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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, October 31, 2008

A MOVEABLE FEASTER

As it's Halloween today, mad critics must go the extra mile to do what both they and mad scientists do on a regular basis: take something that's a living whole, tie it down, dissect it, and make it into an unholy thing. (Or maybe, to venture a bad pun, "un-whole-y.")

But despite the Frankensteinian comparison, my subject here is his sometime compeer Dracula, who is the "moveable feaster" of this essay's title. Specifically Stoker's novel is the "living whole" from which I'll be dissecting, though today I'll confine myself to one small part of the Dracula mythos: the aspect of Dracula's earth-filled coffins, which makes it possible for Dracula to move from place to place and menace respectable English Victorians.

Stoker's vampire is certainly not the first vampire who was able to move about freely, in contradiction to folkloric revenants who usually had to return to their graves by daybreak. John Polidori's Lord Ruthven, conceived in the same Romantic jam-session that spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, seemed immune to the call of the earth, and walked about in day or night regardless. But Stoker apparently had a very specific set of ideas about how vampires might function. And though many aspects of Stoker's vampire myth have been mined by later authors, Dracula's reason for needing to repose in coffins full of native soil seem to have been forgotten by later vampire-mythographers.

Early in the novel, Dracula tells Jonathan Harker:

"Why, there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders."

Naturally, at that point in the novel, the vampire does not dwell on how this "blood-enriched" earth is going to make it possible for him to pick up stakes (so to speak) and invade merry old England. But much later in the novel, Van Helsing goes into greater detail about Dracula's literal need for earth that has been sanctified (as well as ensanguinated) by the past:

"There have been from the loins of this very one [Dracula] great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell. For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good; in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest."

So in Stoker's mythos the sacred earth of Dracula's Transylvania is replete with both "the blood of the heroic dead" and "memories of great men and good women." Blood, then, is not just plasma and platelets in Stoker's cosmos, but rather the objective correlate of life itself, a sort of vitality that doesn't vanish with the deaths of individual humans but which seeps into the earth and sustains the life of a vampire quite as much as feeding off the blood of the living. This "sacred earth" explanation may explain how Dracula and his vampire brides managed to survive without exsanguinating every last mortal left in the region, especially given that Stoker's Transylvania often seems like a barren Hades-on-Earth, lacking the vitality that Dracula praises in past generations of his land. Stoker, in formulating this notion of the vampire needing to take his native soil with him when he departed for other climes, was thus overcoming the folkloric notion that a vampire had to return to his grave. Thanks to Stoker, Dracula could take his grave with him as he travelled.

To be sure, Stoker never has any scenes which directly prove Van Helsing's assertion about Dracula's dependence on Transylvanian soil-- that is, scenes like having Dracula try without success to sleep in English soil. But apparently whatever "blood-memories" in Dracula's native soil nourish the vampire, that vitality can be trumped by a greater vitality, as Van Helsing uses holy wafers, presumably blessed by the Catholic Church, to make some of Dracula's earth-filled coffins useless to him. (Side-note: the "holy water" device popular in many later vampire-tales appears nowhere in the original novel.) Still, the original folklore-limitation does crop again with respect to Dracula's only vampiric convert in England, for apparently Lucy Westenra can't just go anywhere she likes, but is obliged to return to her mausoleum at daybreak. Stoker does not emphasize her dependence on being close to English soil, but one must presume that she has some such dependence on returning to her original grave.

To be continued in MOVEABLE FEASTER, PART 2--

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