Tag Archives: horror

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.

Classics You’ve Never Read: What You Wish For

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

-Mark Twain

Returning to books you, fellow author, really should know but maybe never had the time. I put this one off because when I started the series I had only read it once and was sure I didn’t understand it. I took a second crack recently; maybe understood it a bit more, and maybe quite a bit less at the same time. This one is DEEP, people. It’s got theme (which I know very little about), and skill and descriptive flair, and horror. It’s engaging, depressing, well known yet surprising and before the end it will frustrate you.

In fact, it’s alive. Alive!

Right, it’s Mary Shelley’s uncontrollable classic, Frankenstein.

Clearing the Air

Let’s push through the mistakes lots of people make based on seeing rather than reading the tale:

"I will NOT be angry..."
“I will NOT be angry…”
  • Frankenstein is the creator’s name, he’s not the monster (or is he?)
  • No electricity; not a brain in a corpse (Abby Normal?)
  • Victor is not the narrator. Nope. Check again. Guy named Walton.

Victor Frankenstein never deigned to give his creation a name, calling it “vile demon”, “insect” and such. Probably didn’t help their relationship any, but we’ll get back to that. Popular audiences need names for things so they did what was logical at the time. And I think it’s a wisdom of crowds moment, because you know what. Frankie is a monster; I mean the doc. Later, I promise.

Lightning is a stroke of creation, dangerous to be near.
Lightning is a stroke of creation, dangerous to be near.

The passages about how the first creature– and later, almost the wife– come to be are beautifully vague. There’s mention of animating forces, and work in the dissecting rooms, sure. Franklin’s kite had flown fifty years before 1817 when Mary Shelley drafted the tale, but “galvinism” is barely mentioned (another generation before steady flow of electricity existed anywhere). And while Victor is stunned by violent storms on several occasions, there’s not much about weather during his creation days. He specifically cites the need to make everything BIG: so while he’s using tissue it’s not a corpse, or even individual parts. That’s all speculation by movie producers, leading to more roles for tall guys (or work for elevator shoe makers). But in the book, precious few details. A true example of restraint, and it’s probably the greatest plot turning point in the English language. Because after the creature comes alive, everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Muddying the Waters

swiss-lake-mtnThere are so many issues to explore in this book, it’s impossible to discuss them all. Read it for the terrific outdoor descriptions, linked to mood and nicely foreshadowing what’s going to happen. Look at the elevated language, the way Shelley works incredible vocabulary into a flow of conversation that makes you want to never curse or use slang again because this is the only way to talk. It’s well worth your time, and there are a hundred things in this book that no movie or TV show has touched.

Let me bring you just one. Frankenstein is a powerful reflection on how our wishes affect our lives. Not “our” in that distant, comfortable sense of ‘we read about this foolish scientist getting his come-uppance and then go on with our lives’. I mean us— authors, human beings still breathing, all of us and all the characters we could ever dream of.

The danger isn’t that we won’t get what we want. It’s that we have no idea what we want, and we want it anyway.

 We’ve Been Framed

This is what’s known as a frame story, or a tale within a tale. The majority of what you read is first-person Victor Frankenstein recounting what happened to him. It shifts to the monster talking of how he survived for so long, watching the family in the cottage through the chink-hole, and so on. But that’s all FRANKENSTEIN telling us this. And when Elizabeth writes him a letter, same business– all him, capeesh? MaryShelley-writingWhat you realize as the tale progresses is that it’s almost all about what Victor Frankenstein wants. He’s had some tragedy in his youth and he pines to unlock the secret of creating new life. Bearing up under ridicule, long hours of study, feverish labor, the whole nine yards– and then he does it.

There’s a living being, in human shape, on the table in front of him, and the thing opens its eyes.

Instantly, Victor’s not happy.

I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (2012-05-17). Frankenstein (p. 26). . Kindle Edition.

This instant revulsion is something all the TV and movie versions give a miss to, and it’s a colossal omission because that drives the entire tale. The monster is not a monster because other people reject him (they do so only later), but solely because the Creator is so disappointed (oooh, Sunday school flashbacks, give me a moment).

frank-pleadingNow follow me here, this is important. Victor is so horrified and disgusted at what he’s done that… um, he goes up to his room. And after tossing and turning he falls asleep. What the what? He awakens and his creation is there peeking at him through the bed curtains (OK, that IS creepy), and again Victor flees– but not in fear apparently, just ick. He paces the courtyard until dawn and by then the monster is out of sight.

And Victor Frankenstein says “whew” and moves on with his life! Well, nervous breakdown and long recuperation, sure, but he never goes in search, makes no report, nothing. He tries to pretend an eight-foot tall golem roaming the countryside is not his responsibility. He returns with his best friend from Germany to Switzerland, few hundred miles across the Alps.

And then the people near him start dying…

 When Creations Don’t Behave

So now we’re in a hall of mirrors. If you read carefully you realize, no one else sees this creature except for folks the monster murders (or who are gone for good). He talks only to Victor, pleading with him for a wife, telling the tale of how he survived, threatening to murder Victor’s loved ones.

WHO's ugly?
WHO’s ugly?

By the end of the story there are only two people who have seen the monster and lived through it. And you can’t trust them.

Victor Frankenstein says he wanted to create new life. Apparently, once he got what he wished for he was miserable, and rejected his creation. It began to misbehave, murdering its creator’s brother, best friend, wife, causing the death of others and glorying in its enemy’s horror.

Your Mirror is Right Over Here

And I think any fiction author knows, that’s exactly what happens. We too wish to create– worlds, plots, new heroes. And we are driven or drawn by this wondrous vision of how marvelous it could be: the fame and fortune, critical acclaim and the satisfaction of a job well done. I’m still waiting on those epic-fantasy groupies I promised myself.

frankenstein-its-aliveThen the book is done. And your creation gets up off the table and looks at you. Next thing, you’re wondering where it all went wrong. Marketing yourself, waiting for reviews, peering down the maw of the publication world, and wondering where on God’s earth you’ll find the inspiration to write the sequel. This… this thing, it murders your free time, takes you away from family and friends, it hounds you to make the next one so it won’t be lonely. If you refuse– mayhem and destruction. Your story is a monster now, pointing at its creator and issuing an ultimatum.

Only the story doesn’t kill anyone, deprive you of anything. You do that yourself. If you’ve ever seen that gory, awful murder mystery Angel Heart, you’ll know where this is going. Maybe Victor Frankenstein murdered all those people himself. He has several nervous breakdowns in the course of the tale, challenges his own memory, was in a fevered state. Wherever he goes, down the Rhine, to Scotland, Paris or back to Switzerland, he always catches a glimpse of a monster he can blame for his problems. But the only one we can prove was there is Victor. Read the story and you’ll see.

Maybe Not?

Wait- I said this was a frame-story. There is actually an uber-narrator or whatever you want to call him; Walton, a ship’s captain trying to reach the North Pole  picks up Frankenstein’s sled chasing the monster across the ice. Rats, I thought; he’s a witness, saw the monster before rescuing Victor. So we hear the whole tale (from Victor’s PoV) as related in the letters and diary of Captain Walton to his sister, get it? It’s really truly, all him, capeesh? Sheesh.

Ah, but what does Captain Walton wish for…

 … I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (2012-05-17). Frankenstein (p. 3). . Kindle Edition.

Oho. So this guy Walton, frustrated in his former life as a failed author (!!!), takes ship to discover the North Pole or die trying. And he just happens, along the way, to meet and pick up this marvelous, intelligent, caring, educated fellow he embraces as his soul-mate. Walton is the only other  character who spots this monster (forget the crew, they’re not even equity level actors), and the thing he’s always wished for finally comes to him after incredible effort, risk of life and limb, obsession driving him… more mirrors. He nurses Frankenstein while the ship is trapped in ice, is there when he dies, and it’s Walton (no one else) who encounters and converses with the monster who comes to pay a love-hate tribute to his Creator before going off (so the creature swears) to immolate himself in a land that has no wood within hundreds of miles. Yeah.

North pole Dog sledHis ship freed from the ice, Walton returns to England to bring us this tale. Which is really all about what HE wanted. And how he wasn’t happy once he got it. Meaning, maybe no monster, no Victor Frankenstein. We have only his word for it.

What’s Your Word Worth?

Take one more frame-step back now. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this tale– an accomplishment that deserves its own blog post. Probably the first science fiction tale ever, one of the greatest horror stories, and she a woman of just 18, didn’t even get her name on the first edition when it published. She came up with it in a stroke, when her little group of friends (the others all men) challenged each other to devise new ghost stories. {Byron went the other way and started the chain of vampire tales with his… hope YOUR crit-group does as well in one night!} But no question there were things that Mary Shelley wanted– to be an author, to marry a guy who was already married and likely a few other things. To be treated as an equal, to find a mate. Hem, well… seems she got what she wanted in part, and I only hope it made her happy. Even your creations deserve that.

Once you get started, you never know what might happen...
Once you get started, you never know what might happen…

You are reading this tale (again I urge you, go and read this incredible book). And there are things you want to create. How do those wishes of yours drive you, and what happens when you start to see them come true? Is this the same way God feels about us most of the time? Is there no middle ground between the demands of our creations and the destruction of all we hold dear? Will our work always by turns attract and disgust us? Can anyone truly witness to our needs, the kind of friend that Walton wished for? Is there no escape in sub-creation, just another hall of mirrors?

Chilling to contemplate. Frustrating, like I said. As for your wishes, I’d say be careful…