Elegy for Dracula

Randon Noble Click to read more...

Randon Billings Noble author photo 2x3 72Randon Billings Noble is an essayist.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; The Millions; Brain, Child; The Georgia Review and Brevity.  She is a non-fiction reader for r. kv. r. k. y. quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK.  More of her work is available at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

In the summer he wore madras shorts and a black turtleneck and small, round dark-framed glasses. He was from a different town, went to a different school, and I was intrigued by this tall thin figure half in black. And he was intrigued by me. I wish I could remember the details of our early courtship, how we exchanged the phone numbers that led to the convoluted late night conversations that bordered on psychological warfare. I wish I could remember what I was thinking on the train ride that late summer day when we had our first date. Or the exact feeling behind our perfect kiss under a tree in the park at the center of town. I only remember calling it perfect in my mind, and that no other first kiss has quite matched it.

But then he left for boarding school. He sent bulky packages full of black and white photographs that he had developed in his school darkroom and I sent scraps of poetry copied from anthologies stolen from my English department’s lounge. And then, late one mid-January night, the phone rang. I was in bed, wrapped up in plum flannel sheets bleached grey by the moonlight. He was at a payphone in his dorm, leaning against the cinderblock wall, squinting in the fluorescent light. He had just slit his wrists. There was blood on the floor, he said, but he had found a bandage.

Here too, I forget. I don’t remember what he said or I said. I don’t remember how I knew that his attempt wasn’t serious, that he wasn’t going to die that night in the cold bright hall. After I hung up I lay still in my warm sheets, gazing up at the glow-in-the-dark stars arranged on my ceiling in constellations known only to me. The next day I went to school and learned that the U.S. had just declared war on Iraq, and I sat through my classes in silence. Later I remember calling his parents. His mother was quiet, unsurprised.

He was sent home. The next time I saw him was on his sun porch. We sat on the same couch where we had lounged watching movies with his little brother, where his dad had once caught us asleep together and started yelling, where I broke his father’s hold on my arm before I stalked out. He was in shorts again, even though it was January, and a coarsely woven argyle sweater. He would not talk to me and when I tried to talk to him he hit himself in the face. He never gave me an explanation. I could no longer stay.

Six months later I left for Michigan. My first year at the University I got all A’s and lived in a high tiny single. I dated a French horn player and read Isak Dinesen. By the time I was a sophomore I had declared myself an English major. My junior year I rented my first apartment on South University and sat on its hard red couch looking out an enormous corner window onto the street below.

Somewhere in between my first room at Michigan and my first apartment on South University I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and promptly fell in love with it. The film takes Dracula’s line from the book – “I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past” – and runs with it all the way back to the Middle Ages. The Dracula from the book becomes Vlad the Impaler, defending his land against invading Muslim Turks, but is undone by his enemies when they tell his wife that he has been killed in battle. Elizabeta is so distraught that she throws herself from a high castle window into the river below. When Dracula learns that she is damned for committing suicide he renounces the church and – the logistics are a little unclear here – becomes a vampire. Four hundred years later, Dracula discovers that his lawyer’s fiancée, Mina Murray, looks exactly like his dead wife Elizabeta, and Dracula comes to England to claim her.

After pursuing her in the guise of a foreign prince, he manages to get her alone, pulling her into a private room with such smoothness they appear to be gliding. In this temporary privacy he whispers to her in his own language, a dark mumbling of harsh consonants and round vowels. His teeth come out at the sight of her exposed neck but he stops just at the brink of biting her. Does his “human” nature overpower his monstrous instincts? Or is it a desire for something more than blood that stops him? Mina is more than just a physical conquest, more than just blood to be claimed; she is the exact image of his long-dead wife. It is fate that brings them back together – gliding, irresistible fate.

My second year at Michigan fate brought my dark one to the Midwest and we began again. It seemed easy to pick up where we had left off despite our terrible break up and the silence that followed. He was the smartest and most passionate person I had ever met and I was nineteen; I could handle whatever he dished out. We prowled Ann Arbor’s cafes and sipped yerba mattes through metal straws. We scrunched up together on my tiny red couch and read: Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Kate Chopin. When we fought – and when we loved – we often bit and scratched. Once, in the middle of the night, he went next door to stop a terrible fight we heard through the walls. More often the fight was our own.

At the end of my junior year I left the two-room apartment on South University in his care and spent the summer in New Hampshire. There I met someone like Dracula’s Quincey Morris – not a Texan, but an adventurer with a straightforward intention to do good – and his light flirtation was different enough from my dark one’s attractions that I was intrigued. For his own mysterious reasons my dark one, my D., refused to write or call me while I was away, and his silence made it easier to listen to my Quincey’s tales of kayaking the Great Lakes or winter camping on Isle Royal. Soon we were taking long walks in the woods, our pinkie fingers joined, not quite admitting to holding hands. Our last night on Lake Winnipesauke we shared a cot in the camp’s infirmary. Two days later, back in Ann Arbor, I broke up with D.

His reaction was bad. I spent the night at a friend’s. The next day I returned to my apartment to find that D. had moved out, but all of my book spines were marked with a smear of blood. Only a few weeks later I moved in to a one-room apartment on Church Street.

But I still felt tied to D. Only a year earlier, in that small apartment on South University, D. and I had agreed to marry if unmarried by thirty (which, then, seemed a lifetime away). We planned to meet in the Water Lilies room at the Museum of Modern Art on a certain date, halfway between my thirtieth birthday and his. I was still bound to him, still waiting for his call.

D. did call – when I was in graduate school – long after my Quincey and I had parted ways. Once I flew out to a lonely Midwest town to spend a weekend with him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day and in a gesture of irony we went to Hooters. Once, a year later, we met at a New York café, and on a street corner in Soho he picked me up, twirled me around and kissed me even though we both belonged to someone else. We always called these “moments out of time.” It seemed that in some way we would always be there for each other, that our bond was stronger than others, that we could take from each other what we needed – or wanted – regardless of others in our lives. We were each other’s future.

But then, at twenty-nine, I met J.

Within months I knew that he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. D. and I had drifted; we hadn’t talked in months if not years and I only thought of him after I turned thirty and the day of our meeting approached. But by then I had learned that the Museum of Modern Art had moved to Queens for renovation. And Monet’s Water Lilies were not in Manhattan or in their temporary home in Queens: they were packed up and in transit somewhere in between. I took this as more than a sign.

D. and I didn’t meet. J. proposed during a spring snowstorm in the Bishop’s Garden of the National Cathedral and I said yes. Later that month I started rereading Dracula.

***

We first meet Jonathan Harker at the very beginning of the novel. He is on his way to Dracula’s castle, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, and he writes in his diary: “I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.” There is nothing very striking in Jonathan’s personality from these early entries; our interest is more in what he observes than in the observer himself. Later Dr. Seward is surprised at Jonathan’s appearance: “He is uncommonly clever … If his journal is true … he is also a man of great nerve … I was prepared to meet a good specimen of manhood, but hardly the quiet, business-like gentleman who came here today.”

When I first met J. he, too, seemed the right content in the wrong form. Instead of the particular “specimen of manhood” Seward (and I) expected, J. is my height, slightly built, more of an artist than a scholar, with green eyes and short dark blonde hair – not the tall, dark stereotype I thought I was holding out for. Just after we met I left for a two-month teaching job in New England, and our correspondence began with a post card, then a series of letters.

Mina, too, is a letter writer – and a teacher. But while I was getting regular missives from J., Mina receives only a “few hurried lines” from Jonathan saying that he will return in a week. But then, for months, there is silence. Now, after my own courtship of letters, and my own engagement, I can better understand Mina’s fears for her fiancé. As I read I imagined J. lost in the heart of Romania, perhaps imprisoned, perhaps ill, not speaking the language, and if he had the modern convenience of a cell phone its signal would be cut off by the Carpathian Mountains long before it reached me.

In the book Mina suffers in Jonathan’s long absence. The reader knows – as Mina does not – that Jonathan has been kept a prisoner in Dracula’s castle before he attempts a daring escape. But in Coppola’s movie Mina is too busy having an affair with Dracula to show any real concern. When news of Jonathan finally arrives she says to herself, “My sweet prince … Jonathan must never know of us,” and destroys her diary on her way to the convent where she and Jonathan will be married without delay – or confession. This is a huge departure from the book, where Mina’s diary and her willingness to share it becomes the key to Dracula’s undoing.

Because Mina compiles the characters’ private writing (Jonathan’s diary, Seward’s notes about his patient Lucy, telegrams from Seward’s mentor Van Helsing, letters between Mina and Lucy), they can read their larger story, instead of being limited to their own particular part of it, and this plays a crucial role in the understanding and ultimate defeat of Dracula. Their words save them all – when they have the right reader, and Mina is that reader.

But then Mina becomes Dracula’s greatest victim. With Jonathan asleep beside her, Dracula seeps into their bedroom, forcing her to drink his own blood. “You,” he says, “their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin; my bountiful wine-press for awhile; and shall be later on my companion and my helper … When my brain says ‘Come!’ to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding …” This is not gliding, resistless fate. This is violent, deliberate evil. Stoker’s Dracula has indeed dealt a savage blow by turning Jonathan’s “best beloved” against him – and herself.

This scene in Coppola’s movie is completely different. Jonathan is out destroying Dracula’s safe-house when Dracula materializes not by Mina’s bed but in it. When she wakes from her sleep she welcomes him, calling him her “love.” And Dracula loves her too. He insists on explaining who he is – “lifeless, soulless, hated and feared. I am the monster that breathing men would kill; I am Dracula” – but she still loves him. He warns her that “to walk with me you must die to your breathing life and be reborn to mine” but Mina insists, “I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.” But when she starts to drink the blood from his chest he stops her. “No,” he says, “I cannot let this be … I love you too much to condemn you.” But Mina drinks willingly. In the book this was a scene of horror, an act akin to rape, but here in the film it has become the consummation of romantic love.

When I first saw this movie at nineteen, the idea of a dark immortality was immensely attractive. It was easy to see how Mina would prefer Dracula to Jonathan. In the book Jonathan is a respectable solicitor with unsuspected depth. He conspires to escape Dracula’s castle and succeeds. He trusts Mina with his secrets. He is a devoted husband. But in the movie Keanu Reeves portrays Jonathan as a wooden prig, which makes it all the more understandable – desirable, even – for Mina to turn away from him to answer Dracula’s call.

In the movie Dracula has it all – the seductive powers of a confident man as well as the supernatural powers of an immortal. And his control over Mina is intensified by predestination. Mina appears to be Dracula’s wife Elizabeta reincarnated and, with the help of Dracula’s relentless pursuit, she falls passionately in love with him (again). If I were swept away by Dracula it wouldn’t be my fault. I would be acting under forces beyond my control. I wouldn’t leave Jonathan Harker – whoever he was in my life at the time. I would be taken from him. I would be swept away by passion and fate.

And passion, I think, is the key. We think of passion as romantic or sexual, but its earliest usage refers to the agonies of Christ or a Christian martyr: “senses relating to physical suffering and pain.” This is especially interesting in this context, since Dracula in both the book and the movie is seen as a sort of anti-Christ. The word evolved to include both positive and negative feelings: “any strong, controlling, or overpowering emotion, as desire, hate, fear, etc.,” and this is what Dracula’s victims feel for him. They are all overpowered by him. In the movie it is out of love (in Mina’s case) or desire (in Lucy’s); in the book they are overpowered by hate and fear. Although Mina may love Jonathan and hate and fear Dracula, she is still bound to Dracula, waiting for his call. Only after the 16th century does passion become associated with love, romance and desire; it becomes a word that we are familiar with. But the third definition of “passion” may surprise us: “Senses relating to passivity … The fact or condition of being acted upon; subjection to external force; esp. … passivity (opposed to action).” “Passion” and “passive” share the same root, and it can be easy to confuse them.

I confused them. Time after time I gave up action and responsibility for passionate passivity, gliding, resistless, into what I thought was fate. D. and I lived outside the bounds of convention or ethics. We were entitled to our “moments out of time” no matter who they might hurt.

Now that I’ve found someone for whom I feel more than passion, I have a new appreciation for the selfless, active, not righteous but right love that Jonathan and Mina share in the book. And the passage that shows me this love most clearly is an entry from Jonathan’s diary: “To one thing I have made up my mind; if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone.” Lucy’s fiancé Arthur is completely repulsed by the undead Lucy and never considers the possibility of accompanying her into that “unknown and terrible land.” Would Jonathan yield to Mina’s vampire call, even if it horrified him? Would he go with her to the land of the un-dead? This would go against everything he believes as a man and as a Christian, and yet it looks like he would. This shows me what kind of a man Jonathan really is; he is anything but the uptight prude that Keanu Reeves portrays him as. In fact, he is more of a man than Arthur and more of a man than Dracula. He would give not only his life for Mina but also his death – the kind of sacrifice that no other character is willing to make.

But I didn’t see any of this until now, now that I have met the man I am going to marry, a man who would follow me into the unknown. Before this, Dracula seemed like a dark savior poised to pull me out of whatever bland romance I might be trapped in, and I thought of D. in much the same way. Now, though, when I reread the book, I feel Mina’s horror when the men burst into her bedroom and pull her bloody mouth from Dracula’s breast. I feel the tremors that course through her body as she screams “Unclean, unclean!” and the guilt that sears her conscience when her husband’s hair turns white from shock.

Now, when I watch the movie, I find myself counting the days of Mina and Dracula’s happiness against the years of Dracula’s loneliness. Mina and Dracula spend two evenings together – one in the cinematograph, the other in the absinthe parlor – one season, perhaps – against more than four centuries of his despair. And now that I am engaged to J., a steadfast, committed, giving man, I am less intrigued by Dracula’s dark power than I am moved by Jonathan’s secret resolution to go with Mina into the darkness, if she is so called, because they wed for life, for better and worse, in sickness and health and, in this case, not even un-death would keep them apart.

But in the book, he doesn’t have to follow her into darkness. After a wild chase that ends at Dracula’s castle, just at the moment of sunset, Jonathan slashes Dracula’s throat while Quincey plunges a knife into his heart. Mina later writes in her diary, “It was like a miracle … before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight.” Although Quincey has received a mortal wound, he claims that “it was worth it to die … The curse has passed away!” Dracula is defeated and Mina is freed from his call, restored to both herself and her husband.

The movie has a different ending – and a different legacy. Its chase also ends at Dracula’s castle, but Jonathan’s slash and Quincy’s stab are not enough. Instead of aiming a revolver at Dracula and his gypsy helpers, this Mina levels a rifle at her own husband. “When my time comes will you do the same for me?” she asks. In the book Mina wishes to be killed before she fully transforms into a vampire, but this Mina seems to be asking something different. Faced with the challenge in her voice and the barrel of her gun, Jonathan says no. When Arthur rushes at her with a sword, Jonathan stops him. “No,” he says, “Let them go. Our work is finished here; hers has just begun.” Perhaps there is more to this Jonathan that the film gives him credit for, but this is his last line and there is little to explain it.

Mina and the wounded Dracula retreat to a chapel in his castle where, after a kiss and a knife through the heart, he dies under the centuries-old painting of his younger self reaching out in a swirl of cape to catch the falling Elizabeta. After centuries apart through death and damnation they are finally reunited. It reminded me of my plans with D. to be buried side by side, to have a tube connect our coffins “to continue our conversation” in the afterlife, and to marry at thirty, to steal whatever “moments out of time” we wanted until then, to keep that call between us. However doomed it was, our love, our passion, was that strong.

When the book’s Mina looks back at those months of trial I imagine she will feel only gratitude that Dracula was defeated and that she has been restored. But I wonder what the movie’s Mina thinks after Dracula’s death, after the final resolving chords of the soundtrack, after the screen goes black and the credits roll, after she gathers herself and steps outside the castle gates where her husband, Jonathan, awaits her. What then?

As my wedding approaches I will step forward gladly with J., but I know that even through our years together, I will sometimes be haunted by the fleeting shadow of a figure in black, a glimpse of turtleneck, a drop of blood, the silence that comes before the call, reminders that I have lost something I once cherished, something I can never have again, something I will always carry with me, whether I want it or not.

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Discussion

5 Responses to Elegy for Dracula

  1. Pingback: “Elegy for Dracula” is in Shenandoah’s Noir issue! | Randon Billings Noble

  2. joan Skiscim says:

    A very gripping tale well written. The story keeps your attention to the end but leaves one with the feeling this is not the end. As with all love stories there is never an end.

  3. Love the piece. How beautifully you capture the love that haunts.

  4. hewittc15 says:

    I appreciated this author’s conception of love as a transformative force, in the sense that it inspires a desire to change. I thought it was great to parallel this with the literal transformation that takes place as one becomes a vampire in the Dracula universe. In general, I found that comparing the Dracula romance plots to the author’s own romantic history provided a unique prism, through which I could view relationships in a way I never had before. I came away from the piece with a new understanding of the shadowy side of love stories.

  5. Stephanie Rice says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece that blended literary analysis and personal introspection in such a coherent and interesting way. Perhaps it’s because of the resurgence in popularity of the brooding romantic hero, brooding romantic vampire even, but this work really resonated with me, especially in regards to the dangerous cultural misconception that the “truest” kind of love is tumultuous and dangerous. I loved the look at the different definitions of passion, all ended up being remarkably relevant: idealization of a romantic love that makes us suffer, and ultimately, turns us into passive participants, following wherever the passion leads us.

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