Monday, October 19, 2009

I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary - a properly filed Dracula

Typing in triplicate!  Pretty scary stuff!  From Chapter 17 of Dracula (1897).

Dracula consists of documents.  Diaries and letters, with the occasional newspaper clipping thrown in, strung together in chronological order. One clever result is that the reader always knows more than the characters, for most of the book, at least.  Until heroic Mina Harker, exemplar of modern womanhood, master of the sciences of shorthand and typing, gathers together all of the relevant materials and - sensitive readers should look away - types them up.  In triplicate.  And then she collates them.  Stoker neglects to mention her use of color-coded mini-PostIt notes, or what binderization system she employs.  Then the vampire-hunters have a meeting in a conference room.  Mina takes minutes, which she later types and distributes.

For many readers, this will be the most terrifying scene in Dracula.  Look at that primitive technology. Only three copies for six characters. They do not each get their own takeaway. They have to share.

So the next thing that happens in the actual plot of the book about vampires is that everyone reads the big pile of documents, the same documents that the reader has already gone through, Chapters 1 through 16 of Dracula. By lining up the dates of the different diaries, various discoveries (which the reader already knows) are made which help move the plot forward.  Count Dracula, understanding that this paperwork is a wood-pulp stake aimed directly at his heart, invades the office and throws it all into the fire. 

Here I interrupted. "Thank God there is the other copy in the safe!" (Ch. 21)

Sometimes Dracula is kind of a stupid book.  I haven't even mentioned the scene where the heroes hire a locksmith.  I promise, kids, next week's movie will be really scary.

By the time Stoker wrote Dracula, the novel-of-documents was an old device. Rarely, though, do the documents themselves play such a direct role in the story.  Samuel Richardson got caught up in the same thing in Pamela (1740), where poor kidnapped Pamela often seems more worried about her supply of paper and pens than escaping her kidnapper.  And I now remember that Robinson Crusoe "could not make any ink by any means that I could devise" (Ch. 4).  Mostly, though, authors set up the "actual document" premise and then discreetly ignore it.  Not Bram Stoker.

Tomorrow, I'll take a useless stab at figuring out what this book is good for.


  1. You crack me up. Having worked a job only a few years ago (2005) where I actually had to type things in triplicate on a typewriter, starting over if I made a mistake, I am quaking in my boots over here.

  2. It does sound ridiculous, the way you put it! I admit, my own rereading of the novel has rather lapsed (I have been trying to write something about this, but that has lapsed fail!). But if I had my head in the game, I think I'd try to work up something about modern technology facing off against ancient evils. OK, typewriters seem commonplace to us today, but in the 1890s, they did stand for something, especially when used by women (in Gissing's 1895 The Odd Women, for instance, there's a women's organization aimed at getting women working in better jobs, including typing and secretarial positions).

  3. What a close reading! that is pretty terrifying to think of such amateur technology. haha. Looking forward to your thoughts tomorrow as I had a horrible first experience with Dracula this month....

  4. die geneigte LeserinOctober 19, 2009 at 9:19 PM

    If I recall correctly, a key scene from Grisham's "The Firm" involves a photocopier. As does a scene from the German movie "The Nasty Girl." We sit on the edge of our seats as the . . . photocopier . . . scans . . . documents. Yep, that's a plot device that hasn't lost its edge.

    Oddly, none of these plots actually plays with the technology itself (no fading typewriter ribbon or jammed keys; no toner that runs out, no paper jams).Or does Dracula break in and steal the typewriter ribbon and crumple the paper? Now that would be truly evil.

  5. Dare I admit that I am a big Dracula fan? I really enjoyed the book and I really enjoyed visiting Whitby, which really tries to cash in on the Dracula connection.

    That said, I loved your rant and will be sharing it with the many friends and family whom I arm-twisted into reading D.

    This afternoon I heard a bit on NPR about how low-budget horror films (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity) with shaky cameras are often scarier than high-tech movies because the shaky camera makes the camera operator vulnerable and by extension the viewer. I wonder if the same applies to document-driven fiction?

  6. I wonder if the recently-announced sequel to Dracula (written by a descendant... as if we should forgive him for it) will include this method of storytelling? I was very surprised by Dracula; this is not today's vampire at all.

  7. Jane, yes, admit away. I liked Dracula, too, more than Rohan did. Mockery is an essential component of serious criticism.

    Rohan, I was already processing that technology idea, so I didn't steal it from you. Not completely.

    Rebecca - I saw your post on Dracula. I read - I always read - with a lot more distance than that, and with an eye for the ridiculous. The vampire doesn't bother me, but I don't take the concept quite seriously.

    Actually, that was a problem with this book, or an achievement of the book: I had a hard time telling if and when Stoker was putting me on.

    Rob - science fiction writer Fred Saberhagen already followed this model in his Dracula series. The Dracula Tapes (1975), the first one, has the Count recording his memoirs. He responds point by point to Stoker's Dracula.

  8. Phew, I'm glad to see Jane is keeping me company in the "Dracula fan" corner! I've enjoyed it a couple times, though my reading may have been enhanced by memories of a play, "The Passion of Dracula," in which gender roles were reversed.

  9. Reversing the gender roles - a logical extension of the novel.