Saturday, June 11, 2011

Girl on Book Action: A Guest Review by Dindrane about Dracula!

The Blurb:

Traveling through two hundred years of popular culture and myth as well as graveyards and the wilds of Transylvania, Leslie S. Klinger separates fact from fiction and provides information on every aspect of the Stoker novel (including a detailed examination of the original typescript with its shockingly different ending). Employing the superb literary detective skills for which he has become famous, Klinger mines this 1897 classic for nuggets that will surprise even the most die-hard Dracula fans.

My Thoughts:

The New Annotated Dracula has a pretty ambitious premise: to distill the intervening 100+ years of scholarship, mix it in legibly with the various versions of the original text that have less solidity than we’d like, and serve up a coherent tale that makes this whole bloody original (ha!) something exciting and new again. The main editor, Leslie Klinger, was recently lauded for his work annotating the complete Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, and his skill as an annotator and researcher is unquestionable. The text takes as its base the unabridged novel, which is slightly different than the version usually published; all along Klinger points out which paragraphs were stricken from the text and posits thoughts about why. We also get to see into Stoker’s unpublished notes, as Klinger mentions “this was different in the Notes...” and so forth. All of this is great for aspiring writers and lit scholars, as well as fans who wanted to see the text as it evolved (and maybe devolved again).

Before we tackle the annotations, however, it behooves us to talk about the novel itself. Only a person who has been imprisoned in an isolated Transylvanian castle wouldn’t know about it, but GoBA caters to all kinds, and a polite guest like myself always supports her host. Dracula is, in some ways, two stories in one. To begin, we get the story of Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer who has been sent to Transylvania to oversee the legalities of Count Dracula’s purchase of a house in England and his move to it. Harker soon begins to see that his host is more (or less) than he appears and learns that he is a prisoner. He meets the Strange Sisters--three female vampires who are after his soul, his blood, and his manhoo--... um, pride. Eventually, Harker escapes as Dracula leaves for England, and the reader switches to the tale of Harker’s friends in England, including his fiance (then wife), Mina. We meet Lucy Westenra and her three suitors, including a psychiatrist, whose patient Renfield is one of the more famous characters in literature. Lucy falls prey to Dracula, much to the dismay of her several boyfriends (if that’s spoiling you at this point to hear it, you deserve it), and it looks like Mina is next. The thwarted lovers of Lucy, the Harkers, and “Dr.” Van Helsing vow to stop Dracula and avenge Lucy, eventually chasing Dracula all the way back to his Transylvanian castle.

Now as a recovering, card-carrying gothgirl, it’s impossible for me to say I do not love Dracula, all things unheimlich (“uncanny”), and the surrounding Gothic tradition of literature. Besides, he’s Irish, and hordes of ancestors would drive me batty (ha!) if I didn’t adore him. I can, however, say that this particular book is... well... let’s just say not the sharpest fang in the tomb. Setting aside the few bits of anti-Semitism and sexism, there are still sections of problematic writing. Stoker, God rest his soul, was ambitious, imaginative, and brave, but also, alas, almost entirely unencumbered by editorial skill. There are errors in dating, geography, and simple plotting that really should have been caught by a competent writer, even one working from a hellish collection of source texts, notes, and several different versions of his novel. In short, you can like and enjoy something, even respect its place in legitimate Canon, without being blind to its very real, and very frequent, flaws.

The New Annotated Dracula is a new beast; it not only points out many of these errors in logic and textual discontinuities, it revels in them. It even sets out from time to time to justify these “errors” and attribute to Stoker perhaps more mastery than he possessed, and it does all this while pointing out some scholarship and thoughts about the text that are not frequently discussed or even realized by the average casual reader (or rabid fan). For example, there are a lot of very suspicious things about the American suitor of Lucy, Quincey Morris. It has been suggested that he might even have been in league with Dracula all along, and the annotations trace these inconsistencies and suspicious behaviors throughout the text, making things that looked badly written on the first read seem much more, well, sinister with the annotations whispering in your ear. Klinger does the same with Mina, post-Dracula indoctrination. As a personal note, Van Helsing has always struck me as a quack, and the annotations make this even clearer; the man is a danger to himself and others, and he ought to be in a cell next to Renfield’s.

The most irritating thing about the text is that the editor employs a “gentle fiction,” and pretends to believe throughout that the events here really happened, and that some of the textual errors are due to Stoker covering up the facts to protect Dracula (or other reasons). The editor is so involved in this fiction that it’s hard to tell in some notes if he’s truly evaluating the text or pretending to accuse Stoker of a “cover-up.” This confusion of fact and fantasy casts doubt upon the scholarly value of many of the annotations. Some readers may find this sort of thing fun, but it seems more likely that someone would pick up a text this heavily annotated and hope for scholarship, not credulity and wankery about “real” crimes. It makes more sense in the context of the editor’s Sherlock works, where that sort of thing is common and part of the Game, but it makes no sense in Dracula.

But the text does more than simply point out problems and mock/attempt to integrate them. We get historical instruction, such as a bit about coffeehouses (see the excellent The Victorian Underground for more on this). The text is also packed with images, from movie posters to woodcuts to Count von Count; secondary texts; an introduction by Neil Gaiman (fangirl squee); a fascinating article about “Dracula’s Family Tree;” an introductory article on “The Context of Dracula;” a story struck from the original text by Stoker and later published separately, but that may have been the original first chapter, etc. Just assembling and editing this trove of resources was an impressive undertaking, not unlike Stoker’s own assembly of his disparate texts into a “novel.” The notes alone will please a reader (death’s-head moths! trepanation! Victorian “medicine”! Romany lore! horses!), and the maps are legitimately useful, but the bibliography... oh, the bibliography. It’s enough to make a bibliophile weep with desire. Many of the notes are longer than chapters, and document wonks have to love that, even with the annoying “gentle fiction” in play.

At this day and age, it’s pretty damn hard to come to Dracula with any semblance of “fresh.” We all know the story to death (ha!), the characters (some of them anyway) have moved on to bigger and better things, and a whole genre of fiction has evolved to take this ball and run with it. That said, perhaps because we think we know Dracula so well, it’s good to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, we don’t know it (or Stoker) quite as well as we thought we did. Say what you will about the continuity and characterization issues, each character has a distinct voice, and that’s more than most paranormal books will get you these days. You may finish the reading still not knowing if Stoker was a sloppy writer or an erratic genius, but, all in all, this is one book that you can really sink your teeth into. (Sorry... I truly did try to resist.)


  1. Thanks for appreciating the parts that you did! I can assure you that 100% of the scholarship is accurate--it's only the "spin" that may be "gently fictional."

    Les Klinger

  2. Mr. Klinger,
    Thank you for reading and especially for taking the time to comment. I would like to reiterate that this edition is by far my favorite of Dracula, and that your annotations are the reason; I have already bought extra copies for friends, which were well-received.

    Your Sherlock series is of course a huge favorite.

    Thank you for sharing with us the fruits of your scholarship.