Mon
Apr 9 2012 4:00pm

Monsterpiece Theatre

Let’s consider the Big Three — in birth order, Frankenstein (1818), Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886), and Dracula (1897). How were these literary “monsterpieces” begotten, and what allows them to keep on keepin’ on, haunting us through the centuries?

Rereading, actually rereading these works we think we know so well, is sure to yield a few surprises. First off, the quality varies widely. Frankenstein and Dracula are very good, if not great – I could argue for the greatness of Dracula — while Jekyll and Hyde can seem downright unreadable, Stevenson’s language as syrupy sweet as the eponymous doctor’s potion. We might excuse Stevenson, though, with a few words regarding form.

The novella’s full title is The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, “case” being the operative word.  Stevenson structured his story along the lines of an actual case study, hence the multiple authorial voices searching (sometimes in vain) for a story. Of course, there are wondrous chapters in the novella, specifically the last two – wondrous enough to have inspired my own Young Adult “riff” on Stevenson, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mademoiselle Odile – yet the bulk of the story plods, reminding us that while some books become classics, others simply age. Bottom line: The great Scot hung his story on a structure which, though quite innovative at the time, never caught on as a framework for fiction.

Conversely, both Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker structured their novels in accord with the Gothic tried ‘n true; and in so doing, they furthered it. Both novels are epistolary; which, in its wider definition, extends beyond letters alone to include journal entries, ships’ logs, newspaper clippings, gramophone transcriptions, telegrams, et cetera. All of which, whether in forms simple (Shelley) or more elaborate (Stoker), allows for the Gothic “must- have”: the Found Manuscript. It is this – and the concomitant sense of reading something written on the sly, under duress, in secret, reading something written to a Someone who, it turns out, thrill of thrills, is us! – that affords the great gothic novels their intimacy.

However interesting these novels may or may not be, the value inherent in their literary form is but a stilted and snobbish response to the question Why do we still read them? The louder answer, shouted, is We don’t! Not really. And sadly this seems true: Our instinct tells us, does it not, that readers turn in decreasing numbers to books, period, let alone the classics? Nearly all stats – excepting those pertaining to the YA readership – bear this out.

Still, though, we must have our monsters. Why? Because, in both whispers and shouts, they speak to us. And therein lay the genius of the great gothicists, in particular our slithery, sibilant string of scribblers: Shelley, Stevenson and Stoker.

Each of the Big Three monsters spoke for its time. Shelley’s revivified lug, her “Modern Prometheus,” warned of overreaching science whereas Stoker’s novel reeks of the dual fears best summed up as “Sex and the City (Victorian edition);” meanwhile, Stevenson tapped into the fears of the psyche, of our so often hideous inner selves, well before Freud.

And yet, and still… The more honest answer to the question Why do these monsters resonate? is that they were co-opted by other media, media that reached, then as now, far beyond books. And just as it is fair to ask Would we even know these creatures were it not for the stage and screen? it is equally fair (and troubling) to answer, Maybe not.

Though both Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde sold well when published, it is to their later incarnations on stage and screen – one hundred and twenty-three adaptations of the Stevenson alone – that we may attribute this cultural resonance. The case with Dracula, however, is more complicated: The novel fell flat when published as a “penny dreadful,” bound in the traditional bright yellow jacket.

In Stoker’s day, copyright was secured via staged readings; and while Stoker secured the British copyright in this way, he never even bothered to secure the American rights. (So it is that Dracula has always been in the public domain in the United States.) Indeed, so faint was the first reception of the Count, we might never have met him were it not for the misguided zeal of Stoker’s widow who, hearing of a filmed version of the all-but-forgotten novel, sued to have all extant copies of the film destroyed. Florence Stoker won this bitter defense of what she had long been referring to as the “Second Bathroom Book,” the sum total of all royalties earned by her late husband’s novel having only ever allowed her to tuck a new powder room beneath the hall staircase. Defeated, the German filmmaker in question consented to having his film destroyed. Sort of. He – F.W. Murnau – retained one copy of his now-classic Nosferatu. And thankfully so. Only when the film was screened, some twenty-five years after Dracula’s initial publication, did Stoker’s Vampire King start to insinuate himself into the collective consciousness, never looking back: As of 2009, two hundred and seventeen films featuring Stoker’s bloodsucking hero have been made.

It is largely owing to their popular and repeated adaptations – their “going viral,” old-school style — that we owe the renown of these three novels and their miscreant heroes; and for this we should be grateful (the long list of schlocky adaptations notwithstanding). We ought to be even more grateful that the books, good or bad, still exist as the seeds from which these archetypes sprouted.

Read them. Reread them. For better or worse, you’ll be surprised.

[Check out Tor.com’s Monster Week to get more in-depth with classic monster novels and movies.]


James Reese is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dracula Dossier, The Book of Shadows, The Book of Spirits, and Witchery; his latest novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mademoiselle Odile, will be available on April 10th. Born on eastern Long Island, Reese now divides his time between Paris, France, and Tampa, Florida. Visit him at  www.jamesreesebooks.com

4 comments
C.d.
1. C.d.
*gasp*!
Did you just call Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde unreadable? *GASP* I say, my good sir! *GASP*
I once had a literature Professor call it "one of the best prose works of the 19th century." Although I disagree with her slightly, I don't think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has aged any more than Dracula or Frankenstein has. But this is probably a matter of personal preference...
I should also add, of course, that I forced my poor, innocent, middle-school-going brother to read Dr. Jekyll and Dracula, and he loved them both. So I think there's still hope for the classics!
alastair chadwin
2. a-j
C.d.@1
What s/he said.

My experience is that the three books are more widely read than the OP is aware and that is why they have survived.

As it happens, I first read them in an American paperback edition that had all three together with an excellent introduction by Steven King.
C.d.
3. Tait McKenzie Johnson
To say that these stories are only lasting because they were made into movies seems to entirely miss the whole point about what makes monsters such a powerful force in the human imagination.

People have been telling and re-telling stories about blood-suckers, animated men, and the dark side of the self for centuries before the invention of motion pictures or the writing of these particular stories, since at least ancient Greece if not across the ancient world. Certainly mediums like the movies, with their ability to reach broad audiences, help maintain the mythic, cultural aspect of mosnter tales, but saying this is the only reason misses the more important question of why these particular monsters made it onto the big screen in the first place. What do Dracula, Frankenstien's Monster, and Mr. Hyde tell us about ourselves, what do they warn us about (the dangers of urban economics, technological invention, and repressed longings, respectively)?

For example, take a monster that did not make it into the Hollywood canon and the popular imagination, Richard Marsh's The Beetle. One of the reasons Stoker's Dracula didn't do so well originally is that another epistolary monster novel, The Beetle, was published the same year, and far outsold the vampire novel for decades before going out of print. Unlike Dracula, which is often turgid in its writing and plotting, The Beetle is a fast-paced, comedic-horrifying novel that's writing might appeal even more to 21st century audiences than any of the more popular monster tales (and has been finally re-published through Broadview). The Beetle can be read as a warning against cultural imperialism, but the creature itself - hideous, asexual, foreign, able to turn into a giant bug that rapes young women - is far more truly horrifying and alien, far less "sexy" and photogenic than the big three monsters. Early audiences would not want to have watched it on the screen.

Of course, even vampires weren't nearly as attractive as they've become. Originally, vampires (and the various creatures from which that myth emerged) were bloated with blood, with rotten ruddy faces, truly hideous to behold. They looked like they were dead, not the death of the funeral parlour like modern vampires, but the death of the earth - decomposing, ferociously undead. This hideous aspect is what made them horrifying, what kept their stories alive. Only in the Victorian era everyone grew too refined tastes for that sort of thing, and the eventual success of Dracula may have been that Stoker made his vampire far more appealing to conservative audiences, which is what now a days keeps all the teen vampire fiction and paranormal romances going - we no longer want real monsters, we no longer want to be truly horrified. We want to be able to pretend that what lies in the dark, what lurks in the graveyards, is just like us, only sexier. One could perhaps blame the movies for leading to this revaluation.

(And yes, these stories are still read in their original form, and increasingly more so. These three books are gaining a renewed interest in academia as well, being taught in classes on gothic literature. There is even an international conference on Draclua, the novel, being held in Whitby this coming weekend.)
Chris Long
4. radynski
I personally think Dracula is the most poorly plotted of the three books. It was by far my favorite for the first 150 pages or so. Tight, engaging, interesting... I knew far more than comptempary readers of the time, but it still sucked me in.

And then all the characters met up and started discussing the case, and bringing all their bits of knowledge together, which I had been desperately waiting to have happen. Then much to my dismay, they KEPT ON talking. And talking. And talking.

The damn journal entries of their discussions of what they were going to do, took twice as long or more than the actual action. The book just slowed to a crawl, and I was very disappointed by the end.

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