Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Horror! The Horror!

I’ve always had a guilty fondness of horror stories – the tendency of these stories to be full of heaving bodices and ravishments and sexual license appealed to me in my teenage years, and any honest man will admit (and any woman confirm) no man stops being a teenager, ever.

I can’t even begin to list all the horror stories that I have read, from the respectable (Dracula, Frankenstein, Poe, Lovecraft et cetera), through the somewhat respectable (Stephen King) to the utterly unmentionable – where titles and writers blur into an endless montage of bared and rended flesh, cliché and nonsense. Ah! The joy of it all.

“Re-invention” is a dirty word to my mind. It usually entails some smart arse grabbing someone else’s laurels and trying to make off with them. Which brings us to The Secret Life Of Lazlo, Count Dracula, by Roderick Anscombe.

This is a re-invention of the Dracula story. It is, in a trivial way, emblematic of the problem with modern literature – which, as I see it, is that writers are too damn knowledgable to be able to write. Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with Freud or Neitchze, but that didn’t stop him writing a psychologically perfect illustration of the Oedipus complex (Hamlet) and brilliant examinations of power, its mis-uses and its consequences there-of (MacBeth, Richard III, Julius Ceasar). He just wrote it, damn it. In these postmodern times, however, people are too well versed in too much to do anything as simple as write it, damn it. They have to cram all sorts of stuff into the story, without thinking about what is already there. Dracula is perfect as it is. You could talk for days about the imagery and subtext, the fear of contamination, the allure of the other, Dracula as a supreme Oedipal figure who can only be killed by driving a phallus, sorry, stake through his heart. What we don’t need is a psychiatrist turned writer to do it for us.

In a nutshell: Drac isn’t a vampire, he’s an ordinary aristocrat with a fondness for rough sex, so rough that his dates don’t often survive. He dabbles in the infant science of psychiatry which allows him to ponder on his condition in a tedious manner. It isn’t the psychological brooding that annoys me, but the poor quality of the writing makes it very heavy going. Anscombe might be a qualified psychiatrist, but if this is anything to go by, his case studies make poor reading, and leave the reader feeling skeptical.

I’m not one to rush to judge too quickly. It wasn’t until page 178 that I became infuriated, when the good Count asks a friend ‘and that’s where we come in?’ – an odd phrase for a 19th century Hungarian aristocrat to utter. Of course, once I decided I was not ‘bored’ but ‘infuriated’ by the book, I showed it no mercy. I started folding pages over (after a conversation with my wife as to the practicality of using her lipstick as a highlighter) to mark things that annoyed me particularly – and I count a further 19 folded up corners. 20 blunders might not sound a lot, but remember this is from halfway through the book, and they are only the outstandingly bad examples. Add on top of that a poor quality of writing, staging (the characters seem to spend most of their time at breakfast) and plotting (not content with the violation and murder of four women, Anscombe throws in a plague, a treasonous conspiracy and a murder investigation).

The book is full of sloppy writing. We are told that one woman wants to ‘Show that she wears the pants.’ Again, an unusal ambition in 19th Cnetury Europe and an even more anachronistic styling. A few pages later, this woman and Mrs Drac have ‘Hit it off.’ Talking to the dogged Inspector Krause, probably the only convincing character in the book, Drac declares ‘if you look here and here you will see the small flaws which are the mark of manufacture – which however, superior, can never match the careful application of the craftsman to his art.’ Try saying it – people just don’t talk like that, particularly people who use phrases like ‘And that’s where we come in?’

I’m not going to list all of the top 19 Bad Things. I will, however, ask if you, knowing that your husband had killed two young women, would invite a third to stay at your home and watch indulgently while she flirts with the monster? Mrs Drac does just that. And, because I can’t resist it, the topper. As I have said, this is a book that has been written badly. Worse, it seems never to have been re-read either by the writer or by anyone else – perhaps I am the first person to have read it. If it had been read by an editor, and that editor had not been rendered unconscious by the overwhelming monotony of the prose, surely the phrase ‘Grief does not come naturally to her nature’ would have been struck out? 'Naturally to her nature'? There is so much of this sort of thing.

Vampires are so on-the-money, with spooky castles, dark capes, wolves, bats, oodles of sex, how is it possible for it to go so horribly wrong?

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