Dracula Extrapolated: “The Lady of the House of Love”

The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text. Tonight, I take a look at Angela Carter’s Gothic/erotic fairy tale, “The Lady of the House of Love” (first published in 1975; collected in The Bloody Chamber).

What if Dracula’s daughter were a reluctant vampire, bloodthirsty but love-craving?

The eponymous vampiress of Carter’s lush tale is “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler, who picnicked on corpses in the forests of Transylvania” (“The Lady of the House of Love” first appeared only three years after Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula mistakenly conflated the historical Wallachian ruler with Stoker’s fictional character). Her “habitual tormented somnambulism, her life or imitation of life” recalls the nocturnal and postmortem ventures of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. But the Countess Nosferatu (as Carter later titles her protagonist), with her unnatural beauty and her entrapment in a rotting, cobwebbed chateau, links most closely with the kept vampire women (the Count’s wife and daughters?) at Castle Dracula. The very “voluptuousness” with which the Countess feasts echoes Jonathan Harker’s diaristic depiction of the female vampires.

But Carter arguably establishes such a parallel to signal a deviation. When the vampire women speak of love to Dracula, perversion of the notion is easily discerned. Likewise, their sexually-charged advances on Jonathan point to nothing more than a wicked toying with their food. Dracula’s women revel evilly in their vampiric condition, whereas Carter’s Countess bears a “horrible reluctance for the role” of bloodsucking seductress. Harrowing as her dietary needs might be, the Countess is presented as more of a heroine. She’s “haunted” by her own uncanny kin, her “demented and atrocious ancestors” who form portraits of grim circumscription: “The beastly forebears [pictured] on the wall condemned her to a perpetual repetition of their passions.” The Countess genuinely yearns to be human, to be cured “of her disorder, of her soulnessness.” She hopes that love can one day free her from her frightful fate, from “the timeless Gothic eternity” of her vampirism.

Opportunity appears to knock in the person of a young British soldier who wanders into the nearby village and is ushered into the castle by the Countess’s human governess/procurer. Could he be more than the Countess’s next meal, and instead the incarnation of the Lover prophesied by her Tarot cards? The climax of the story is no doubt ambiguous (in no small part because the events on the night of the Countess’s and the soldier’s encounter are never fully related). Perhaps the soldier rescues the Countess by virtue of his gentle attentiveness to her: “in himself, by his presence, he is an exorcism.” The “Sleeping Beauty” (as the Countess repeatedly fashions herself) might at last awaken from her darkly enchanted state. Yet when the soldier arises the next morning, he seems closer to a Professor Van Helsing than a Prince Charming:

Then he padded into the boudoir, his mind busy with plans. We shall take her to Zurich, to a clinic; she will be treated for nervous hysteria. Then to an an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist, to put her teeth into better shape. Any competent manicurist will deal with her claws. We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is; I shall cure her of all these nightmares.

Ultimately, the soldier doesn’t seem to recognize the Countess for who/what she really is, and instead seeks to mold her to his vision of feminine beauty and well-being. His paternalistic plans sound like a fate worse than undeath. The soldier soon discovers, though, that the Countess has since perished (after she deliberately drew the curtains and let the sunlight beam into her boudoir). He has been left with a “souvenir,”  a withered rose that serves as a highly symbolic stand-in for the Countess herself. The soldier subsequently rejoins his regiment, and attempts to “resurrect” the rose by placing it in his water-filled “tooth glass.” That evening, he witnesses an amazing revival: “a glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendour.”

At first, this ending might be read negatively: the Countess is (figuratively) reborn only to be reinscribed, to reprise her vampiric existence and resume the cycle of predation she loathes. Liberation, however, could be at hand at last. Stoker’s vampire women are abandoned/imprisoned at Castle Dracula (at least until Van Helsing destroys them), but Countess Nosferatu gets to move beyond her lonely chateau and the “huge, spiked wall” of corpse-fed roses that “incarcerate[d] her in the castle of her inheritance.” If the solider falls short as the lover the Countess envisioned, he nevertheless succeeds in carrying her a long way from her decadent Romanian home. Carter’s story abruptly concludes with the single-sentence paragraph “Next day, his regiment embarked for France.” The line suggests more than the soldier’s march to his likely death in the trenches of World War I. France is also a romantically-renowned country, and thus furnishes promising soil for the transplanted Countess. While Stoker’s narrative is driven by the terror of homeland invasion (by an emigrating king vampire), Carter’s answer to Dracula strikes a much less ominous note as it hints at the founding of a new, truer House of Love in the Western world.

 

Lore Report: “Under the Influence” (Episode 172)

And while history is filled with examples of bad leaders, one man from a century ago set the bar incredibly low. Lives were destroyed, families were torn apart, and an entire community was imprisoned by fear–all because of dark magic.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast opens with a revealing anecdote about George Washington, and then sets up a captivating topic (as can be gleaned from the excerpt quoted above). From there, host Aaron Mahnke proceeds to trace the machinations of one Edward Arthur Wilson (a.k.a. “Brother XII”), an early-20th Century cult leader of a community known as the Aquarian Foundation. Like many an evangelist who would come after him, Wilson proved a charismatic figure of dubious moral character. He was even taken to court by his own followers, and at this point the narrative grows quite interesting, as a series of inexplicable courtroom incidents stymie Wilson’s would-be prosecutors. This outburst of the strange and possibly supernatural, though, represents a fleeting foray into true Lore territory, and Wilson’s story fails to justify such an extensive focus. Ultimately, “Under the Influence” presents a sobering prospect: that after 172 episodes, the podcast’s well of entertaining folklore is at last beginning to run dry.

 

Mob Scene: “Shambleau”

Catherine L. Moore’s classic 1933 tale of alien parasitism, “Shambleau” (one of the most popular pieces ever to be published in Weird Tales), opens with a scene of angry villagers on the hunt. “The wild hysteria of the mob” rings in the streets of Lakkdarol, a Wild-West-type Martian settlement–“a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did.” A “motley crowd” has gathered: “Earthmen and Martians and a sprinkling of Venusian swampmen and strange, nameless denizens of unnamed planets–a typical Lakkdarol mob.” But there is nothing typical about the mob scene that unfolds. The pursuers gripped by “the savage exultation of the chase” strangely slip between referring to their quarry as a “girl” and a “thing.” The observation that “They desired the girl with an explicable bloodthirstiness” also intrigues with its ambiguity, its blurring of the line between attacking and attraction. When the protagonist Northwest Smith, in a burst of chivalry, intervenes and claims that the girl is with him, the mob’s “animosity” instantly transforms into “horror” and “disgust.” The scornful crowd abandons Smith “as swiftly as if whatever unknowing sin he had committed were contagious.”

The furious pursuit of the “berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment” might be construed as the tracking of a runaway slave (Moore also invokes the context of witch-hunting), but what Smith fails to realize is that the townspeople’s repeated chant of the foreign word “Shambleau” is the equivalent of Eastern European peasants crying vampire. It’s not until after Smith invites the girl home that he (slowly) discovers the predatorial threat underlying her exotic, feline femininity. The red turban worn on the head of the creature (who is posited as the potential origin of the Earthly myth of the Medusa) conceals a nest of writhing tentacles that surreptitiously attach themselves to Smith and suck his life-force. What’s worse, this awful mode of feeding creates an erotic feeling–an addictive thrill–in the victim. By story’s end, the curious behavior of the mob in the opening scene is clarified (and the desperate urge to exterminate perhaps justified). The Shambleau was chased after so impassionedly not simply because she was some swarthy, criminal Other, but because she was recognized as the source of the guiltiest of pleasures.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is, in and of itself, a landmark of Gothic horror. It is also the most influential work of horror ever written, having inspired countless tales of vampire-themed fiction, not to mention an ever-growing number of film and television adaptations. Today, in honor of the 124th anniversary of the original publication date of Stoker’s novel, I am debuting a new feature here on my Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog. Dracula Extrapolated will explore various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Stoker’s source text. I begin with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

What If the character Dracula was equated with the historical figure Vlad Tepes and then transformed into a tragic lover?

The opening scene of Coppola’s film intriguingly flashes back four centuries and furnishes an origin story for Count Dracula’s vampirism. While the Christian knight Vlad Dracula is off fighting a war against the Turks, a devious missive is sent to his beloved wife Elisabeta claiming that he has been slain in battle. Distraught over the (false) report, Elisabeta throws herself from the walls of Castle Dracula. Dracula returns home to grieve over her corpse, only to be told by the priests in attendance that as a suicide, Elisabeta is damned in the eyes of the Church and cannot be given a Christian burial. Enraged, Dracula desecrates the chapel, renounces God, and vows to return from his own death “to avenge [his wife’s] with all the powers of darkness.” His rash deeds and words earn him God’s curse, an eternally bloodthirsty existence as the undead.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Coppola’s film perpetuates a great fallacy–that Stoker based his fictional character on a real-life antecedent (scholar Elizabeth Miller devotes a whole chapter of her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense to debunking such myth, convincingly arguing that Stoker only found a name for Dracula in the historical Vlad and knew nothing about the Impaler’s grim proclivities and fearful reputation). Similarly, we can forgive the film’s derivative deployment of the reincarnated-love-interest (Elisabeta ends up reembodied as Mina) plot device whose history traces back to other Universal Monster films (cf. 1932’s The Mummy) and extends through vampire narratives of the 20th Century (the 60’s soap opera Dark Shadows; the 1973 Dan-Curtis-produced TV film Dracula). The question to consider here is: what are the ramifications of the Coppola film’s narrative maneuver?

On the positive side, the film’s prologue not only provides a rationale for Vlad the Impaler’s evil reputation as a scourging warlord, but also motivates the actions of the Dracula character. One of the weaknesses of Stoker’s novel is its resort to credulity-challenging coincidence: how convenient indeed that when traveling from Transylvania (where Jonathan Harker has been left imprisoned), Dracula lands in a spot in England that lets him to sink his teeth into Harker’s friend Lucy and his fiancée Mina (a choice of prey that later allows the book’s write-minded protagonists to compare notes and compose a plan for defeating the vampire). Here in the film there’s at least an understandable explanation for Dracula’s specific path of predation. Lucy serves as little more than a replenishing meal, but Mina’s pursuit by Dracula is a deliberate attempt to reunite with the woman he’s identified as his lost love.

But if the film clarifies Dracula’s motivations, it simultaneously muddles the character’s iconic monstrosity. In its determination to turn Gothic horror into Gothic romance, Coppola’s Dracula (calling it Bram Stoker’s Dracula surely creates one of the most misleading titles of all time) subverts its terrifying first act: the scenes set at Castle Dracula, where Gary Oldman cuts a supremely sinister figure as the Count. After his emigration to, and rejuvenation within, England, Dracula becomes a confusing person for the audience: should viewers actually root for the vampire to get the girl (who was already his bride in a past life)? Should we fear Dracula for his bloodlust, or pity him for being love-starved for so long? Dracula hardly strikes as imposing after Mina breaks off their affair (for the moment, at least) to wed Jonathan: Dracula’s bout of wild, dare I say womanly, weeping (an ugly display of emotion that turns the Count’s countenance grotesquely misshapen) makes me want to channel Tom Hanks and proclaim “There’s no crying in vampiring!”

The love story that film forces also radically alters Mina’s character. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue (versus the more wayward Lucy) and arguably the driving impetus for the Crew of Light’s defeat of Dracula. Here in the film, though, she proves a cold-hearted adulteress (professing her love for Dracula even as he confesses to a fatal feeding on Lucy). Worse, Winona Ryder’s Mina emerges (as she grows more in touch with her Elisabetan nature) as a nearly-treacherous accomplice of the Count, someone whose gun points at her husband Jonathan and the other heroes during the climactic showdown with Dracula. This radical departure from the novel highlights the inexplicable leap the film has taken with its reincarnation plot. Why exactly has Elisabeta resurfaced (several centuries after her suicidal plunge) as a modern English woman? Simply so Coppola could romanticize Stoker’s narrative, it seems.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula features some absolutely stunning visuals: lavish costumes (Lucy’s wedding/burial dress; Dracula’s armor), grand scenery (orange-burnt skies; the mountain-topping castle) and frightful supernatural incident (Dracula’s morphing into a horde of rats). The sublimely Gothic look of the film is fortuitous, because it helps distract viewers from the ridiculousness (don’t get me started on the sappy ending, in which a teary Mina mercifully releases Dracula from his vampiric curse) that results from the attempt to transform Stoker’s revolting and unremittingly evil archvillain into a sympathetic figure.

 

Lore Report: “Long Shadows” (Episode 171)

Even the places we live can become extraordinary given enough time. After all, the longer humans live in a place, the more of themselves they imprint upon its streets and landscape. But if you want to explore the oldest in America, there’s only one place to go. It might be bright and sunny, but don’t let that fool you, because time has left a mark that can still be felt today, thanks to all the tragedies that have paid a visit. It seems that there’s one more rule that history wants us to remember: the older our cities get, the darker their shadows become.

A trip to St. Augustine, Florida, is on the itinerary in the latest episode of the Lore podcast. To no surprise, host Aaron Mahnke gravitates toward the darker side of town. He recounts tales of creepy cemeteries, ghost sightings galore, and one unnerving case of nearly premature burial. The narrative seamlessly weaves together local lore with St. Augustine’s daunting geography (its treacherous coastline) and bloody history (including the story of how Fort Matanzas–the Spanish word for “massacres”–earned its name). While there’s nothing earth-shattering about this episode, it nevertheless does a fine job of digging up the various skeletons (and that’s not just a metaphor here!) that have accrued over the years. With its emphasis on the past’s persistent impact on the present, “Long Shadows” clearly shines a light on the American Gothic.

 

Decays in Vegas

Zach Snyder’s Army of the Dead (currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix) presents itself as an intriguing genre hybrid. In this zombie/heist film (think Ocean’s Eleven meets Dawn of the Dead), a team of mercenaries assembles to infiltrate the burnt-out, undead-infested, walled-off city of Las Vegas and steal a sizable cash bundle from a casino vault. The problem, though, is that heist element of the story is sorely underdeveloped. No especial cleverness–mainly just militaristic might–is required to reach the casino. The penetration of the vault is basically accomplished by the team’s safecracking expert quietly listening to the door-lock’s internal mechanisms (the preceding uncovering of the booby traps leading up to the vault does make for a witty sequence, however).

No doubt, the undead end of the mashup gets greater play here, mostly to positive result. Represented as a primitive tribe rather than a stereotypical mindless horde, the zombies bring some fresh thrills to the table. But their battles with the mercenary team still manage to disappoint, as the zombies are either picked off with video-game ease by high caliber weaponry or inexplicably manage to avoid point-blank shooting with Matrixesque expertise. Repeated instances of the mercenaries choosing to shoot the barechested zombie king in his protective face plate struck me as mind-numbingly dumb.

Snyder’s film appears to revel in reference to other genre fare. Watching it, I detected visual echoes of, and plot parallels to, a host of predecessors (e.g., Aliens, Predator, Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York). But all this entertaining allusiveness only accentuates the fact that Army of the Dead never manages to find its own cinematic footing. The film’s story beats are all too familiar, offering viewers nothing unexpected. The few attempts at plot twist are clumsily handled (i.e. clearly forecasted).

If this film proves one thing, it’s that Dave Bautista is not yet worthy of leading-man status. His acting here is wooden (his Scott Ward is consistently out-emoted by the zombie king, a character with zero lines of dialogue).  Admittedly, the script does Bautista no favors, forcing him into a series of torturously corny conversations with his estranged daughter. Perhaps what is most surprising, though, is the lackluster nature of his action heroics. Prior to the conclusion (the inevitable showdown with the zombie king), the nominal leader of the mercenaries takes a decided backseat to the other killing-machines on his team.

There’s a lot I did enjoy about this film. The post-apocalyptic Las Vegas mise-en-scene (complete with a zombified, untamed Siegfried and Roy tiger on the prowl) is marvelous. Army of the Dead also makes inspired–and often quite amusing–use of its soundtrack (starting with Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”). The inventive kills and glorious gore that fans have come to expect from zombie narratives are finely displayed. But even with a two-and-a-half hour runtime, the film seems to stuff in more story than it can adequately unpack and more characters than it can develop beyond clichés. Never living up to the promise of its zombie/heist premise, Army of the Dead forms an underwhelming campaign.

 

The Five Best Creepshow Stories So Far

The Creepshow series recently finished another frightfully fun season on Shudder. Below are my choices for the five (in honor of the number of segments in the original anthology film) best stories that have streamed so far. (Note: the contents–“Survivor Type” and “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”–of last Halloween’s fully-animated holiday special have been excluded from consideration here, partly because they would dominate the list.)

No small part of the Creepshow charm, though, is its throwback pulp packaging, so I am going to preface my list with another pair of five-packs.

 

The Five Best (Corpse-)Cold Opens

1. Episode 1.1: The Creep kicks the series off by cracking open a crate (a replica of the one in the 1982 film) that doesn’t contain the carnivorous Fluffy, but rather a horde of Creepshow issues.

2. Episode 1.3: The Creep creates a remarkably grotesque jack-o’-lantern–or what he’d probably call a “hack-o’-lantern”–after dispatching some obnoxious trick-or-treaters.

3. Episode 1.6: The Creep goes fishing, and judging by the moldering corpses around him, he’s about to reel in something real scary.

4. Episode 2.4: The Creep cackles delightedly after his macabre mug gets filled with some disgusting sludge.

5. Episode 2.5: The Creep dons some VR goggles and immerses himself in a first-ghoul-shooter version of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

 

The Creep’s Five Most Insidious Intros

1. …And now my rabid readers, this fancy fable of fear follows Clark Wilson on a midnight stroll….Little does he know that his future holds a fantastic find, a devilish digital that I like to call…”The Finger” (Episode 1.2)

2. …And now, boils and ghouls, a real barn-burner of a tale about a boy’s newfound, heh-heh, com-pain-yon! One that’s sure not to die on the vine! Unless you’re too much of a scaredy-crow that is!–“The Companion” (Episode 1.4)

3. …Back for more? This poisonous tale will be sure to have you bug-eyed and squirming in your seats! So strap in for this perilous parable that I like to call…”Pesticide” (Episode 2.2)

4. Welcome, dear fiends! Back for more, I see….Come join me on a voyage of fear, betrayal, and extraterrestrial terror! By the end I guarantee you’ll be gasping for air. So strap in and let’s see if you have what it takes for this otherworldly tale I like to call…”The Right Snuff” (Episode 2.3)

5. Have I got a special treat for all you ghoul gourmets. There will be hell toupee if the plumber doesn’t get to the slimy center of this monstrous mystery. This sludge-filled story will wrap you in its scum-covered strands in…”Pipe Screams” (Episode 2.4)

 

The Five Best Stories So Far

1. “All Hallows Eve” (Episode 1.3). Halloween iconography and lore are finely invoked in this story of a group of trick-or-treaters who are not all that they’re dressed up to be. The classic Creepshow motif of comeuppance combines with a discernible Trick ‘r Treat vibe.

2. “Night of the Paw” (Episode 1.5). This retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw” proves more than a wishful rehash (the climactic plot twist definitely ups the ante on W.W. Jacobs’s original tale). The eponymous appendage is strikingly realistic, and ultra-unnerving as it curls its own fingers down upon dire fulfillment of a person’s requests.

3. “Skincrawlers” (Episode 1.6). The body-sculpting industry is revolutionized by the discovery of an exotic South American leech that feeds on human fat tissue. Naturally, this seeming quick fix for the overweight causes terrible affliction, leading to scenes of spectacularly gruesome, Cronenbergian body horror, and the emergence of a tentacular monster that might have escaped from the set of Carpenter’s The Thing.

4. “Model Kid” (Episode 2.1). The figure of the “monster kid” is canonical to Creepshow (cf. young Joe Hill in the frame story of the original film), and this story clearly offers loving homage. Classic horror (e.g., Universal monster films, Aurora model kits) gets perfect Creepshow treatment.

5. “Public Television of the Dead” (Episode 2.1). This satiric and gloriously gonzo story combined with “Model Kid” to make the second season premiere the show’s most outstanding episode to date. Plenty of laughs (and scares) await anyone who ever wanted to see a Bob-Ross-type painter battle demons from the Necronomicon.

 

Lore Report: “Into the Wild” (Episode 170)

In the decades that followed, Peter the Wild Boy would become a living representation of an age-old debate: what exactly makes us human? Is it something we’re born with, or can it be taught? And in the process, it demonstrates humanity’s ancient fascination with an area of folklore that expresses our fears, highlights our flaws, and begs us to question whether or not we’ve evolved as a species. Stories about creatures that shouldn’t exist–stories about the Wild Man.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners beyond the pale of civilization and into the woods, where dark folklore easily takes root. Mahnke tackles the subject of the Wild Man by first ranging far back in history (invoking texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the writings of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder), but focuses primarily on the North America of the past few centuries. The stories he shares grow progressively more sinister, crossing a spectrum from unnerving glimpse to grisly murder. All the talk of encounters with a feral, hairy humanoid naturally points the discussion towards Bigfoot, yet Mahnke thankfully doesn’t settle on recounting familiar tales of the popular (if elusive) creature. I do wish that Mahnke had taken a step back to consider why the Wild Man is such a prominent figure in the folklore of so many cultures, but that is my lone criticism of an otherwise entertaining episode.

 

Clive Interview

Clive Barker is the interview subject for this week’s edition of the podcast Post Mortem with Mick Garris. It is a bit of a shock at first to hear how pronounced the rasp in Clive’s voice has become, but he sounds very enthusiastic, and says that he is in better health these days (which is wonderful news).

During the 75-minute interview, Clive talks about a traumatic incident from his childhood that was a formative influence on his work. His more recent experience of being in a coma is covered (his return to consciousness makes for quite an anecdote). The boundary-pushing writer also addresses the censorship battles he had to fight with editors and publishers over the years. Valuable insight into his drafting process (when working on a novel) is given. Clive and Mick reminisce on their interestingly-premised Mummy film that never got made, and share the news about an upcoming collaborative project. All told, the interview is a real treat, and one that Clive Barker fans will certainly enjoy.

Lore Report: “Blood Money” (Episode 169)

After all, life is full of surprises. But if you spend a bit of time studying history, you quickly learn that life is also full of darkness. Darkness, and an irrefutable truth: things that are too good to be true can sometimes turn out to be deadly.

Witchcraft is one of the most popular subjects of the Lore podcast, but in the latest episode host Aaron Mahnke takes a different angle of approach. Traveling back to 17th Century England and Scotland, Mahnke focuses on the witch-hunters themselves–now-notorious figures such as Matthew Hopkins and John Kincaid. Along the way, listeners learn of the unusual practices employed to identify witches, such as cruentation and pricking with a bodkin. What ultimately emerges is a portrait of remorseless hucksterism, of deadly frauds capitalizing on the rampant panic of the public. The episode is very informative, and the concluding segment’s narrative features a terrific plot twist, but “Blood Money”–which determinedly documents the deeds of historical con artists–isn’t terribly lore-ish (at least by the standards of this podcast).