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Category Archives: British Fiction

Dracula by Bram Stoker

      

Country: Ireland
Genre: Gothic Fiction, Horror Fiction
Publication Year: 1897
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by Maurice Hindle.
First Read: Yes

Everyone knows the story of Dracula in some way; whether it is one of the many screen adaptions, The Simpsons Halloween special from about 15 years ago, or even the Twilight books. Anyone in the Western world can easily conjure up the image of Count Dracula skulking the halls of his castle in Transylvania. Dracula by Bram Stoker is an epistolary novel from the late Victorian Period that was part of a larger late 19th Century gothic revival – along with The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Dracula, for the most part, single-handedly created the vampire legend that still lives on today.

One thing that struck me about the novel was the scant presence of the character Dracula. Other than the opening chapters told from the point-of-view of Johnathan Harker while he is at his castle, a couple references about 2/3 of the way through, and then the last quarter or so, Dracula himself is nowhere to be seen, but his specter looms over every page of the novel.

As I was reading this, I put myself into the shoes of a reader from 1897, the year Dracula was first published. This would have truly been horrific without that inherent knowledge of the story that us in the 21st century all possess. The bizarre occurrences like the two holes in the neck, Dracula turning into a bat, the reanimation upon death after death at the hands of a vampire, and the stake through the heart and decapitation to kill the vampire.  Stoker’s prose was so vivid and dark that he truly earned his retroactive moniker as one of the fathers of horror fiction.

When I read this novel, the primary thematic thread that seemed to be running throughout the novel is that of gender roles – specifically through the lens of female sexual liberation; the two poles of this thread were wholly embodied by the two female characters in the book: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. Lucy enjoys the adoration of three different men, taks in their bodily fluids – via blood transfusions – and shortly before her death is sexually aggressive towards her fiancé. Mina on the other hand is meek, deferential to the men in her life, and believes in an innate inferiority of women. Lucy, reanimated as a vampire and therefore completely sexually liberated, must be destroyed by polite and educated male Victorian society. Mina however, gets to live on with her husband and continue being the demure little lady bowing to her husband. To the Victorians, the vampire represents an individual completely disconnected from the everyday social mores of civil society, and that is the real monster.

In my post-reading research into the novel, and in reading the introductory essays in my volume, I was amazed at the continuing evolution and contradictory nature of the literary criticism of Dracula since it started to emerge in the 1950s. The critical consensus amongst the literati is practically nil when it comes to Dracula. This is not unusual in the world of literature, but generally there are some very broad agreed upon agreements. Dracula, however, is all over the place. Just as many critics argue that is a feminist masterpiece as there are who argue my point-of-view that this is the complete opposite. Some view this as a critic of colonization, some as a pro-Catholic novel, and I even came across one article that felt this novel was nothing but a critique of The Picture of Dorian Gray and its glorification of giving into the temptation of excess. Perhaps that just shows the power of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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Vathek by William Beckford

207302 6150282 207299 17070365 9781551112817

Country: Great Britain
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1786
Edition Read: Broadview Editions, 2001. academic critical edition, heavily annotated. Ed. Kenneth W. Graham
First Read: Yes

Vathek, William Beckford’s 1786 gothic novel first came to my attention when I was in the final semester my English degree. It was 18th Century Literature II – The Gothic Novel. I had intentionally saved my 18th century requirement until the bitter end (along with my Medieval requirement) as I had some challenges in my survey courses as a daisy fresh student with Jonathan Swift (who I have grown to enjoy) and Alexander Pope (who still gives me hives). Fortunately, the professor I had this for the 18th Century course was fantastic, and the course did not contain any author who gave me hives (although The Monk gave me nightmares). Due to my heavy course load, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of reading and rely on online summaries and such for a few titles. Vathek was the sacrificial lamb. For several years now, this book has sat patiently on my shelf, taunting me, saying “you were supposed to read me.” I decided it was time, not out of some sense of obligation, but because it was the only book on that part of the shelf I hadn’t finished yet.

Vathek is a product of Orientalism – a cultural obsession for some during the late 1700s. This short novel is set in the mid-9th century and tells the story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides (the character being very loosely inspired by the historical Al-Wathiq who reigned as caliph from 842 –847). The primary forward motion of the story focuses on Vathek’s fall from grace and renunciation of Islam. Along with his overbearing mother Carathis, Vathek goes down a path of evil to curry favor with a devious fellow called Giaour to gain magical powers. Ultimately though, Vathek and mama must roam Hell silently for all of eternity.

The primary point of interest for me as I got into this book was the treatment of Islam, both in the context of what would now be called be historical fiction and how Islam was interpreted, for lack of a better word, through the lens of 18th century English sensibilities. Beckford seems to be very well-versed in the minutiae of Islamic mythology and history and seamlessly weaves that into his novel. The author is, of course, not a Muslim, so his interpretation of Islam is that of an outsider. I continually vacillated between whether Beckford had a genuine appreciation for the culture, or perhaps Islam was simply an artistic device to tell a fall-from-grace gothic tale, or another possibility is that Beckford looked upon this other culture with the snobbery you would expect of an Englishman at that time.

That’s all I really have to say about Vathek. This was a fun read. It is a short book, only around 100 pages in the volume I have, with no chapter breaks. The dialogue is catchy. And it’s gothic and proto-fantasy elements are very well crafted. All-in-all, a satisfying book if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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