Vampires, anyone? Bram Stoker and Anne Billson

Count Dracula (2750067999).jpg

Having recently revisited Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I first read by torchlight as a teenager during one long terrifying night, I decided to read at random two more modern examples of the genre to see how the vampire has developed since the late nineteenth century. I didn’t bother with the Twilight series as it is so popular and well-known, and really amounts to a love story between a human and a very well-intentioned young male vampire. I wanted something more on the model of the original, a vampire with vast powers, oracular delivery, compelling presence and omniscient knowledge. I didn’t expect the modern vampire literature I read to be especially well-written, which was just as well, for one in particular was dire. I’ll save that one for Sunday’s post.

But first to Dracula. This is a good solid novel of around four hundred pages. It is structured in the form of letters and journal entries. Jonathan Harker is our main protagonist, the young man who travels to Transylvania on one of the most perilous real estate deals ever described. His journey has disquieting events, his host the Count, formal and courteous in his welcome, but also repellent.

As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.

The vampire in this book represents dark, death, madness and disease. Count Dracula is only able to function at night, and his familiar animals are bats and rats. But still, there is an overwhelming power of attraction to yield to the females who have become vampires and whose work it is to add to their ranks. Even the upright Jonathan Harker confesses,

I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

He is ready to succumb:

…. I could see the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and red tongue as it lapped the white teeth…I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on her neck…I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of the two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with a beating heart.

In other words, Jonathan is a goner. If Count Dracula hadn’t intervened at this point we would have an entirely different story.

This book is a fascinating read. Well-written in the long-winded Victorian manner, but full of subplots and unexpected events. Then one also has the pleasure of reading below the surface into the psychic depths that Stoker himself may have only been partly aware of. Is it about the Victorian’s fear of libidinous sexuality, linking it with madness and disease, or is it a reflection on Christianity? Renfield the maniac says

The blood is the life

And Dracula says, after having made a key female character drink his blood

…flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful wine-press for a while.

An excellent read for a winter’s night, but best to have some company or a faithful animal by your side.

For a completely different atmosphere I moved to the world of Suckers set in 1980’s London, into the wild world of the party drug culture. This book is written by Anne Billson, the Sunday Telegraph film critic, who in 1993 was named as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists.

Billson can write, and she can create a world. Her London is full of violence, of mobs smashing shops, of bonfires burning in the streets, all the signs of a society on the verge of collapse. Her narrator, who is deeply involved in the events of this tale, is Dora, a wild girl, an enthusiastic consumer of drugs, who exists on a diet of strong drink and cigarettes. There is a cursory description of her work, which never seems to impinge on her life. The story starts in the present, and then goes back thirteen years to describe the events that led her to fall foul of the vampire, a woman called Violet, then returns to the present as vampires dressed in black become the new cool people in London, awaiting the great vampire takeover of the collapsing society.

This is pacy and amusing enough. Dora signals from the start she is an invincible heroine, so we don’t have to worry about her getting killed or turned into a vampire. There are of course inexplicable things in the plot. Why would Andreas Grauman the vampire’s passionate admirer and aide, let Dora off the hook with a ticket to Paris when he could easily have killed her?

There are some scenes meant to be horrible, as in horror, as in the disposal of Violet’s body:

He’d spread newspapers on the floor and rolled her onto them, but the carpet was still getting soaked. What with both of us bleeding, the room was beginning to look like an abattoir. She lay there winking at him while he wrestled with the cocoon in which she had wrapped herself – layers of feathers and cashmere and fur, all the way down to a black slip edged with lace and crusted with blood. Even when he’d peeled that off, I was relieved to see there was so much blood and mottled purple bruising that she didn’t look naked at all.

Then follows the description of cutting the body into nine parts, which they dispose of in various parts of London. To no avail, of course. Violet does return.

I’m squeamish but the violence here was so tongue-in-cheek that it didn’t upset me too much. What did upset me was the big hole at the centre of the book, Duncan Fender. He is the man Dora has been in love with for the last fifteen years, he is the man the vampire Violet is in love with, but he is a big empty nothing. He is said to be a famous photographer, has no characteristics that come to mind, in appearance or in manner of speech. He is violent towards women, but he is basically passive. His violence is always in response to an insult, but to Dora this is so unimportant it barely registers. He is not in love with her, she is a friend from college, but she stays stuck on him even though he has any number of glamorous girl friends he prefers to her. Occasionally she forces him to have sex with her when one of his preferred partners has died or otherwise gone missing, but she usually says that it wasn’t up to much. Dora is violent, passionate and jealous, her obsession with Duncan is never made convincing.

Now if Count Dracula were the male lead in this story…..

The invasion of the vampires here could be read as a metaphor for AIDS or just a take on the shallowness of cool society. Either way it’s quite a fun read, but not nearly as gripping as Dracula.

 My third choice was pretty bad. So bad I have to confess I couldn’t finish it. Not only was it dull, with lots of telling of back-story, the main female character and narrator (mostly, sometimes the POV slipped) pious and annoying, and with a vampire, who really needs to decide what side he is on. I’ll write more about A Discovery of Witches on Sunday.

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7 thoughts on “Vampires, anyone? Bram Stoker and Anne Billson

  1. I’m not familiar with Anne Billson’s Suckers but I read Dracula within the last ten years. I love the writing of that era. It was a great book.
    Leslie

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  2. There have been times when I’ve considered buying a book and I start ploughing through reviews trying to get info. It always surprises me when I read a “spoiler” that there’s a vampire in the book. Then I pass, grateful that someone wrote that spoiler.
    I am a fan of the old silent vampire films. Can’t get enough of those.

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  3. Max Schrek as Nosferatu, that’s what it’s all about. All that wonderful black and white.Forget about those wimps who drive sports cars as in Sunday’s review. But I do love Stoker’s book. Count Dracula is deliciously rotten.

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  4. Only way to do that now is to watch it at home with the sound off. All the silents seem to have sound tracks added or if in a theatre have piano or orchestral accompaniment. Have you ever read Dracula? One of the must reads I’d say.

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