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I read an excellent post by Miranda Butler on ‘Carmilla’ on YouTube a little while ago, and I thought it would make an excellent addition to my blog series on Dracula’s legacy. I watched the first two seasons a little while ago and have just finished the first half of Season 3, which only recently came out (the second half is due next week). What follows attempts to avoid spoilers as far as possible, but don’t proceed if you want to watch the whole show without any details about it at all.
As part 2 of a series of posts about how we might apply some of Friedrich Kittler‘s media theory insights and reading of Stoker’s Dracula to modern vampire tales, I thought I would look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005).
Kostova’s text is concerned with how history is represented, in particular in book form. As I noted in my post about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is an inclination for vampire narratives to focus on old media, manuscripts and books, and the histories that they contain within their pages, legible hundreds of years after the fact of their production, perhaps because these media in some way mirror the ageless and unaging central characters. In his essay on ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, Kittler notes this similarity—with a difference—in observing that “the race of the Count” in Dracula “is the history of Transylvania, his blood a different sort of memory than reference works” (p.150). The Historian seeks to complicate this distinction by producing a vampiric cult that is mediated by texts, and a master vampire who is an obsessive collector thereof.
Although published in 2005, the novel chooses to return to the 1970s as its dominant ‘present day’, with the 1950s and 1930s featuring heavily as flash-backs. There are various personal (and political-historical) reasons why the author felt drawn to these time-periods, but as with Buffy, there is a deliberate authorial choice that limits the possible impingement of technology on the vampire narrative. The real lives of academics in the early 2000s—Google, JSTOR, digital archives, mobile phones, in short, Discourse Network 2000—are deliberately avoided, and the narrative proceeds on the (nostalgic but false) basis of what Kittler has called the “monopoly of writing”, to the extent that the novel often draws on manuscripts, a vellum-bound book inspiring Rossi and Paul, her father’s letters inspiring the narrator.
The Historian does not deny the supernatural power of the vampire, but chooses to inscribe Dracula within the same discourse network in which his foes exist. The Historian goes a step beyond Stoker’s Dracula’s destruction of letters and wax phonograph cylinders in an effort to control the flow of information. Instead, vampires invade the library, and as Paul correctly deduces, seek to impede research into Dracula. Helen is almost killed by a vampire librarian early on in the narrative, who follows them throughout most of their travels, and ipon discovering Rossi, near death, his big revelation is that Dracula too is a scholar who has founded his own secret library.
In a way, then, we can say that Kostova’s Dracula becomes like Kittler’s caricature of Jacques Lacan, who had his seminars recorded and then transcribed for him to read ahead of the next lecture. Kittler notes that in such circumstances “speech has become, as it were, immortal” (‘Legacy’, p.143). Like Lacan, Kostova’s Dracula has become a consumer of his own narratives; he holds a copy of Stoker’s novel in his library and takes an inordinate interest in the writings about him, whereas Stoker’s Dracula hoarded documents only that might prove useful to him (railway timetables and the like). Kittler notes that, “in order to replace the Id with an Ego, to replace violence with technology, it is necessary that one first fall into the clutches of this violence” (p.149). In his analysis of Dracula, this refers to the travels of the characters to Transylvania. Kostova, however, provides a more psychoanalytic account of Dracula’s own development of an Ego, having emerged from the “clutches” of violence into a figure of a literary man. Unlike Dracula, which posits the vampire as backwards and having a “child-brain”, The Historian suggests that even this most bodily and blood-y of demons, the vampire, is inscribed within the discourse networks in which he finds himself. Dracula is a librarian because books have come to rule the world.
We have here, too, what was almost entirely absent in Buffy, with its isolated Slayers and controlling Watchers Council. The Historian proposes a geneology of vampire hunting. The unnamed narrator is at the end of a line of academics who have hunted Dracula: Professor Rossi, his daughter, Helen, and his protege, Paul. This invisible blood connection with vampire hunting combines with the secret societies that are familiar from Buffy. One of the academics who help Paul and Helen gain is Professor Bora, who reveals himself to be part of a secret organisation, derived from the elite of the Janissaries, set against the secret organisation associated with Dracula, the Order of the Dragon. While imprisoned in Dracula’s library, Rossi writes an account of it, which he conceals within the archive. He employs, in lieu of the traditional crucifixes and garlic the same “modern defensive techniques of espionage” as Jonathan Harker (p.152).
While Kittler opposed text and geneaology in his reading of Dracula, reference works and blood are intertwined in The Historian‘s narrator. Dracula has begun to incline towards the former alone, while his hunters are connected through the latter. Espionage against the vampire—Rossi’s account, the novel itself—becomes, involuntarily, counter-espionage; the texts become part of the vampire’s own library, part of his own power, and the Order of the Dragon and its vampiric scholars continue to taunt each new generation of vampire hunters; the novel ends with the narrator, an academic in 2008, receiving the same book that led her father and grandfather towards Dracula. The Historian blurs the lines between vampiric and human modes of knowledge and draws into question the tools at the disposal of those on both sides.
As a change is as good as a rest, I thought I would take some time away from thesis redrafting to write something here about vampires from a media theory perspective. Yes. Vampires. Media theory. Settle in!
One of Friedrich Kittler‘s few extended literary analyses applies toBram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), wherein Kittler invites us to see Dracula’s fight as primarily against new mediums, particularly the typewriter and the gramophone. Here, I want to put Kittler’s reading of Dracula against one of the most influential vampire stories of our own turn of the century, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I always meant to watch the 2009 film of this (details on IMDB), but came across Lindqvist‘s Let the Right One In in the Kindle store and thought that I would buy it to save for a moment of boredom when I wanted to read something on my phone/iPad (I use the app and don’t have an actual Kindle). That moment came on a plane recently, when I’d read most of Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (review) and wanted something new to help keep me awake!
I would highly recommend this book, as it’s a gripping read.
Although told mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the book tackles a wide range of seriously ‘grown-up’ issues, including child abuse and neglect, ‘broken homes’ and absent parents, alcoholism, paedophilia, and chronic bullying. It can be hard to judge when reading in translation, but I found Lindqvist’s style wonderfully clear and lucid. I enjoyed the story’s focus on two core groups that parallel one other: Oskar and his classmates, and Lacke and his friends (and fellow alcoholics).
The growing relationship between Oskar and new arrival, Eli, is a joy. There is something very understated in the way that each and every momentous discovery in their relationship — She’s a vampire? She’s a boy? — is handled lightly but not flippantly. Oskar’s growing detachment from his parents and isolation from his schoolmates, most of whom either actively bully him or passively ostracise him, leaves his hopes of having his emotional needs met pinned exclusively on Eli. The coming-of-age story, Oskar beginning to stand up for himself and pursue physical fitness as a means of taking control of his life, is blended with the horror story of a vampire slipping into the midst of the small community and decimating it. Bodies stack up quickly, and Eli is both monstrous and fascinating. Eli’s story, told mainly in flashbacks, has echoes of Anne Rice’s Armand, but isn’t Lindqvist’s focus, and it lurks in the background as a dark echo of the suffering of the modern-day children in the book.
Many of the most heartrending moments come from these ‘minor’ characters, particularly from Tommy, an older teen, sliding into drug use and petty crime, whose mother is on the verge of marrying a police officer who will inevitably hate his stepson (the suggestion is he’s a likely abuser); and from Jonny, Oskar’s nemesis, whose tangled family situation and struggle with his emotions about his absent father, hint at sad roots to his behaviour.
The book manages to produce moments of real menace, and surprisingly, none of them were incited by Eli. I felt real terror for Tommy, locked in with a brain-damaged, priapic, vampire-Hakan; for Oskar as Jonny and his brother and friends begin to descend upon him, apparently intent on murder or maiming; and for Eli when being attacked by paedophile Hakan, and when Lacke plans to murder Eli for killing his friend Jocke and his some-time girlfriend, Virginia. Although only a small element in the novel, I also felt real concern for Tommy’s mother, so wishing to be loved that she is willing to shrink herself — and probably put herself in physical danger — in order to be in a relationship with police officer Steffan.
This is a story where the weak, generally children, but also vulnerable adults, are threatened and imperilled by the strong; where those who are abused turn on those below them in turn; and where a darker threat is in fact a possible saviour. It is sensitive and well done, except for the very ending of the book, when Eli murders Jonny and his brother in order to rescue Oskar. The violence between Oskar and his bullies had been slowly escalating, through physical wounds and arson to their attempted murder, but I wonder whether its culmination had to be so flippant. Eli whips off their heads and, whilst flying, deposits them in the swimming pool. Was the sadism in Eli’s revenge really needed? Perhaps it was, as the ultimate escalation of the whole novel’s violence, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.
Amazon were kind (read devious) enough to send me a free month’s access to Amazon Prime video streaming. I doubt I’ll be willing to pay for it, but whilst I have it, I thought I might as well watch some of the films and TV shows that I haven’t managed to catch so far. This time, Byzantium (2012), adapted from Moira Buffini‘s play A Vampire Story.
I had it in my head that this film starred Rachel Weisz (I was wrong, mistaking it for Agora (2009)). Instead, this stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a mother-and-daughter pair of vampires (or ‘soucriant‘, as the film sometimes terms it).
The film has some nice Gothic overtones, and the seaside resort and some of the dialogue echo previous vampire ‘lore’ (Arterton at one point goes under the name ‘Carmilla‘, borrowed from Le Fanu’s vampire novella), although there are deviations from the usual tropes, such as the ability to walk in sunlight.
The focus of the film is the mother-and-daughter relationship. Arterton’s Clara is tough and brittle, earning money from prostitution (and pimping), and keeping Ronan’s Ella in the dark about the fact that they are being pursued by a ‘brotherhood’ of vampires for her breaking of their rules and ‘creating’ Ella (one of the rules being that women cannot create. Bizarre, given that another fact about the ‘brotherhood’ is that there are no women in it, so why they’d bother having that rule is beyond me).
As the plot suggests, at its core, the film has the makings of a feminist tale. Arterton’s Clara, having been kidnapped, raped and left in a brothel by Johnny Lee Miller’s malignant army captain, Ruthven, eventually steals her chance of eternal life from him: a map to an ancient shrine in the West Indies where one can find eternal life. The map has been offered to Ruthven by a former fellow soldier — Darvell, played by Sam Riley — who Ruthven had accompanied to the shrine and, finding his comrade apparently dead after having entered it, subsequently robbed.
Bewilderingly, after having gained eternal life and thereby entered a noble ‘brotherhood’ of vampires, Darvell seeks to invite Ruthven to join them, despite deploring Miller’s rapture of numerous young girls and his general arsehole-ish-ness. As I watched the scene, it looked as though Darvell was inciting Clara to kill Ruthven and take the opportunity for herself, but this doesn’t seem to be the case later on. When he finds her on the island after she has completed the transformation, he is troubled, because of course, there has never been a woman in the ‘brotherhood’, and when the other brothers are keen to ‘destroy’ her after he takes them to him, he fails to speak up for her, a fact that she highlights pointedly. In the face of such discrimination, the approach she chooses is best summed up as ‘sisters doing it for themselves’.
Still, when it comes down to it, mother-and-daughter are saved by Darvell’s attraction to Clara, and split up so that each can go their own way with their new-found beaus (Ella taking Frank — her dying-of-leukemia boyfriend — to the shrine for his own transformation). Plus Arterton spends most of her (twenty-first century) time in see-through clothes, with the occasional pair of leather trousers thrown in for good measure. In terms of sexual politics, the film is at best confused, and it doesn’t even begin to explore the potentially interesting post-colonial aspects of the plot (hinted at mainly through the word ‘soucriant’, and Buffini really could have done better, given that the resonances of that word in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the postcolonial prequel to Jane Eyre, which Buffini has also adapted for the big screen).
Other elements of the plot, such as the concern of Ella’s teachers that she might be being abused or in some way neglected, and Frank’s leukaemia being implicitly paired with the experience of being fed on by a vampire, add interest, although both remind me of young adult vampire stories that I used to read! This is probably not so surprising given that Buffini’s original play was for a young adult audience, but it did make me chuckle a little at certain points.
What makes the film enjoyable to watch is Ronan. Her buttoned-up, raised-in-a-religious-orphanage, only-kill-the-suicidal (generally the old) character suits her acting style well. She has a stillness that nevertheless mingles with a yearning (for blood and for sex/love, which are interwined as ever in vampire films), and there is just a hint that we might question her morality as much as she questions Clara’s, although the film never really gets into that question. Sadly, Ronan’s is the only really great acting in this film. Arterton generally plays her role well, although I do find her a little unconvincing at times. She’s not especially threatening or malevolant, so she seems to be (forgive me) vamping it up whenever her character starts killing. Miller, too, I find hammy, and as for the dying Frank (played by Caleb Landry Jones), it’s hard to know where to start. What accent is he meant to be doing? Need he be quite so oddly Byronic, with his swinging hair and moody ‘why won’t you love me’ behaviour?
Overall, then, this is an amusing film. There are no truly bum notes to throw you out of it, and there is a lot of interest to be gained by thinking about how one could improve it!
This week has been very hectic! I’m travelling for work on Monday, and then have two very busy days on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll probably be in a grumpy mood by the end of next Wednesday too. Still, I’m trying to have a nice, quiet, productive weekend.
So far, I’ve managed to: fill out my tax return (it’ll be in by the deadline — woohoo!); finish reading Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire; do some successful shopping for work clothes (I tried last weekend and succeeded in buying a coat and bag that were not strictly necessary); and make some progress on Chapter 3 of my dissertation (it was starting to get worrying!).
Unfortunately, I’ve not managed to keep up with Introduction to Genetics (post here), or do much critiquing on Scribophile (post here). I think I do fill my life up slightly too much though, and I may have to strip back some of my activity, at least until the MA dissertation is out of the way. One of my colleagues, on learning that I was doing my dissertation, did let out a plaintive wail along the lines of: ‘But how do you find the time?’ Evidently, I’m often not….
I’m going to try to get to the British Museum this weekend, which apparently has some Goya on offer (as well as a Shakespeare exhibit, although I’m a bit put off by the fact that it’s funded by BP)! I’ve still not made it to the Tate Britain to see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, but I really am planning to. Fingers crossed, anyway….
EDIT: Liverpool University’s Paranoia Pain blog has a quick post on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Beloved, currently at the Tate Britain exhibition. I absolutely need to get myself in gear and get over there!