Sunday, October 31, 2021

Samhain musings.


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Blessed Samhain! Happy Halloween!

Here's a reminder that Jerry Atherton requests the pleasure of your company this Halloween. The Atherton Vampire is featured at Book Doggy today -- and it's still just 99 cents. 


For the past few days, I've been watching some of the Dracula movies I've missed over the years. The 1977 BBC production with Louis Jourdan was...not good. Jourdan didn't do either menacing or sexy very well. 

Somehow I missed Frank Langella's Dracula when it came out in 1979. It was appropriately scary, and more overtly sexy than the original novel by Bram Stoker. I didn't like Langella's pop-eyed stare, but everything else was good.

The third movie I watched was Mel Brooks' take on the story. A couple of people have told me that it's their favorite, and I can see why -- Leslie Nielsen is a better Dracula than I expected him to be, and Brooks himself is hilarious as Van Helsing. 

But the common element of all these books is Stoker's original story. And it hasn't aged well. For starters, there's the obvious sexism -- both Mina and Lucy are victims (no matter which one Drac targets first, and why do screenwriters feel the need to swap them? Or combine them into one character? But I digress), and it's up to the manly men to save them. Just as in Stoker's novel, the women in these movies have no agency. At least in The Lord of Cries, the opera I saw this summer, Lucy actively chose her destiny. She made a lousy choice -- it wrecked her life as well as those of everyone around her -- but still, it was hers to make and she made it.

The other thing that bothered me about the legend, particularly in the BBC version, is its reliance on that old dichotomy of Good vs. Evil. This probably deserves a post of its own; maybe I'll get to it later this month. But I don't believe there is such a thing as capital-E Evil -- or capital-G Good, for that matter. Briefly, it's because the bad guys never think of themselves as bad. They always have what they believe is a good reason for what they do. Maybe they're mentally ill, or maybe they've just talked themselves into believing that what they plan to do is justified -- or someone else has talked them into believing it. 

The January 6th insurrectionists are the most glaring example of the latter; a number of them have asked the court for mercy, saying they believed former President Trump when he claimed the election was stolen from him and that they were convinced they were righting a grave wrong by invading the Capitol. (Now, whether you believe Trump himself is Evil or a narcissistic sociopath or just the sorest loser ever is a separate thing, and not where I want to go in this post. For this example, let's just stick to the mindset of the insurrectionists.)

My point is this: Even those we perceive as Evil usually have one or two good qualities, and those we perceive as Good often turn out to have bad qualities. Nobody is perfectly Good or perfectly Evil -- except in myth. And by "myth" I mean the stories that underpin religious beliefs of all stripes, even those of the Christian faith. One of the things that bugged me about the BBC production was that the Catholic Church had the power, through the crucifix and communion wafers, to combat Dracula. Interestingly, though, those talismans couldn't kill a vampire -- only sunlight or a stake through the heart could do one in. If the Church was so powerful, why did the cross merely scorch the vampires? Why couldn't it utterly defeat them? And why was that final power left to Nature, via a plain wooden stake or the light of the sun?

In the Dracula stories, the vampires are capital-E Evil and the church is capital-G Good. But in reality, we know the church isn't capital-G Good: witness the modern-day revelations about pedophile priests, to say nothing of the Inquisition. Farther back, we can see the cunning the church used to convert pagans to the new Christian religion, such as absorbing Samhain into a three-day church festival honoring the saints and the dead when the peasants refused to give up their end-of-harvest fire festivals. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.

I suppose you can make the argument that the Church is made up of humans, and humans are imperfect by nature. I acknowledge that humans have flaws, but I don't believe we are fatally flawed. 

And keep in mind that it was the ancient pagans who knew how to handle a vampire -- and their solutions actually worked.


I'm doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I'm not signing up for the official event. Here's why.

Alert hearth/myth readers know that the goal of the November event is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Unlike the Camp NaNo events, you can't set your own goal in November -- the 50,000-word thing is immutable. And my project for this month is the third Atherton Vampire book, which I know isn't going to be that long because the others have been in the 40,000-word range and I'm aiming to keep this one in the same ballpark. Besides, I've won NaNo every time I've entered; I have nothing to prove by signing up this year and setting myself up for failure thereby. So I will be keeping y'all apprised this month of my word totals, week by week, and I'll share the cover for the third book when it's ready. But I'm not going to do the official event.


These moments of hallowed blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. And a reminder that COVID-19 is scarier than any vampire -- so get vaxxed!


Zahir Blue said...

While I like the 1977 BBC "Dracula" and do not at all care for "Dracula is Dead and Loving It" I absolutely share your opinion about the original novel. It has some real power, which is part of its longevity, but of course cannot but have been filtered through the mind of a would-be good Victorian gentleman who wrote it!
The efforts to give the women their agency back interestingly emerges first in the silent film NOSFERATU. Other versions have sought to do the same, including more than one stage adaptation, and even James V. Hart's re-interpretation which ended up filmed by Francis Ford Coppola.
But these nearly always focus on Mina, while keeping Lucy as some stereotypical waif/slut. This includes the most recent BBC production, which also did something more interesting in making Dracula's nemesis Sister Agatha, a very minor character in the book.
Forgive the tooting of my own horn, but my stage adaptation THE WINGS OF DRACULA (of which I am very proud can you tell?) focused on making all the characters far more real, far more complex frankly than the novel generally does. In my version Dracula may be perceived as some kind of great evil, but seems himself more as a natural force, i.e. pretty much an Angel of Death. Teh focus is on how this impacts others, based on their own relationship with death. Lucy, an orphan with consumption, no longer fears death or pretty much anything. Mina, along with her husband, face the prospect of such with the comfort of their own fierce religious faith. Arthur is in a complex form of denial, while Quincey by becoming dangerous feels he has at least emotionally protected himself from death. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward cannot but see Dracula and death as an enemy to be fought with every breath. I am also proud of having changed Renfield into a woman, and explained her mental state rather than just had her a bug-eating maniac. Likewise then, her attendant would be a woman also, and I nicked a name as well as a bit of backstory from Stoker's notes about a character who never made it onto the page to create said attendant.
Besides, there just aren't enough women characters in the story.
It is an interesting challenge, at least to me, to adapt Gothic works from the Victorian Age and make them relevant to our own, rather than simply repeating the same tropes in a formula.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I admire you for making the effort. :)

I need to watch Nosferatu again. We saw it at a local screening during which the film broke at the climactic scene. Arrgh!

In the operatic version of Dracula I saw this summer, Seward is tortured by his yearning for Lucy, who is married to Jonathan, who never recovered from the mental illness he suffered at the hands of the count in Transylvania. Lucy also yearns for Seward and feels trapped by her marital vows. Dracula is sort of a free spirit who shows her how much her religion has oppressed her. In that opera, the church is definitely not capital-G Good. ;)