘rural class system novels’, or even ‘novels, 1810-1820.’ No longer are we allowed to write solely about Austen, or Shakespeare, or Chaucer; these categories of literature have been literally devalued, since they won’t lead to either a salary or a book publishing deal.

But this rejection of single-author studies at the professional level seems to me to overlook something incredibly important about why we read books in the first place: pleasure. We read because it’s enjoyable – we wouldn’t do it at the age of seven if it weren’t. And if books by a particular author give us a particular kind of pleasure, why shouldn’t we value a category of literature specific to that author? Ralph Cohen, a rather wonderful thinker and genre theorist, offers this definition of “genre”: “Genres are open systems; they are groupings of texts by critics to fulfil certain ends.” If, as Cohen suggests, groupings of texts only matter as long as they have some kind of purpose, my question would be: why isn’t pleasure a sufficient purpose? When did enjoyment stop being a valuable “end” to grouping texts according to an author whose style, imagination, or characters, we love? When I see the excitement in M’s face as she talks about starting the second Harry Potter book, or giggles about The Boy in the Dress, the idea of organising my reading according to market trends and financial expedience, rather than my own delight, seems frankly ridiculous.

So I celebrate my niece’s discovery of authorship. I hope she reads every book by Dahl, Walliams, Rowling. I hope she finds other authors she loves, and reads every book by them too. And most importantly, I hope she finds pleasure in every single word.

An American registers for an English library card…

(No it’s not a joke, and yes, I did actually register for a library card at my local library, but the title is more figurative than all that.)

In honour of my move to London, I’ve opted into the social contract’s stipulation that I start adding those extra U’s into word like honor, and I’ve also decided to begin my half of this blog with a post about ‘Englishness’, which is, in a way, very much a part of the conversation in English life. The Brits are – and the distinction between ‘British’ and ‘English’ is not lost on me – as much about openly acknowledging their stiff upper lips as they are in maintaining them. And because I loved that my wife’s first post put two texts in conversation with one another, I thought that I’d do the same with two English titles that have come across my radar recently: the new-ish bestseller Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and decades-old The Colour of Magic, by the late Terry Pratchett.

The first of these, Elizabeth is Missing, combines three of the trendiest trends in contemporary fiction: the unreliable narrator, flashback intercuts, and the house-trained detective story (‘domestic noir’, they call it). Healey kneads these three things together in effortless storytelling, but the last and most pervasive ingredient that’s baked into the whole project is, to my American eyes, a Englishness that might pass some readers by — particularly those born and bred in this green and pleasant land. Let me catch you up a bit (don’t worry — no spoilers):

Maud, an octogenarian suffering from an unnamed type of dementia that prohibits her from recalling much in her day-to-day life beyond the spans of a few minutes, has the idea in her head that her equally geriatric friend, Elizabeth, has gone missing. Maud’s condition affects her in ways she does not fully recognise, though she’s aware of it to some extent. She’s a bit plump for her age because she’s forgotten each of the numerous slices of toast she eats over the course of the day, and her middle-aged daughter has to clear away the several cups of tea she’s brewed and left at the foot of the stairs as she moves through her house. It’s these staples of life for the older generation – the tea and toast – that keep catching my eye, along with the frequent and grandmotherly appearance of Polo mints at every turn. The necessary inclusion of Maud’s Carers here and there are, as I read them, a subtle doff of the cap to the wonderful and enviable NHS (again, American here!) established in the wake of World War II – exactly when the other half of this novel is set. Maud recalls with lucid clarity her early adolescence and family troubles while the country rebuilt itself after the war had torn through both economy and infrastructure. Simultaneously, Maud paints this picture as she lays the groundwork for the intrigue that resurfaces in present day. These flashbacks were eye-opening for me. Though I knew there was post-war rationing, I had to look up precisely what a ration book was and how it worked. We actually had rationing in the US beginning in 1942, but it only lasted until 1946 in an economy that was stimulated by the war, as opposed to devastated. The rationing period for Britain ran for about fifteen years from around 1940 to 1954. That’s just astounding to me, but it’s something that I think is deeply embedded in the British psyche, if not as well remembered. Nevertheless, there’s this inside knowledge throughout Healey’s book that can only resonate with the children of the generations that have, as they say, ‘been through the wars’ in the way that Britain has been.

Maud’s personal history (in the midst of the dire public one) and her mental unreliability raise the stakes of her lack of information – ‘how do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?’ the tagline provocatively asks us. The domestic noir and the unreliability of the narrator are mutually dependent, it seems. There is simply no drama in the average fellow – blokes, they call them – googling something  and following it up with a few phone calls the pertinent people  between timely meals during working hours. The mundane becomes monumental for someone like Maud. A prior and comparable title, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has an autistic child protagonist playing detective – which is utterly compelling because of the challenges posed to that character. Maud is similarly afflicted with unusually large hurdles between her and pertinent facts, but she’s not unreliable in the sense that she’s misreporting anything – it’s more about what she forgets. We see this even at the level of forgetting the words we take for granted – ‘bench’ becomes ‘that wooden plank for sitting’, only to be remembered without pomp a few paragraphs later. Only the reader bears witness to the depth of Maud’s pathology. I’d argue that it’s the rich pathology of disability Healey offers us is equally as English as the tea and toast of everyday life. There is something sympathetic and clever in the writing and something stalwart in the un-patronising portrayal of Maud that jives rather well with my reading of the English sensibility. It’s a diagnostic sensibility that, well-mannered as it is, will not sully the conversation with its own infirmities. ‘Alzheimer’s’ is a word not to be found anywhere in the pages of Elizabeth is Missing, though it feels like it’s everywhere, and I really love the book for not bowing to a label so charged with sorrow and anxiety.

And I say that while also knowing that it was Alzheimer’s disease that claimed one of England’s most celebrated authors, Terry Pratchett, last month. I feel that many will be shocked (shocked!) to know that the seventy pages or so that I’ve read of The Colour of Magic are the only pages of Pratchett’s writing that I have read at all, though I can promise they won’t be the last. Though I do love a good fantasy or sci-fi yarn, Pratchett’s work has by a twist of fate never passed through my hands before this, even as his notoriety is ubiquitous among my fellow SFF readers. People seem to have a relationship with his work that transcends the normal author-reader experience, and I’m eager to plumb the depths of it on my own.

Pratchett, early on in this first Discworld novel, demonstrates the other side of the Englishness coin in his humour and cheeky approach to world building. It reads like the kick in the groin Tolkien always needed. I’m sure I’m probably involving myself in a cliched conversation about the fantasy genre by mentioning Pratchett together with Tolkien, but I really do sense that there’s a common denominator between The Colour of Magic and The Hobbit, and it’s not just because both have wizards and weird creatures. It’s something to do with humour as it relates to righteousness.

There’s a kind of annoying righteousness to Tolkien, this idea that chivalry is the salvation of a moribund world, and that good behaviour wins out and all wrongs will be righted in the end through perseverance and friendship and commitment to The Cause. That’s the default position in the machinery of Middle Earth as we get it through Tolkien. It’s a bit boring, isn’t it? Today it smacks of a naiveté that he probably came by honestly – in his academic career if not in his time in the trenches in WWI. The Hobbit’s humour is at home in the Shire and nowhere else; it’s alien if the halflings bring it anywhere else. It’s a tone that is at odds with Pratchett’s. With Pratchett, one gets the sense that the Shire is on the margins, and that any quest to right the world is a quest to topple it, which is fitting, given the astrophysics of Discworld. It’s patent in the first few pages that Discworld and the twin city of Ankh-Morpork exist in lapsed universe whose lapses are carefully maintained and indeed revelled in. The Colour of Magic presents the reader with a comic or parodic cynicism as its status quo, and to overturn this with an injection of righteousness or chivalry would be, in fact, a relapse of sorts… which is why the presence of Twoflower, the world’s first tourist and easy mark par excellence, is so unnerving. Twoflower, in his initial gormlessness, seems to be the ringwraith before whom all irony wilts. (And he may continue to be, as I keep reading.) But where the irony is lost on some in the novel, it’s that it finds purchase in the reader that makes the whole thing so damned English – they do love their inside jokes. Not only is it the wit, but the slapstick of the work that I enjoy. It’s the tongue-in-cheek poise of the writing – so carefully chaotic – that makes Pratchett’s book so fun to read, along with his vivid and comprehensive imagination. I’m glad that I have a long reading list of Pratchett titles ahead of me, but I can already tell that I’ll get to the point that I wish there were more, and then I’ll be sad that there aren’t. I suspect it’s a strange time to be getting into Terry Pratchett’s books for the first time, but I also suspect that there’s never a wrong one.

It might be that both of these titles have been ones that I cracked open after moving to England, and I’m just reflecting my own foreignness back at them, but I feel that both Healey’s and Pratchett’s books are deeply implicated in the culture from which they emerge and unconsciously wear it on their sleeves, as it were. As someone who’s been a student of English literature for his entire adult life, I wonder if I’ll continue to find that as I keep reading from this side of the pond. Ask me in a few years.

On (Other) Space and Time

Forgive me if this inaugural post is a little academic – I promise they won’t all be – but two novels I read this month have set me to thinking about a difficult subject, and I wanted to try to work it out by writing about it. And if you’ll bear with me while I try to figure this out, there’s a comforting thought at the end of it all. Be forewarned: spoilers abound.

The subject is time – particularly about how two young characters experience time in their dysfunctional fictional universes. Both of these novels are science fiction, of a sort, although both straddle genres: Young Adult, fantasy, fable, romance. Sarah Pinborough’s lyrical The Death House tells the tale of Toby and Clara, teenagers who have been diagnosed with an unspecified illness. In this world, sufferers of this condition “change” in some unspoken, but terrible, way – so carriers of the illness are spirited away to an island location where they can be monitored and, as they begin to fall sick, ‘terminated’ in the middle of the night. This community of teenagers has been forcibly removed from family and home and now live in The Death House under the watchful eye of Matron and her nurses, passing time until their inevitable end.

Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel The Ship tells an alternative, futuristic version of Noah’s Ark. In a not-too-distant world, where ice caps have melted, much of Earth is under water, insects and sea life have died out, and Britain is under emergency military rule, Lalla and her father Michael escape from the terror and near-starvation of life in London on board the ship, an enormous floating idyll that Michael has planned to save five hundred carefully selected people. There is food to last for decades, millions of books to read, leisure activities to take part in, and no danger to fear. But Lalla’s beloved mother has died in the attempt to get to the ship, leaving Lalla grieving and questioning the nature of their ‘salvation.’ For this meticulously orchestrated Eden can’t last forever. At some point, the food will run out. This isn’t a new life – it’s a better way to die. And, although the ship people worship Michael as their saviour, Lalla begins to wonder if the hope of finding a better life on land isn’t preferable to the certainty of a painless, but sterile death on the ship.

These worlds – the drowning, starving world of The Ship and the plague-ridden world of The Death House – are clearly dystopian fictions: Honeywell vividly and frighteningly imagines the endgame of our current environmental crisis, and Pinborough conjures up a society in which sickness is the ultimate taboo, so feared that it must be isolated and eradicated. But The Death House and the ship are not, in themselves, dystopias: they are heterotopias. Not bad places, but other places, alternative places. The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault describes ‘heterotopia’ as a space of otherness, separate from, but shedding light on, the mechanisms and power structures of ordinary society. Examples he gives are the boarding school, the hospital, the military. His focus is on how these alternative social constructs illuminate the ways in which hegemonic society functions: the authoritarian rule and enforced obedience of a boarding school; the removal of undesirable bodies from a healthy population into a hospitalised alternative population, to allow normal society to go on; the military’s open and necessary violence, on which our supposed ‘peace’ is predicated.

But the ship and The Death House both shed light on a different element of ordinary society: these heteropian places shift the way that time is experienced. Toby and Clara know that their time is limited; Toby’s illicit midnight strolls have shown him how sick teenagers are wheeled away in the night, never to be seen again, and he knows that the same fate awaits all of them. They are living not on borrowed time, but on end-stopped time, though when and how exactly that end will come is not clear to them: “There was no one way to go,” notes Toby, “There are no definite symptoms.” And if the end is both definite and uncertain, the inmates also studiously avoid discussing “before” – the time preceding their incarceration. While they wait in the house, time passes meaninglessly: lessons must be attended, “learning French we’ll never use,” but “if you don’t work and just sit there quietly, the teachers don’t care.” Toby admits that “you end up working anyway, just to pass the time quicker” – though the implications of what will happen at the end of this quickly passing time are left unspoken. Meals, lessons, sleep: the Death House operates according to a rigid routine that makes every day the same, and every day equally meaningless.

Similarly, on the ship, Lalla realises that in giving them the ‘gift’ of a carefree existence, Michael has robbed them of time. Convinced that the ship must have some destination, Lalla insistently asks where they are going, to which the frustrating answer is always “Right here, Lalla. We’re right here, right now.” Space and time become conflated: they are here, now. And that means that in going nowhere, the ship is also not progressing in time. Lalla notices that a group of people on the ship are learning to knit, which she welcomes, because “if there were four pairs of booties where once there had been none, there was proof of the passing of time.” But, maddeningly, when the knitting is finished “they all unravelled the little clothes and wound the balls up again to be knitted into something else.” The ship might offer an Edenic existence for the lucky chosen few, but Lalla realises that perfection can only be maintained if time is frozen.

If time is a measure of change, and no change is possible, then both Toby and Lalla are living in a kind of mad timelessness. Both characters discover that love might offer an escape from their no-time: Toby’s passion for Clara, Lalla’s hopes for happiness with Tom, offer something new, which means that something must have changed and time therefore exists again. However, I was struck by another element in these two books: the clinging to another time to prove the existence of this one. In The Death House, Toby is scornful of one of his fellow inmates who establishes a Christian chapel, but the lure of religion gradually draws many of the teenagers who find some kind of comfort or hope in prayer. Toby hates the idea of religion “because always, always, it highlights that the end is coming. You’ve got to think about after.” Ashley and the “God Squad” are changing time in the house by focusing on a potential future time, and in so doing, they discover the power not only to imagine the future, but to remember the past. While the teenagers normally avoid any mention of their friends who have already been taken away, inside the chapel Toby and Clara discover poignant written commemorations of the teenagers who have died. The practice of religion allows these teenagers to reclaim time, both the future and, through it, the past.

But for Lalla, the inverse happens: while Ashley focuses on the future, Lalla resolves to preserve memory. Her fellow ship people are determined to rid themselves of the horrors of the past, throwing away mementos and keepsakes, but Lalla gathers and salvages vestiges of the past, forming a secret onboard museum of objects that remind her of particular moments. While Tom is prepared to forget his grandfather, and while Michael joyfully declares “If it happened before the ship, then it didn’t happen at all!”, Lalla steadfastly refuses to forget her mother, or the countless suffering people they have left behind. Time continues, for her: others “were no longer counting the days or the weeks or the months,” but Lalla scratches a tally of the passing days on the wall of her cabin. Her father tells her “You’re stuck in the time before,” but Lalla sees that by remembering the past, she is also preserving the future, because it allows her to hope, “Hope that there were still choices to be made,” that her life and death are not predetermined to play out in this sterile, perfect, timeless place. Where The Death House’s Ashley rediscovers the past through his hopes for the future, Lalla finds hope for a better future by preserving the past. They both reject the madness of a timeless heterotopia in order to find time, to embrace and effect change.

The reason this all struck a chord with me, I suppose, is that our lives, here, in this present and real world, obsessively revolve around pasts and futures. We are told from a ridiculously young age that we should be thinking about our future: studying hard so we can go to a good university, going to a good university so we can get a good job, getting a good job so we can buy a house, buying a house so we can have a family, and so on, and so on. The inverse correlation to this frantic planning for the future is the anxiety that so many of us feel, that our pasts were misspent, that we made the wrong choices, that we didn’t plan well enough, that we’ve missed our chance. Unlike Lalla and Toby, we have too much time, or at least, we’re too aware of it, as our busy lives change constantly and as we anxiously worry about next year, the next job, the next home, the next relationship. Oddly, the mad timeless heterotopias in these novels offered a sort of comforting lesson to me: here and there, now and then, it’s not a bad idea to stop and to let time stop; not to plan for the future or fret about the past, but to simply be, without trying to change. To find peace, even for a transient moment, in the thing that Lalla finds so frightening: we’re right here, right now.

Johanna and Dan make plans

We read a lot of books. We watch a lot of TV shows. We talk at one another a lot about these books and TV shows.

In order to keep track of this talking and thinking, as well as the things we’re talking and thinking about, we decided to start a little online journal. That way, we won’t forget the conversations we have after too much wine and a Dominos Pepperoni Passion.

If you’re interested in the things we’re interested in, you might be interested in reading and watching along with us. Be warned: there WILL be spoilers.