Surprises from the Powerhouses of Horror

Yes, today’s post is about Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’m not going to go into deep analyses or anything, but I’ll say a bit about how each one surprised me, and reflect a little from my Christian perspective.

Let’s start with Frankenstein, a book I wrote half of my A Level coursework on. I’m just going to throw this out there: this is not a horror. At least, not in the way that modern audiences would think of a horror. As I was reading Frankenstein, I came to the conclusion that it’s more like a thoughtful Sci-Fi drama. Yes, it has suspense and some violence, but nothing like the horrors around nowadays. It was a surprisingly thought-provoking book, posing questions about the relationship between creator and creature (that’s what my A Level coursework was on), ethics in science and, that big issue to top all other big issues in literature, love (and death…love and death seem to go together a lot in famous books).

As well as all this, the ending was one of the most emotional I’ve read in a while, and really moved me. In fact, the manipulation of emotions throughout the book is testament to Shelley’s writing ability. I was not expecting to feel such sympathy towards the ‘monster’, and such ambivalence towards Victor Frankenstein. Throughout the novel, I was forced to ask myself which one of the two was really behaving more like a monster, the abused, abandoned creature, or the prejudiced, often irrational creator? When I first picked up the book, I was not expecting to be asking those sorts of questions, to be feeling all those emotions. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

The questions that the novel posed for me as a Christian were interesting too. That creator-creature relationship that I keep mentioning is an interesting one, worth meditation on as a Christian. There were also ethical issues that were more generally interesting, such as treatment of others, prejudice (and racism) and ambition. Ambition links to pride, and that scary Greek word hubris (or hybris). Hubris is setting yourself up in God’s place, as Victor did. Can you really do a better job than God?*

Now for Dracula. Not the first vampire novel, but certainly the Grandaddy of the modern conception of vampires. I have to make it clear now, Count Dracula did not sparkle in sunlight (he didn’t burn either, that was an addition in one of the movies). This book was much closer to what I expected from a classic horror than Frankenstein, though it was still much less gory than modern horrors. The suspense that Stoker creates, especially in the first half of the novel, turns this book into a real page-turner. Perhaps ‘scary’ would be the wrong word for this book, but it was certainly unsettling.

What most struck me about the novel, however, is probably more to do with me studying English than anything else: the narrative techniques. Stoker plays with structure and form throughout the novel. It is not a straightforward third or first person narration, it is a collection of journal entries, newspaper articles, letters and more that fit together to make the story. What’s more, the characters refer to the very documents that you’re reading, which really sucks you into the story, and, because the documents are essentially being written as the story progresses, the writer of the first journal entry, Jonathan Harker, has no idea what’s going to happen in the end of the book. This is in contrast to most narrators, either first or third person, who are normally telling the story after it has happened. As a literary nerd, this was fascinating.

As for the Christian bit, there is too much to talk about to fit into one paragraph. I will say that Stoker just about manages to fit vampires into a Christian worldview, and certainly can’t be accused of glorifying demonic forces or anything like that. From that perspective, cautious Christians need not be worried. Christian icons, such as the crucifix, are crucial to the story, though they relate to a more traditional, icon-based Christianity than I am used to. Interestingly, one of the characters (I forget which) actually wonders about this. Being a protestant, he wonders if artefacts like the crucifix have any power in themselves, or whether they’re just symbols that help in channelling an awareness of God, for want of a better phrase.

I would recommend these two books to anyone even remotely interested in reading them, Christian or not. I think Christians will find many points of interest and debate, and can gain a lot from reading these novels if they allow themselves to fully engage with them. Dracula was definitely more of what I expected from a horror, the surprises came more from the narrative style than the story itself, and it’s a very clever book – certainly not a mindless gore-fest. On the other hand, Frankenstein is definitely not what I expected, and the surprises in the novel came from this, as well as the big questions it forces you to consider. So even if you don’t like modern horror (I don’t), then give one of these books a try, and you might also be surprised.

*I would recommend the excellent scholarly exposition of this subject, Bruce Almighty, if you’re interested in furthering your investigation.

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