Sunday, June 27, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How to be disturbing (part two)

There are only two types of stories: person goes on a journey, or stranger comes to town. (Someone told me that.) Dracula is both. In the beginning of the novel, Jonathan goes on a journey to Dracula's castle. But soon the trajectory shifts, and Dracula comes to England, Jonathan's home. Of course we could turn the whole scheme inside out and see it from the Count's point of view--Jonathan is the stranger who comes to town, and then Dracula goes on a journey. But Dracula's is one point of view we don't get in the novel. Maybe we should consider that in another post.

The approach of Dracula unsettles the coastal town where Jonathan's fiancee Mina is staying with her sensitive friend Lucy. A colossal storm brews. Lucy begins sleepwalking, as a mental patient, Renfield, steps up his unfortunate eating habits. An old man Mina has befriended buttonholes her on the beach:

"Some day soon the Angel of Death will sound his trumpet for me. But don't ye dooal an' greet, my deary!"--for he saw that I was crying--"if he should come this very night I'd not refuse to answer his call. For life be, after all, only a waitin' for somethin' else than what we're doin', and death be all that we can rightly depend on. But I'm content, for it's comin' to me, my deary, and comin' quick. It may be comin' while we be lookin' and wonderin'. Maybe it's in that wind out over the sea that's bringin' with it loss and wreck, and sore distress, and sad hearts. Look! Look!" he cried suddenly. "There's something in that wind and in the hoast beyont that sounds, and looks, and tastes, and smells like death. It's in the air. I feel it comin'. Lord, make me answer cheerful, when my call comes!"
And sure enough:

I was glad when the coastguard came along, with his spyglass under his arm. He stopped to talk with me, as he always does, but all the time kept looking at a strange ship.

"I can't make her out," he said. "She's a Russian, by the look of her. But she's knocking about in the queerest way. She doesn't know her mind a bit. She seems to see the storm coming, but can't decide whether to run up north in the open, or to put in here. Look there again! She is steered mighty strangely, for she doesn't mind the hand on the wheel, changes about with every puff of wind. We'll hear more of her before this time tomorrow."

What makes Dracula's approach so ominous is the number of levels on which it disturbs the world. Certain especially sensitive people can feel him coming, and begin to prepare themselves, each in his or her own way. The sea and sky are perturbed. The old man insists the very scent of death is in the air, which is an especially frightening image. Smell is an animal's way of experiencing the world, and in a short time the animal nature of many characters (human and otherwise) will come to the fore.

I especially like the coastguard's description of the oncoming ship "knocking about in the queerest way." More than the coming storm, it seems to me, this image suggests a loss of balance, discombobulation. I've mentioned this strategy of "weirding" the familiar a few times before--in posts on The Secret Agent and Moby Dick--and there is nothing like it for giving your reader the creeps. The ship is recognizable, though foreign, but its gait is "off" in a way the coastguard can't quite figure out.

I'm suggesting here that if you want to be disturbing in your fiction (and who doesn't?), you can create a complex texture of disturbance. On scales ranging from the very small (an old man's sense of smell) to the very large ("All is vastness, the clouds are piled up like giant rocks), the world is ruffled.

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