Tag Archives: classic literature

Classics You’ve Never Read: Your Money or Your Life

Classic: a book that people praise and do not read.

– Mark Twain

CoMC_Treasure1Unless you live in Tennessee, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that just like me, you did not win an unthinkably huge pile of money last month in the Powerball lottery. Instead, I contributed a modest amount to someone else’s dreams, and in return received the entertainment value of a few days mooning over what I would do if… I’m fine with it, of course, but that may only be because there’s the chance at another jackpot waiting in my future. I buy tickets on occasion, just one or two, and I enjoy the thinking, the dreaming. As much as I complain about vet bills and car repairs, I don’t truly need the money.

We all know and fear how wealth could ruin our lives: the two seem opposed. I’ve blogged before about Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of my favorite tales of all time. Among the funniest routines from the days of radio was the defining skit of famous comedian and infamous tightwad Jack Benny.

{sound effect, Jack walking home on the street}

Robber: Stick ’em up!

Jack: Don’t shoot!

Robber: Your money or your life.

{enormous pause, studio audience laughing}

Robber: I said your money or your life!

Jack: I’m thinking, I’m thinking!

This week I’m delving into the bookend piece of A Christmas Carol. Every few years I re-read the classic tale about the guy who gets it right, who uses an immeasurable pile of money to correct injustice, gain a much-needed revenge, reward the virtuous and win back CoMC2_Guy_Pearcehis life. It’s both, not either, for Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

The tale itself, I assume you know. If you have not read it, or at least seen it, I can have very little to say to you, on any subject. This is one of those books you’d have to have on the desert island: it’s seminal to my thought process and quite simply one of the most ripping good adventure tales ever told. I find longer and longer versions over the years and like its story all the more. It was decades before I realized it must have originally been written in another language. I still don’t know if I believe that.

Yes, a Fantasy

Let’s not argue about this. Edmond Dantes is first mate on board a merchant ship in the days just before Waterloo, with a fiancee’ in port and a secret letter in pocket, looking exactly like a character in a story about the Alleged Real World.

But come now.

He promises his dying captain to deliver a letter. One letter, he promised. And three unhappily-met enemies later, he’s been robbed of his position and freedom, deprived of his family and lover, and buried alive in the Chateau d’If while Napoleon’s return rocks CoMC6Europe. Yes, a bit far-fetched as bad fortunes go. Then he meets that combination of Sokrates, St. Francis and Da Vinci in the Abbe Faria (next cell over). A man who knows multiple languages, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and history, but somehow tunnels too short, bringing himself to Dantes’ cell for the express purpose of turning our hero into a walking encyclopedia. The two men continue the tunnel (years of work), the Abbe dies just before they are done, and one body-swap-plus-near-drowning later, Edmond Dantes is free with CoMC5only the directions to a tiny island and its massive treasure to live on.

And by massive, I mean Powerball. Without the state and federal taxes.

Getting it Right

Now then, how many protagonists 1) get the treasure in the MIDDLE of the story AND 2) use it correctly? Aladdin, easy come easy go; not really good with money or power, he just loves the girl.  The Fisherman and his Wife, so not. The Dwarves in The Hobbit, almost no on both counts. But Edmond Dantes creates the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, CoMC_Treasure2appearing in Paris years later, to find all his enemies have become important people by climbing a ladder that had his heart on the bottom rung. The tale is just getting warmed up.

Dumas misses no opportunity to remind us what we already suspect: if people think you have money, a lot of doors open for you. Money is indeed power, over the spirit of weak and villainous people, and Dantes exploits this. He tosses around a gem the size of a swallow’s egg just to get an informant’s attention. A half-million francs is the price of one acting job from a villain who doesn’t realize how much truth he’s telling.

Yet everywhere you look, Dantes is not just getting his way with money, he’s passing judgment from it. Actually, his enemies are incriminating themselves: the wealthy banker jumps at each million the Count dangles like a treat before a puppy, and misses every time. By the same token, the noble and loyal from his former life are raised from poverty, saved from suicide, cleared to marry by Dantes’ wealth (aided, it must be admitted, by his love for theater).

The Obstacle of Wealth

CoMC4_Jim_CaviezelAuthors are often urged to throw down barriers to their heroes, for conflict. Chief among these I would say is poverty. Having a poor character creates sympathy, and brings in all its relatives like hunger, exhaustion, and spite from the “haves”; everything to do with time and distance is tougher because you can’t pay to overcome them. In Edmond Dantes, we’re looking at a man who has been horribly wronged, of whom it’s not too much to say that his life was taken from him. Now money, showers of it, and as much education as one might need, he already got that from the priest. It’s Batman without the mask– oh wait, he wears one of those too in the movies at times. And a cape of course. So it’s Batman, except his arch-villains have gotten themselves elected governor and federal judge and chairman of Gotham-Sachs. And who wouldn’t like to take down those guys?

Wealth brings a different obstacle.

Edmond Dantes is eagerly admitted wherever he goes, owns the fastest ship, employs the most loyal servants. Time and distance do not oppose him. His enemies are agog and ignorant of his intent. But he must be Justice itself: and who has sympathy for an avenging angel? The central question of The Count of Monte Cristo is whether he is after revenge or something more. By enacting his plans with perfection, he wreaks havoc on the lives of his enemies: you can hardly doubt he will succeed. It is not his goal, at first, to do justice. But when his perfect scheme causes worse than he intends, those plans must change. His next goal is not, at first, to survive. But a path to redemption opens when he places his trust in the one who wronged him least.

Mark these crucial moments in the unfolding of the plot, and you can see that beneath the layers of gold and jewels is still a man, named Edmond Dantes.

  • When his scheme to ruin the public prosecutor involves the man’s wife by indulging her CoMC3interest in poisoning, the Count fails at first to see that one of his worthy friends will be among her targets
  • He repairs the plan, but instead of simply humiliating or killing the prosecutor, he unexpectedly drives him mad
  • In the same way, his scheme for revenge upon the man who stole his fiancee’ centers around provoking their son to a duel, which the Count will of course win. But when Mercedes begs him with tears to spare the youth, the Count relents, and expects to be slain instead. Once again, for all his wealth and intelligence he fails to see the final outcome.
  • These blows to his omniscience bring Dantes humility, and in the end he even spares the man who robbed him of his position. He focuses instead on settling the fortune to his remaining friends (or their faithful children), and is himself stunned , as he re-enters the mortal realm, to find hope and a second life awaiting him.

Buying the Reader’s Love

So a staggering pile of loot is the means, rather than one of the ends of the story. How else can we sympathize with someone who has become rich and powerful, whatever he had suffered before? Edmond Dantes begins as a character with many admirable qualities,

Yes, it's me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!
Yes, it’s me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!

including courage, honesty, pride, perhaps much like the hero of your book. He suffers unjustly, in a way losing his life and passing through “death” in the Chateau d’If, then gains the means to balance the scales: most of us don’t know much about that, and in many tales when the hero gets rich we hear the happy-ending music. So the obstacle– indeed the peril of the mid-tale is that we will see thrills but lose this hero. The Count of Monte Cristo has wealth, but still no life. This angel of God’s vengeance comes down to earth again, where we can stop marveling and return to our affection. He is chastened, wiser, happier, and enjoys what is most important in human life, which is love and hope. Not wealth– or so those of us who didn’t hit the Powerball dearly want to believe!

When Edmond Dantes sails off to the horizon, it’s the end of the Count of Monte Cristo. But he is not yet forty years old. I think of his story often, as I re-read it often. Once since I began to chronicle the Lands of Hope, I thought myself at a crossroads and what came to me was his tale. Not because I sought revenge or justice, but I suppose I realized I was in the middle of a story (in fact, two of them). Dumas’ great classic can teach you a lot about where the end of the story lies. No matter what great tale you see, or how many you’ve told, there’s always an end whose place is “not yet”.  Like Dantes, you must always “Wait and hope”.sailing-into-the-sunset

Classics You’ve Never Read: Menace Beyond Measure

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.

-Mark Twain

Here’s the only way I can even attempt to analyze the single most famous work of horror the world has ever known.

  1. I’m not doing the whole thing
  2. You are

Drac Castle1Yes, dear reader, this time I guarantee it will be the classic you actually did read. At least, the first few pages.

And since I don’t expect you to be telepathic, I’m going to tell you the name. No biting humor, thank you: you’re going to be reading Bram Stoker’s immortal– no, really, he doesn’t die– classic Dracula.

There’s way too much in this one to cover: maybe I’ll do more installments later. But for now, I will focus on just one element of this epic story, namely the incredible variety and degree of menace Stoker creates right at the beginning.

And I can’t convey that to you by myself. You’re going to have to help me.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It…

I’m completely serious. I want you to download a FREE copy of Dracula and read the opening. Or use paper- I have an annotated hardcover the size of a phone book. Yes, read it right now. Or at least, before you go much further on this blog.

Free online versions of Dracula:

Gutenberg Project



Oh stop whining– it’s the greatest horror story ever written, the e-book is totally Drac-Harkerfree and it’s a smooth read. On my tablet it’s a few dozen page-flips, the first four chapters. So off with you now, get the book and read through to this point in the journal of Jonathan Harker:

At least God’s mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye all. Mina!

As you read, I want you to pay close attention to the theme of menace. Make a list if you want (I have). And remember, no matter how many movies and other references they made, this is supposed to be a book. Don’t use your pre-knowledge of these names and characters; let Stoker introduce them to you.

No peeking! Just read it, then come back and finish this blog post where we can compare notes. I’ll wait right here.

Ahem, I told you not to peek.

The Use of Threat in Your Story

Have you finished? Honestly, did you go and read some pages? Because I can’t TELL you about this feeling, you have to read it and get the tingle yourself.

Happened! It's in the book.
Happened! It’s in the book.

OK, here’s a compilation of the ways I counted that Bram Stoker builds a sense of threat or menace to his first hero, Jonathan Harker. I categorized them roughly and put the number of instances at the end of each line:

  •  Misses with language- the people around him either don’t speak, or pretend not to understand him (after getting his words perfectly earlier) (4)
  • Blessings and Pressings- people are frantic that Harker go no further, and give him relics or make signs over him when he pushes on- (4)
  • Peer pressure- folks nearby are afraid, wish to hurry etc. (2)
  • Evil place- claims and indications that the region is a nexus for bad mojo- (3)
  • Inner nervousness- Harker’s unease is reflected in his journal, and “if” he doesn’t come back he wishes Mina well- (3)
  • Darkness and Sparseness- his approach to the castle leaves him increasingly isolated and alone; he winds up reversing his diurnal habit, talking all night, sleeping all day-(2)
  • The enemy’s power (passively displayed)- Harker is never assailed or
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don't make a guy choose.
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don’t make a guy choose.

    seized. But the Count is massively strong, can climb down a sheer wall; Harker’s letter of credit and extra clothes are stolen- (3)

  • Good Old External Threat- surrounded by wolves, foul weather or something anyone would see as dangerous; others die in his hearing or suffer the Count’s wrath for disobedience- (7)
  • Mysterious Deeds and Signs- he is taken on a carriage ride in circles, the Count throws Harker’s shaving mirror out the window, he’s buying a gloomy isolated house next to a lunatic asylum-(4)
  • Signing Your Life Away- having to compose letters with forward dates is a clear sign of the Count’s power and Harker’s timeline of doom-(2)
  • Love and Death- encountering the three ladies he is seduced and nearly killed-(1)
  • Lies Revealed- the Count never tells him things, so when Harker reasons  them out (there are no servants, nearly all doors are locked) it raises the danger he’s in to realize it (and to suspect that the Count knows)- (2)
Drac Castle interior
Moby games screenshot

Dozens of discrete instances of increasing threat, every one of them like another turn of a wrench tightening the sense of menace and helplessness. Harker is the fly and ahead of him, the parlor. There’s no outward violence; Harker takes one swing in anger and it does him no good. The Count has complete mastery of his prisoner from the beginning, but dissembles at first until it is well too late.

And one more thing, a theme that runs underneath all the other twists of menace: Duty. At every step, whenever Harker is presented with a chance to turn back, or ask questions, make demands, he finds it pointless since it is his job to be there. His boss told the Count in his introductory letter that Harker could be trusted: that letter is a death warrant, unintentionally dooming the hero from the start,  because of course no Victorian gentleman would let it be said he did not meet his obligations.

First Impressions

Remember, you don’t know Harker from a hole in the wall, he’s new to your reader’s eye. All indications at first are that he is going to meet the main character in the Count, the hero of the tale perhaps. When does the villain come into your view so early in the story?

I was so stoked that this worked!
{I was so stoked that this worked}

And Stoker isn’t clumsy about this: the early narrative is filled with an ebb and flow of menace to charm. Harker describes the countryside, the colorful people, the marvelous food. You have plenty of time to recover your senses, and like Harker you doubt that it’s fully as dangerous as it turns out to be, until too late. Even after he meets the Count, they speak of mundane things like property rights and legal matters. You feel a glimmer. But slowly, like the dish steeped in paprika Harker ate on the first day, the taste of menace pervades the entire meal, and everything you read in the story too. And it leaves one… well, thirsty.

Survival of the Fittest?

Final point about the end-of-the-beginning. If you didn’t read it yet, shame on you really. But you probably already know something you shouldn’t. When Harker is at the very peak of menace he takes a desperate chance. The Count has left him to the mercies of the three female vampires, and as soon as this last day is over they will come for him. Harker decides to risk all and try to climb down the precipice on which the castle is set– hence his last journal entry. That’s the extremity he’s been driven to and it’s a marvelous moment.

But here’s what hit me. If I’m reading this the first time, if I haven’t seen any of the

Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes...
Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes…

umpty-dozen video versions of this story, then there’s something crucial I don’t know. I have no idea whether Harker survives. So we enter the next phase of the tale, from the journals of Lucy and Mina, and the latter increasingly worries that she hasn’t heard from her betrothed. The menace only spreads, like ripples in a pond. My immersion was so complete that I felt sympathy for poor Mina, hoping Jonathan was not hurt, etc. And that, this gift of threat that Stoker so carefully built in the first few chapters, echoes through nearly half the book, until of course Jonathan is located, still alive.

What a magnificent piece of work, to carefully and delicately construct this edifice of menace. And what a fabulous pay-off it gave Stoker throughout the following pages.

Lessons to the End

Read the whole thing, by all means. If you like epistolary tales that build a sense of reality from many points of view, Dracula is your thing. Stoker’s airtight commitment to the bulletin, diary, letter or telegram is a wonderful way to elevate the writing, because of the structure and limitations it imposes. I have used journal entries and letters myself at points in my fantasy tales where

2 of my faves, but gotta' say... too much cape.
2 of my faves, but gotta’ say… too much cape.

things dip toward horror. Reading long-ago words from those now dead automatically imposes a patina of creepy; and of course any distraction from the act of world-building is a good one (sshhh). Folks in the North Mark whisper of a vampire up in the Barony of T’yr: fortunately, undead of the second form are rare in the Lands. Time will tell.

If you want to see

  • a dead ship captain tied to the wheel with a rosary
  • an old salt talking in slang that’s completely impenetrable yet perfectly clear
  • so many nice people dying at once, you’ll think you found a lost volume of Game of Thrones
  • a room that smells so bad the heroes improve the aroma by lighting cigars
  • a story that manages conflict and doubt of success, despite a lack of the usual barriers

Then Dracula should be at the top of your list.

On that last point, I mean the heroes often despair of their chances, but the tension does not arise from the kind of tried-and-true barriers we often are urged to consider. They are not poor, never hungry- one of them is a Lord and can sweep away obstacles with a word to the consulate. They know multiple languages, are well armed and skillful (not just brave and honest). They flash across Europe hiring transport and buying supplies wherever needed. You don’t need to throw those obstacles in their way because their opponent is beyond natural, larger than mortal. Again, there is no fighting until the end: the heroes fall back not from weapons, but from the moment of sunset.

Everyone knows the power of a good beginning: those who follow me have heard Drac-van Helsingmy admiration for efforts like the Immerse or Die challenge. Here we have a foundation built by a master of the craft (or perhaps an author writing his most inspired piece, I have made no study of Stoker overall). The payoff resounds throughout the rest of the epic, bringing rewards time and again in the depth of character and in constant triggers to your interest and sympathy.

Where is that sense of threat in the beginning of your story? How many times do you turn the crank to tighten the menace, and how many different tools are in your toolbox to do it with? I wish your current heroes every success– after they’ve come through the wringer with Jonathan Harker.