What is so enthralling about a man with bad teeth and hair on the palms of his hands?
I usually sit out the latest fads, or even five-year-old fads, because I save a lot of time that way. Sometimes I’m waiting for more information (still doubtful about Facebook). Sometimes I give in (I have an email id). But this vampire obsession in literature and on the screen simply refuses to die.
In any given year, Hollywood releases at least one vampire film. The last time I watched one of those, Frank Langella was still a young man, and I’m certainly not going to tune into The Vampire Diaries. But it seems strange not to acknowledge that the subject is everywhere. I picked up Bram Stoker’s Dracula last week to try to understand what is so enthralling about a man with bad teeth and hair on the palms of his hands.
I had read the novel before but could remember only one chilling scene. Jonathan Harker looks at the desolate landscape from the castle in which he is imprisoned and sees his mysterious host climb out of a window and creep down the sheer wall head first, like a lizard.
Harker meets this abomination in the land where West almost touches East, Transylvania. He has been sent by his firm to inform Count Dracula about properties purchased for him in London. The trains are less punctual out here, Harker snarks. The people are superstitious, insist on offering him garlic and a crucifix, and cross themselves when they hear where he is headed.
But it is not just an exotic locale he uses to shore up his plausibility. As in many gothic stories, such as Frankenstein or The Woman in White, the story is framed within diary entries, letters, clippings from newspapers, a ship’s log and other documents, so the writers of all those share the responsibility for Stoker’s wild tale.
And then the Count lands in merry England, bringing tempests and terror to the Victorian reader’s backyard. Today’s version of this domestication is the teenage vampire who lives in a Californian suburb and takes a blonde to the senior prom. Tomorrow the vampires will be lurking about Mayur Vihar or shopping for shirts on Nungambakkam High Road.
Modern-day vampires on screen and in paperback are metrosexual and drive gleaming cars. Back then, publishers were reluctant to disseminate stories in which bad guys were charming. So Stoker’s Dracula, though a brave descendant of Attila the Hun and well read, even unto the train timings in Bradshaw, is repulsive. His smile is too toothy and gummy, his expression is malignant, and he has bad breath.
Unlike with Frankenstein’s monster, there is no way for us to enter the vampire’s mind. In fact, after Harker’s first long encounter, we hardly see the Count. Instead, we hear far too much of the sentimental gentlemen who are out to rescue their dear, sugary women from him. Stoker sinks a good seed of a story in a swamp of blubbering and morality. Maybe that’s why writer after writer feels the urge to dig it up again.