Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HALLOWEEN 2009- Dracula vs. Frankenstein

There are really two classic monsters- Dracula and Frankenstein. They both touch primal urges in humanity and make those things into archetypal horrors. They bookended the 19th century and spoke to themes that would dominate the 20th. They both were novels that made their authors famous. One was written by a first time author who penned an immediate success while the other was from an established writer and took years to find its audience, And despite superficial similarities it would be harder to find two more different characters or novels. I read both novels when I was in the fifth grade and was immediately taken at what a classic subject for the compare and contrast essays we were writing at the time.

When he wrote Dracula Bram Stoker was an established writer who was also manager of the Lyceum Theater in London. It was published in 1897 during the early days of what would become an increasingly mainstream literary genre- the fantastic. But it wasn’t immediately popular, perhaps being overshadowed by other such novels. Jules Verne had been publishing primeval science fiction for decades and H. G. Wells The Invisible Man was published the same year as Stoker’s magnum opus, while Wells classics The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds were published two years before and one year afterward respectively. Yet the novel was unique enough that it was able to survive until a new artform- movies- would make Dracula known to almost everyone.

Critics were mostly favorable to Stoker’s work. The novel is beautifully written in a epistolary style that immediately brings the reader into the heads of the main characters. This style also makes the story seem more immediate than a first or third person narrative since you never know if a particular character will survive past the story’s end. Stoker spends the first part of the novel building suspense and setting the stage. Jonathan Harker’s trip to Castle Dracul, where he meets the count and his three undead brides, is classic gothic horror. A modern man on a business trip that goes horribly wrong yet is exotically erotic and mysterious. The latter half picks up the pace and delves into themes of science vs. mysticism, the threat of the barbarian invasions into the newly industrial world, the changing roles of women, and the uses of modern technology (a telephone call plays an important role in one scene).

Stoker did years of research for the novel. Modern myth has connected the character with Vlad the Second (Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Tepes- pronounced “tepish”, with the accent on the first sylable) but there is evidence that even if this historical character was the basis for Count Dracula, which is likely, Stoker had little actual information about the historical person. Still, his research filled the novel with real places and their mythology and served to ground the character in a sort of verisimilitude.

But Dracula probably wouldn’t have become so memorable simply because of its structure or historical grounding. Stoker’s prose was a big part of the novel. Much gothic horror to this day owes a debt to his lyrical and evocative writing. It is a truly pleasing read and every page drips with atmosphere.

Dracula wasn’t the first vampire novel, but it was the one that all such novels, before and after, would be measured against.

Unlike the assiduous research that Stoker would do for Dracula, Mary Shelley (nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) was a nineteen-year-old girl who wrote Frankenstein almost on a dare. The story of the genesis of the novel is almost as famous as the novel itself but some latter day myths have arisen. Mary was basically raised by her father because her mother died not long after her birth, and grew up with an unusual education for a woman at the beginning of the 19th century- seeing such radical thinkers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr entertained in her home during her formative years. She was widely traveled and took up with poet Percy Bisshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. On a summer trip to Geneva, Switzerland in 1816, before their marriage but after the birth of their first child, they found the weather unusually cold due to the eruption of Mount Tambora (1816 is often referred to as the year without a summer) and had to stay inside rather than enjoying normal lakeside summer pastimes. Their additional company consisted of Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. The result of such educated company and plenty of indoor time was numerous high-minded discussions. One of which turned to the new experiments of Luigi Galvani into animal electricity, or animism.

Galvani had recently caused dismembered frog’s legs to jump by the application of an electric charge. The combination of this line of though and its implications, along with other late-night conversations on the writing of horror fiction, was the genesis of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. On of the myths that has grown around this story is that the group had seen a presentation of Karl Kapek’s play, R.U.R.. and that had spurred Shelley’s creative muse, but even passing research shows that Kapek’s influential work (it’s credited for coining the word “robot”) wasn’t presented until almost a century later. Nevertheless, Shelley was obviously influenced by the new advances of science over mysticism and from that she wrote a novel that has been as influential for our time as any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Comparing the actual novel to the popular zeitgeist of it is enlightening. Shelley was able to tap into themes that would resonate into our world of biotechnology and computer science as well, if not better, than William Gibson would be able to prefigure global corporations, world wide computer networks, and economic feudalism that would occur a mere twenty-five years later. In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a dedicated experimenter trying to unlock the mystery of death- surely the ultimate goal of medical science that we still ascribe to. Unfortunately, as the subtitle The Modern Prometheus foreshadows, he is brought low by his quest to control powers over life and death that only the Gods have dominion over. Isaac Asimov talked at length about the influence of Frankenstein in this aspect. He said that his own novels about robots, which remain the most influential in the realm of artificial intelligence and may go down in history for all time as the most influential with the advent of Honda’s ASIMO robot, were a direct response to both Shelley’s and Kapek’s dour visions of the consequences of making a humaniform intelligence that is both more powerful and smarter than humanity. Shelley was not unkind to the experimenter trying to expand the boundaries of both technology and human longevity. Her Victor Frankenstein is not so much the ‘mad scientist’ of popular wisdom but instead himself a victim of trying to control forces beyond the purview of man. Asimov tried to balance this with his three laws of robotics but latter day movies such as THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX show that humans have an unrelenting fear that they may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction in their endless pursuit of technological advancement. Indeed, an entire philosophy had grown up in the computer science community that the next evolutionary step in the history of earth may not be biological, but rather the successor of mankind may be of his own devising.

But as a novel, aside from the themes of unintended consequences and scientific hubris, Frankenstein is not well written. The plot is better than one would know from the movie adaptations that have been made. Most of those give short shrift to Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to do right by his creation and the climactic destruction of his creature and himself in the wastes of the Arctic. But Shelly’s writing is clumsy and the structure of the novel is amateurish. Almost nothing happens as the stage is set for the first four chapters and then in the fifth chapter Victor gathers his implements of life around him and re-animates his creature. For the rest of the novel the reader is constantly presented with poor prose and bad staging. Yet the novel’s themes of the modern Prometheus and the misunderstood monster continue to resonate.

At first glance it would seem that we are obsessed with vampires. They have become our alter egos in a society fixated on youth, beauty, and sex. No longer an undead creature that inspires horror and dread, the vampire has become hero, a creature to be envied, completely selfish, living forever by night in a world of sexual conquest. Not even the real life horror of AIDS is enough to squelch our love of what the vampire has come to represent. There are even groups of people who have taken vampirism as a lifestyle choice. But while twenty-somethings may be having veneers put on their teeth to accentuate their canines you don’t see anyone having bolts surgically implanted into their necks. Nobody wants to be an ugly, misunderstood giant that is hated by people in spite of his gentle soul. But the Frankenstein myth remains frightening in a way that Mary Shelley could never have imagined. We no longer fear reanimated dead flesh but the idea that our technology may be the end of us is more real than ever. The Frankenstein monster has become biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robots and the likelihood that such technologies might cause the end of our civilization or even our species is far greater than the readers of 1818 could have ever imagined.

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