Thursday, June 10, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be disturbing (part one)

In the early going, Dracula appears to be chock full of lessons for fiction writers. We are riding along with Jonathan Harker as he cheerily makes his way to Castle Dracula, devouring paprika-laden meals--which make him thirsty--and learning a ton about what writers can do with landscape. Perhaps this notion has occurred to me because I acquired my copy of Dracula from a table of books a professor was purging from her office; and said professor has helpfully annotated the first section with repeated iterations of the word "landscape." But what a landscape it is!

If you haven't read this book recently, you might assume Jonathan's journey occurs entirely at night, in a thunderstorm, with black, frothing horses, a mysterious coachman, and weird little fires in the distance. There will be plenty of that sort of thing, but what you need to make it work is contrast. So here's how Stoker sets it up:

They were evidently talking of me, for every now and then they looked at me, and some of the people who were sitting on the bench outside the door--came and listened, and then looked at me, most of them pityingly. I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd, so I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out.

I must say they were not cheering to me, for amongst them were "Ordog"--Satan, "Pokol"--hell, "stregoica"--witch, "vrolok" and "vlkoslak"--both mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire. (Mem., I must ask the Count about these superstitions.)

When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me.

With some difficulty, I got a fellow passenger to tell me what they meant. He would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye.

This was not very pleasant for me, just starting for an unknown place to meet an unknown man. But everyone seemed so kind-hearted, and so sorrowful, and so sympathetic that I could not but be touched.

I shall never forget the last glimpse which I had of the inn yard and its crowd of picturesque figures, all crossing themselves, as they stood round the wide archway, with its background of rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs clustered in the centre of the yard.

There's nothing like a Slavic language for conveying spookiness, and these early diary entries are sprinkled with amusing "mems" to "ask the Count" about local customs and superstitions. Jonathan even wants to ask him for a recipe. Now that's dramatic irony. But in the midst of all this foreboding and foreshadowing, notice the "rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs." To Jonathan, it's this lushness surrounding the terrified figures that makes the scene unforgettable.

Then the lushness really burgeons:

I soon lost sight and recollection of ghostly fears in the beauty of the scene as we drove along, although had I known the language, or rather languages, which my fellow-passengers were speaking, I might not have been able to throw them off so easily. Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road. There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossom--apple, plum, pear, cherry. And as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals. In and out amongst these green hills of what they call here the "Mittel Land" ran the road, losing itself as it swept round the grassy curve, or was shut out by the straggling ends of pine woods, which here and there ran down the hillsides like tongues of flame. The road was rugged, but still we seemed to fly over it with a feverish haste. I could not understand then what the haste meant, but the driver was evidently bent on losing no time in reaching Borgo Prund. I was told that this road is in summertime excellent, but that it had not yet been put in order after the winter snows. In this respect it is different from the general run of roads in the Carpathians, for it is an old tradition that they are not to be kept in too good order. Of old the Hospadars would not repair them, lest the Turk should think that they were preparing to bring in foreign troops, and so hasten the war which was always really at loading point.

Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water. One of my companions touched my arm as we swept round the base of a hill and opened up the lofty, snow-covered peak of a mountain, which seemed, as we wound on our serpentine way, to be right before us.

"Look! Isten szek!"--"God's seat!"--and he crossed himself reverently.

We ride through what ought to be a soothing, pastoral scene. But there are a few undercurrents--the mysterious mutterings of the other passengers, the possibility of war with "the Turk." Also the land, bursting forth with Nature's beauty, is just a little too. The peaks are a little too high and pointy, the blossoms too massive, the colors too strong. The effect is queasy and erotic in equal parts (the word "feverish" is one place where the currents meet). Stoker, as we will see, is particularly good at this balancing act. Also we've just seen villagers crossing themselves for protection from Ordog et al, and now a passenger crosses himself in reverence for "God's seat"--which makes God himself part of this unsettling landscape, rather than a benevolent figure who watches over it from outside. He is going to be no help.

Is this not extremely creepy? As Stephen King once said, true horror happens in broad daylight. We've seen this technique before--taking objects or scenes that should be soothing, in either their ordinariness or their beauty, and giving them a little twist so that they become uncanny.

And then the sun goes down...

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