Infusing Reality into Horror
Examining the Narrative Style of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker
My last literature post this Halloween season will examine two iconic works of horror fiction, and especially what about the way they’re written allows them to qualify as literature. In fact, Frankenstein and Dracula should be the bar we strive to reach as genre writers.
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN
The novel is framed as an extended letter from Captain Walton to his sister. Walton has embarked for queen and country on a journey to find the Northwest Passage – a supposed link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that the British believed existed and in pursuit of this, many lives were lost. A factual endeavor, it is during this trip that Walton, as his ship cuts through the ice, comes across a near frozen man seemingly adrift in the Arctic.
Ordering the man on board, Walton and crew nurse him back to health, only to learn that something more menacing is stalking them out on the ice. As the stranger recovers, he introduces himself as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and begins his story.
As much a science fiction story as Gothic horror (before Sci-Fi was even a genre), Frankenstein is also a social commentary on the changing face of science in the early 19th Century, including all its struggles and pitfalls. Victor Frankenstein was an amalgam of real scientists at the time who, because bodies weren’t being volunteered for research (still seen as a criminal act by a large portion of the society), resorted to grave robbing and other less than legal methods to obtain viable test subjects.
While his uncle started the experiments into electricity’s effects on animals and tissue, Giovanni Aldini is one scientist whose work is most attributed as influencing the writer. His famous public experiment with electricity on the body of recently executed criminal George Forster was enough to frighten his audience into thinking that with enough electricity, he could reanimate the corpse and imbue it once more with life.
Shelley would have learned of this, and this would have informed her story, where in Dr. Frankenstein performs just such a feat on his creation. Her story, when published, proved popular, not just as a work of fiction, but also helped to further the work of serious scientists.
Now we have defibrillators – machines that deliver electrical charges meant to normalize a heartbeat – and doctors can perform skin grafts and organ transplants. Surgeons can still a beating heart for surgery, effectively “killing” a patient so as to perform various cardiac surgeries, then restart the heart and bring them back to life.
Her work has gone on to be revisited in a variety of media and has seen numerous interpretations, till Frankenstein’s monster (and especially Boris Karloff’s iconic iteration as the creature) is one of the most recognizable characters in horror to this day.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Another character based on a historical figure, the novel takes the structure introduced by Shelley and amps it up a thousand. A collection of letters, journals, phonograph recordings, newspapers, diary entries, and official logs and bureaucratic paperwork tell the story of Count Dracula in his quest to take over London, and the small group bent on stopping him.
But its more than just innovative structuring that makes this novel a great piece of literature. The reader is presented with the sexually-repressed though scientifically advanced western society versus the primitive eastern culture, still believing in magic and sexually amoral.
What we have with the plot then is a kind of moralistic tug of war between two distinct ideologies featured in two distinct cultures. Jonathan Harker represents the scientifically grounded, sexually repressed Briton who invades the “primitive” world of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. He is introduced immediately to superstition and wild supernatural beliefs, and the sexual frivolity of Dracula’s three brides.
Dracula then travels to London, and Harker, who is able to escape the women, is able to follow once he escapes. As the reader follows Dracula to London, we meet Jonathan Harker’s betrothed, Mina, her best friend, Lucy, and her three suitors, Dr. Seward, Sir Arthur Holmwood, and American (and cowboy) Quincey Morris. We also meet Renfield, one of many psychiatric patients being treated by Dr. Seward. The significance of Renfield is that he was Harker’s predecessor in traveling to Transylvania and was sent back by Dracula, seemingly insane, to act as his human servant in London. Finally, we meet Professor Abraham Van Helsing.
As a quick character study, we can draw a bisecting line between the two primary cultures and place most characters on either side, in either column. Lucy and her suitors, Mina, and Harker all would fall easily into representative Western culture. Harker, exposed to the veracity of the other culture, though, might be the first character to ultimately straddle the fence. Dracula and his ilk and the peasants we meet under the shadow of his castle (as well as a few British peasantry as minor characters) would fall easily into the Eastern culture column. The first character we meet who straddles the two cultures is Van Helsing. He is called in by his former student because he has knowledge of various worldly and alien diseases that Seward’s medicine can’t touch.
As has become cliché for horror stories, but a necessary one given the Western culture’s pragmatic vision of the world, before any consideration of the supernatural can be entertained, the protagonists must exhaust all scientific explanation. Only when that is done can we then address or be ready to believe, the more fantastic.
It is this delay that costs Lucy her life, and it is that losing battle that begins to move our characters from the black and white worldview to a grayer, more supernatural outlook. This is manifested in the plot, as well, as after having successfully curtailed Dracula’s efforts in London, the heroes chase him back to his home in Transylvania to finish the job once and for all. They arrive in the eastern culture, at war with Dracula’s gypsies, racing against the clock to destroy the count, not with science but by fully immersing themselves in the regions culture, superstitions, beliefs, and magics.
On a grander scale, Stoker seems to be writing a story about Western imperialism, a social commentary on sexual frigidity, a story that plays with narrative structure and explores in depth character feeling.
Together, these two novels present as more than just stories about a vampire and about a scientist’s quest to animate dead tissue. By playing with narrative form and investigating deeper themes, they elevate themselves above genre convention, and this is why the two novels have prevailed.
Especially for a professional blogger, the Crescent is too expensive to stay at for a long period, so I’ve been staying with my biographer and his wife for several weeks. Now that we have entered the Halloween weekend, I have returned for another night at the Crescent before finally meeting with my connection to the Voynich Manuscript (she had neglected to tell me she had been at a speaking conference for most of the month of October), an event that will provide me certain answers and raise more questions, and send me from America’s most haunted hotel to a haunted Civil War Battlefield.
Stay tuned for the conclusion to this month-long adventure. Half Lit: 31 Days of Halloween – The Voynich Manuscript. Coming next.