Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Book: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My next book from the list is The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. This is part of the 37-book series Discworld, and each book in the set is on the list. I should say, 37 and counting; book 38 is anticipated in 2010. I don't intend to read the entire series back to back (although who knows, that might happen).

I started reading The Color of Magic once before at the recommendation of a friend. I'd read Good Omens, and he told me I should really read the Discworld series. For some reason, I didn't get into it at that time and stopped reading. I think I was reading 2 or 3 things at once, and got so distracted from The Color of Magic that I wasn't really taking it in. This time around it is sinking in better, and I'm already well into the book only a week after starting it.

Also, it's very nice not to be reading Victorian literature.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dracula: Review

The thing about reading Dracula is that you know the story. Sort of. You have heard it told numerous times. So you know what will happen. No spoiler warnings needed, none necessary.

What you are left with is the opportunity to take in this story in its original form, without the lens of interpretation guiding the angle at which you view it.

The original is quite good.

Dracula is a basic monster story. In fact, Dracula is my favorite type of monster - the unstoppable evil. Dracula is old, smart, powerful, and endlessly resourceful. For much of the novel, it's not known that Lucy seems ill because she's been attacked by Dracula. The word "vampire" is not used until about half way through the novel. Our heroes are at a loss throughout much of the novel, with no sense of how to defeat this creature. Science has failed them. Logic has failed them. It is the very essence of horror.

Likewise, Dracula is not an emotional character with complex motivations for his behavior. He's just a monster, a creature with a survival instinct, and that is all. Because he victimizes humans, he must be slaughtered. It's refreshingly simple in the modern world of too many vampires with too much angst.

Of course, this simplicity is not free from flaws. In Bram Stoker's world, a vampire is a creature that has not died when it naturally should have. A human soul is trapped in it, so while killing the creature is necessary in order to stop it from killing, it's also a kindness to the human that once was because its soul is finally released. Conveniently, once a person is fully vampire that trapped soul has no influence over the person. This allows Lucy's fiance Arthur to kill her without hesitation. Once Lucy is a vampire she still remembers her life. She still knows enough to use Arthur's love for her in an attempt to take him as a victim. But any goodness she has is gone, and so Arthur can hammer a stake into her breast without shame, revulsion, or guilt - and he feels none of these, even though at the very least he's desecrated the creepy animated corpse of his love.

Likewise, when Mina is slowly transforming into a vampire, she specifically chooses her husband Jonathan as her slayer in the event that she can't be saved. Why? Because it's best if someone you love kills you, in Stoker's bizarre logic.

Reading this, it becomes clear how many others have read Dracula, and felt bothered by these same problems, and decided to give vampires consciences and choices rather than simply making them creatures who feed by instinct. It's also clear why vampire slayers were also created in time. Because really, wouldn't it be better if Van Helsing slayed all these vampires and spared those who loved Lucy and Mina the most?

Of course, all this killing of your own leads to another main theme of the novel, which is madness. The mystery of what is happening to Lucy, Jonathan's account of what happened to him in Dracula's castle, the bizarre shifts in weather and strange behavior of animals, all these elements combine to make all the protagonist feel their grip on sanity loosen, with the exception of the stalwart Van Helsing. Fittingly there is a lunatic asylum at the center of the swirling madness, with Renfield at the eye of the storm performing a function very similar to the fool in King Lear, speaking truths that no one heeds because of his station in life.

There are a few other minor flaws in the novel. Mostly it suffers from a long-windedness that I find difficult to get past in most Victorian stories. I'm particularly annoyed that whenever action is taken to fight Dracula, everything is done twice, like a little practice run is needed before we really get down to business. I think Stoker wrote in this way to make it seem more realistic, but it just slows down the story unnecessarily, and often makes the characters seem reluctant to act. Of course, this same devotion to realism is the reason why our heroes are keenly aware that their job involves a lot of breaking and entering, and also an act that any witnesses would call murder, and so they have the practical dilemma of taking precautions to avoid being arrested.

In this way Stoker avoids the wild suspension of disbelief that some horror stories completely depend upon. It is clear why Dracula is not only the archetypal vampire story, but also an archetypal horror story.

I'll be taking a little break for a while because of the demands of Christmas, and also to read Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I am inspired by this novel to watch several film translations of the story, and so next up, I'll be posting about those films and my thoughts on all of that.