Friday, October 14, 2011

So, Two Vampires Go Into A Bar ...

by Mike Peters: Mother Goose and Grimm, October 14, 2011

OK, it is totally cornball. About right as fourth grade humor. Thing is, vampires are all over our popular culture. Late-teen and twenty-something passion and turf wars. High-kicks and power competitions. Sulky and silky young women. Guys who like like Justin Bieber or Brad Pitt. Of course, they have no idea about Gary Cooper (the sheriff in the 1952 film, "High Noon") and his wife, Grace Kelly.

What ever happened to our beloved Count?


VAMPIRES WITH MENUS AND RECIPES: Bram Stoker (1847-1912) Dracula, 1897

The vampire is sheer horror because there seems to be no defense. Numerous scholars have interpreted the aggressive nature of Dracula, his blood lust, as sexual lust itself, commingled, and this raises the question of Stoker’s Victorian and Gothic sensibilities about sex. Indeed, this interpretation is performed well in the 1979 films “Dracula,” directed by John Badham and starring Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, and Donald Pleasance; also, the comedic version with a disco beat, “Love At First Bite”, directed by Stan Dragoti and starring George Hamilton, Susan Saint James and Richard Benjiman [blogger's note: Between 1920 and 1992, 71 films and nine stage productions about Dracula were made in the US and abroad].

It is deliciously ironic, then, that in the first chapters of Dracula, Stoker enriches his narrative with detailed descriptions of the food available in nineteenth century Transylvania.

As Jonathan Harker, the vampire’s initial target, approaches Eastern Europe through the Austrian city of Klausenburg, he stops at the Hotel Royale and dines upon the well-known spiced chicken dish, Paprika hendl, a national specialty (Dracula scholar Leonard Wolf gives the complete recipe based on Maracia Coleman Morton’s recipe, p. 2).

For breakfast Harker feasts on a maize porridge called mamaliga with paprika and impletata or eggplant stuffed with forcemeat, which Wolf interprets as more probably petagela impulute , another traditional dish. This recipe is also provided, p. 4) for breakfast. On May 5, then, into the Carpathian Mountains and the town of Bistritz and well on the way to Count Dracula’s castle, we are treated to Harker being served the local specialty: “Robbers Steak: bits of bacon, onion, and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks and roasted over the fire, in the simple style of the London “cat’s meat,” perhaps the cook-out choice of a homeless person in that time.

The wine was Golden Medidasch (a name probably invented by the author. There is no trace of it in the region’s vintecultural history), “which produces a queer sting on the tongue, which, however, is not disagreeable. I had only a couple of glasses of this and nothing else.” (Wolf, Leonard, editor. The Essential Dracula: The Definitive Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker’s Classic Novel. 1993. Page 10)

After this brief tantalization of the palette, Stoker withdraws because, as we all know, the Count has no use for human edibles and comestibles. In the popular films, he is always invited by Harker to join him in his nightly meal, and the Count is heard to mutter, almost knowingly for the audience, “I never drink …wine.” In the novel, however, his answer is more guarded. “but I have already dined, and I do not sup.” This is actually closer to the film, for the word “sup” perhaps a play on words for “sip.” (Wolf. 24)

After this in the novel, except for a brief mention of a lunch or a meal of indeterminate nature, food is ignored. Though as victims of the Vampire’s bite are said to be stronger when they eat; weakening as they refuse food, and no appetite when they are upset. A standard measure in older, pre-industrial societies and even in Asia today.

We could explore the unusual appetites of other characters in the novel, particularly the supposed “lunatic”, the zoƶphagous (life-eating) Renfield who delights in devouring insects, flies, mice and even birds and this, too, is a kind of horror because we learn that he is trying to absorb as many “souls” as possible: spiders eat flies, birds eat spiders, cats eat birds and Renfield wants to eat the cat. His need to devour is part of his salvation.

Dracula provides Renfield with a sense of mission: he is the Count’s John the Baptist, preparing the way for Dracula’s satanic Christ.” (Wolfe, p.81, footnote 25). There are no dead things in his diet proscribed in his “new religion” under Dracula. He is drawn to eat the living.

One must not overlook the Dracula figure’s humorous off-shoots:

Stoker’s earlier story, “Dracula’s Guest” (1914), was a shorter tale excised from original manuscript because it was considered too long to hold a reader’s interest. The story skips food scenes but dwells upon Harker’s departure on Walpurgis Nacht, when it is believed that the devil is abroad, graves open and the dead walk, and “all evil holds revel.” Wolves howl, talk of suicides and empty villages, and the horses are very nervous. Of course, these preparatory scenes are hilarious when mixed and played by Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Frau Blucher played by Cloris Leachman in a different film, “Young Frankenstein,” 1974.

Other humorous elaborations on the Dracula tale come from the humorous film, “Love at First Bite:”

Dracula: Without me, Transylvania will be as exciting as Bucharest... on a Monday night.

Or: “I’m going out for a bite to drink.”

A NOBEL VAMPIRE and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro,

By great contrast, then, is the vampire’s behavior in the novels of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Coumte de Saint-Germain. Having lived and learned over thousands of years, the count is deeply sensitive to passion and love and seeks out lovers with whom he is “intimate” in a state of unconscious:

Her needs were fully awake as her mind was wrapped

In sleep, and she surrendered to the opulence of he senses

and the fervor of her flesh. When she reached the culmination

of her desire she was distantly aware of the soft brush of lips

on her neck, but this seemed nothing more than the fading fulfillment of her dream.

But of food and drink, the problem is the same. Saint-Germain, like Dracula, has no need. His wealth, if home-made (the alchemist who can make gold), is enormous , as his his knowledge of statefare and diseases and their medications.

A more extensive and scholarly treatment of vampires can be found in a book by my old folklore professor, Alan Dundes’ [editor] The Vampire: A Casebook, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1998, in which the editor offers his own (and Freud’s) psychoanalytic comments, organized largely around the consumption of blood and a mother’s milk.

One of the obvious functions of introducing sumptuous food into an horrific tale is to provide contrast for the reader. The author’s character is treated to hearty fare and all the trappings of good health and nourishment, only to be plunged, sooner or later into the challenges which threaten his life, perhaps his soul. When these activities are somehow combined, the narrative takes on a rich tapestry of entwined symbols, dramatic contrast and tension.

Which brings us to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, introduced by that imaginative southern writer, Thomas Harris in 1999.

But that's another blog-post.


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