Dracula's disciple

Aug 10, 2005 at 12:00 am

Some people are only familiar with the bug-eating Renfield from the various movie versions of Bram Stoker’s Victorian-era horror classic Dracula. Those who get around to reading the original novel may be surprised to find out he is a complicated and enigmatic character. Unlike his cinematic incarnations, Stoker’s Renfield is a man caught up in a demented religious obsession, for whom the devouring of insects has a Eucharistic function. He also has moments of lucidity during which he changes from a hissing maniac to a well-spoken English gentleman, obviously intelligent, apparently well-bred and in a great deal of pain over his role in the count’s evil schemes. And where the Renfield of the movies — whether played by Dwight Frye or Tom Waits — is mainly grotesque, the novel’s Renfield is a figure of some genuine pathos.

Though a minor player in the larger scheme of the story, Renfield has held much fascination for Dracula devotees over the years, especially since his background — and how he happened to become a patient in an insane asylum, under the watchful eye of Dr. Seward — is never explained. His connection to Dracula is also not entirely clear, though it is apparently part prophetic (he’s the anti-John the Baptist to the count’s anti-Christ) and telepathic. In this novel, Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog and commentator on many foreign-language DVDs (i.e., an established genre expert), has taken on the task of giving Renfield a pass. The book is a good example of the ambiguity involved in getting what you wish for.

Lucas’ novel is written in a style that is imitative of Stoker’s, albeit somewhat smoother. (Stoker was a notoriously crappy writer who miraculously accessed some hitherto unused reserve of creativity for his magnum opus.) Lucas gives us Renfield’s story from birth to death, interpolating material from the original novel during the latter part. He uses Stoker’s device of diary entries, though the greater part of the book is taken up with Renfield’s own telling, recorded on wax cylinders by Dr. Seward.

Lucas’ contribution to the Dracula myth is that the Count is “in touch” with Renfield from the day he was born, and incidents occurring at Dr. Seward’s asylum were planned decades ahead of time. The story is interesting, but Renfield, now demystified, is somewhat less so. And Lucas’ tale, although very clever and eminently readable, with loose ends neatly tied up at the conclusion, isn’t very frightening. Stoker tapped into some primal anxieties, not just the obvious sexual ones (nubile women being penetrated by wooden stakes, not to mention the whole neck biting and sucking thing) but anxieties about disease, foreigners, the revolt of one’s own body, all mixed into an unreflective pulp fiction that still packs a punch. Lucas is more aware of the implications of his story than Stoker was, as are we, and so the plot throbs at a cooler temperature. But the biggest disappointment is that Renfield, despite Lucas’ attempts to make him somewhat sympathetic, turns out to be a grubby little shit who pretty much gets what he deserves.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].