I was happy to dive into the latest take on Dracula via the BBC: Claes Bang and Dolly Wells. But I marvel anew at the attempts to make the count a sexy predator irresistible to women — and in this case men, too, which is at least something of an advance on the novel’s Victorian morality. Stoker had to invent the three ‘brides’ to avoid any suggestion of male-on-male shenanigans, but Gatiss et. al. don’t mind that a bit. Having taught the text a few times, I can’t help turning my mind back to Jonathan Harker’s first descriptions of the Count:
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 guess unibrows have a different cultural weight now, and the art of the ’tache is elusive (too easy to veer into creepy/cheesy) — to say nothing of elf ears. Can’t make elves scary after the elegance of those Tolkien adaptations, I guess. And rabbitty teeth would hardly make the Count look dangerous, now would they? Oh, but there’s more:
Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine; but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse—broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.
Dracula is uncanny, not sexy. And those pointy nails and hairy palms — could he be indulging in that horrid practice boys learned at school? Yes, the Victorians really were obsessed with masturbation. R. J. Brodie wrote in The Secret Companion (1845) that the confirmed self-abuser “less resembled a living creature than a corpse.” Messed up, eh? Is it any wonder that the libidinous Lucy Westenra, who wonders aloud why a woman can’t have as many husbands as she likes, gets dispatched as a vampire in a scene that reads like a gang rape (if you don’t believe me, read it for yourself).
[here be spoilers]
It’s interesting that the new version shifts this connection of sex and death slightly. Not so much Keats’ melancholy ‘half in love with easeful Death’ but a whole-hearted bang at the conflagration of a collapsing empire perhaps. They’ve rolled all of the intelligent observation and industriousness of Mina Murray-Harker into Sister Agatha/Zoe (and unforgivably, turned Mina into a vapid simp), but her dissection of Dracula’s ‘real’ issues feels a bit facile: even a damp squib. But then they offset it with boning through the apocalypse, I suppose. The world is on fire, but the sex is hot.
There’s a clay-foot trend in recent times to show that heroes aren’t really heroes and this seems to go down a similar roots that monsters are not really monsters (though longevity through neurosis is something to think about). I’m not sure it works, but Dolly Wells keeps you riveted and Bang seems to be having a ball. How would you do Dracula? There’s always a little more life in that corpse.
Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White Rabbit, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.