Monday, March 30, 2015

Stoker's writing of Dracula, and an annotator's twist

Modern Vampire
The classic story of Dracula, by Bram Stoker, originally published in 1897, has had a long, and continuing run with readers of fiction--or was it even fiction?  In the 2008 special edition by W. W. Norton, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, we read in the preface by Klinger:
My principal aim...has been to restore a sense of wonder, excitement, and sheer fun to this great work.  To that end, perhaps for the first time, I examine Stoker's published compilation of letters, journals, and recordings as Stoker wished: I employ a gentle fiction here, as I did in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, that the events described in Dracula "really took place" and that the work presents the recollections of real persons, whom Stoker has renamed and whose papers (termed the "Harker Papers" in my notes) he has recast, ostensibly to conceal their identities.
As Stoker wished.  What did that entire sentence above actually mean?

I have been reading this book as the Feb - April quarterly selection of a Goodreads-Ireland discussion group.   I saw the Bela Lugosi movie many years ago, and have been more than a little surprised by the popular interest in all things 'vampire' over the past decade--Anne Rice's books, TV series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," lots of YA novels, etc.  However, I had not previously been drawn to read anything in the genre.  Once I decided to read this volume, I just glossed over the preface and introduction and waded into Stoker's originally published manuscript.  I liked the writing and the story quite well, and at first I mostly ignored the numerous annotations made by Klinger on almost every page.  The story flowed well and was quite mysterious.  However, as the plot unfolded through the Transylvania region, I began referring to the annotations, many of them quite informative, but kept noticing earnest arguments for and against the veracity of certain events and geography.  It began to seem like Klinger was taking care to point out things that did not match some real, but little known history of the vampire, Dracula.  

As the story progresses, and Dracula makes his way to England, his depredations become more ghoulish.  Klinger's notes begin to compare the attacks of the vampire, and the countering strategies employed by the four men and one woman opposing Dracula, contrasted with previously known folklore, or testaments as to the powers and habits of vampires. The reader begins to be seduced into believing there might be a quasi-historical foundation for vampirism.  However, the 'fictional dream' state necessary to sustain good fiction suffers somewhat whenever the reader's attention is drawn from the flow and suspense of the storyline to check on what Klinger has to say about events.  Sometimes what he has to say has a strong rational skepticism--like when Professor Van Helsing makes on-the-spot transfusions of blood to one of Dracula's victims on three separate mornings, using different volunteer donors each time from among the men.  Klinger remarks how fortunate that these transfusions were all successful:

Truly remarkable doctoring.  Although the science of blood transfusing was still in its infancy, there was some understanding that compatibility of donor and recipient was important.  Having transfused Lucy twice successfully (by blind luck), Van Helsing rolls the dice a third time, risking serious problems, rather than fall back on a tested donor.
 Klinger's point seems valid, but it seems unlikely that the "blind luck" aspect would otherwise have jumped out at the reader enough to disrupt a continuity of the 'fictional dream'.  Other critical annotations might question distances traveled in elapsed time periods, conflicting dates of diary entries, etc., unethical legal behavior of the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, credulousness of Professor Van Helsing, criticisms of Helsing's dialect (I disliked it, too) etc.  However, many such items were not likely to cause the reader too much difficulty in staying with the story. There were only a few items pointing out an inconsistency in the powers available to the vampire which might have given me some pause even without the annotation.

I liked the overall story line and wished I'd read it through completely before looking at any annotations.  However, once I had discovered the annotations referring repeatedly to differences or agreements with the "Harker Papers," which I'd been alerted to in Klinger's preface before starting the story, I felt I needed to stay aware of how they fit into the scheme of things.  At the end, however, I realized the "Harker Papers" were a fictional construct of Klinger.  He wanted to suggest that the events of Dracula really took place, and that this was "as Stoker wished."

The actual documentation left by Stoker for his conceptualization and writing of the Dracula novel are a collection of Notes, prepared circa 1890-1896, and held by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an interim manuscript prepared sometime prior to the published version of 1897.  The interim manuscript is currently held by a private owner, Mr. Paul G. Allen.  Klinger had reviewed all of these documents for the annotated volume published by Norton.  It appears the "Harker Papers" are only a terminology used by him for interviews we are to presume were made by Stoker with real people, and who were involved in real events described in Dracula.  Klinger suggests that the existing Notes were subsequently prepared from those interviews, after changing names to protect identities of the real people.  An original set of "Harker Papers" predating Stoker's Notes are thus Klinger's "gentle fiction."

The idea of the interviews suggested by Klinger are not so far-fetched, however. The creative process followed by Bram Stoker employs typical elements that some, if not most, writers might consider in developing such a novel.  The concept is the usual first step, followed perhaps by an outline. Not all writers will employ the outline, preferring to give the first draft free rein without any such constraint. However, before starting a first draft, some writers will conduct a written interview, as if it actually happened, with one or more of their main characters.  Such a process can help a writer find a unique 'voice' and personality for a character, and how they might be disposed to act, given the tensions anticipated in playing out the concept of the story.  Thus, the idea proposed by Klinger that a collection of interviews of real people by Stoker actually fits as a conceivable step in the writing of Dracula.

It is recommended to read the story through at least once without reference to the annotations, to enjoy the full mystery and atmosphere of a compelling story, and then enjoy reading it again with reference to the annotations by Klinger.  Many are rich in content, others perhaps a little carping, but writers will appreciate both Stoker's, and Klinger's, feats of imagination; first in the creation, and secondly in heightening, the mystery of Dracula.
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