I listened to Dracula through the Craftlit podcast (it starts with episode 223, and is also available through Stitcher and iTunes) – and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The performances – a different reader for each character’s letters or journal entries – were darn near perfect, and the commentary from Heather Ordover, whose podcast Craftlit is, was icing on a really nice cake. I was so very sorry when this was over – an experience like this won’t come again soon. I never expected to have such fun.
In her introduction to an early chapter, Heather Ordover advised her faithful followers to try to listen to this story like a child – not childish, mind, but trying to recapture the mindset of a child who, like Jonathan Harker, has no idea that vampires can’t tolerate the sun or holy objects, that they drink blood and turn innocents into creatures like themselves and are very hard to kill. Trying to forget all the details of vampire lore and legend that are so pervasive in popular culture that many ten year olds would know how to kill a vampire. It’s not easy. It’s difficult to follow Jonathan Harker into Castle Dracula when the mere name “Dracula” is almost a cliché, completely synonymous with “vampire” – even moreso: to follow Harker on his journey to the castle as villagers look at him in pity or alarm or grief and press things on him like garlic and crucifixes, and, baffled and slightly concerned, he continues with his confidence unimpaired. It’s an interesting point of view, the modern reader’s; I don’t know how prevalent tales of vampires were in the Victorian English speaking world, but my impression is “not very”: would the readers have been following along simply wondering why everyone seemed so afraid, or would they have been shouting at their books for Harker to turn back? (I love that it was business duty that made Harker ignore all of the reactions of the villagers met along the way. He had a commission, a job to do, and had come all the way to Romania from England to report to a client, and darned if he wasn’t going to do that job. Too bad “withstanding all supernatural threat to fulfill a duty” isn’t something that’s readily put on a resumé.)
In one way, though, I was very well able to read this like a child: I had a surprisingly vague idea of what actually happened in the book; I had no idea it was an epistolary novel, either. I knew the character names, some of them – Jonathan and Mina Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, Renfield. But I had no idea exactly what happened to them.
Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Even knowing the fuzzy outlines of it all, I was still completely taken off-guard by the story. I think I was lulled into a false sense of amused superiority as Jonathan Harker spends the first chapter talking in his journal about the trip and making notes to himself to obtain the recipes for what he has for dinner. It was adorable. In the beginning especially there was only so much I could do against decades of Buffy and every other cultural reference from Saturday morning cartoons to Doctor Who to … yes, I did read the first Twilight novel. As Dracula was introduced my reaction was, at first, simple surprise that he was so aggressively, obviously Vampire in appearance. I mean, today if someone opened a castle door looking like this:
His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.
– I say again, if THAT opened the door to a creepy isolated wolf-surrounded castle people had been giving warnings against, I doubt there’s an individual in the modern English-speaking world at least who wouldn’t flee for his life if they had two brain cells to rub together. It’s extraordinary to watch as Jonathan Harker – not a stupid young man – simply marvels internally at how extraordinary the Count’s appearance is, and thinks a little later “why, you know, I never have seen him eat anything. Or seen him in the daytime.” Poor boy.
But as I said, all of that lulled me. Even with Heather Ordover’s happily creeped out commentary on Craftlit, I expected this to be pretty basic. If nothing else I thought it would start slower.
It didn’t. Quite a bit of time did pass for Jonathan, but Stoker kept the book moving quickly, and it felt like things deteriorated very quickly, from Harker being simply uneasy but moving forward because he has a business duty, to realizing he was all alone in the castle with the Count (almost) and couldn’t leave, to the Incident With the Weird Women. “…She pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it.” I guessed the bag would have a rabbit or three in it. Maybe chickens. A friend said her first thought was “cat”, which is a better guess – rabbits are only cute and fuzzy. Cats are cute and fuzzy and friends. I thought that was where this would go. I was wrong. I was so very wrong. “If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half smothered child.” Meep. I never expected him to go there, at least not that soon – and once he’d gone there, he didn’t let up. And a couple of pages later my attitude toward Jonathan Harker had gone from condescending superiority to holy cow this guy’s a hero.
It only gets better from there.
The performances are wonderful. Ehren Ziegler’s voice is an old friend, and it was good to hear him in character here, with a tinge of British. Jon Scholes was wonderful as Jonathan Harker. Elizabeth Klett was sweet and lovely as poor Mina, and Arielle Lipshaw sweet and lovely as more-than-poor Lucy. And it was fun listening to the mangled Dutchisms of Van Helsing read by Maurice Mengel. It was these performances, I think, that bumped this up from something I would have been interested in to something that had me on the edge of my seat, having to force myself not to pick up my Kindle and read ahead. One unexpected treat (despite the dreadful sound quality) was the reading of the Russian ship captain’s log entries by Barbara Edelman – the accent she adopted reminded me of nothing so much as Celia Lovsky (Star Trek’s T’Pau, because of course Vulcans were inwented by a little old lady from Leningrad). And of course above and beyond and through it all was Heather Ordover, pulling the whole thing together. I feel like writing them all thank you notes. (Just might.)
From Heather Ordover’s commentary, there is a controversy about Renfield – was he an agent of Dracula’s in England, or was he somehow, being a psychopath, predisposed to control by Dracula and responded to his vampness’s arrival in England by somehow zeroing in on his wavelength? I was very surprised – to me there’s no question but that Renfield was Dracula’s from the beginning. But it is fascinating that Stoker doesn’t drive that point home. There’s a lot of space there for speculation – there, and in much of the rest of the book. I think that’s part of the joy of it.
All in all, it’s a cracking good story, so much creepier than I ever thought it would be, and this performance was the perfect way experience it. No, something like this isn’t going to come along again in a hurry.
- Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker! Everyone’s Still Re-Writing Your Book. (tor.com)
- Dr. Seward’s Journal – Dracula Expanded (nonzerologic.wordpress.com)
- Bram Stoker books: How ‘Dracula’ created the modern vampire (csmonitor.com)
- Dracula (snopes.com)