Horror frames, revisited

Wednesday October 27, 2010 @ 09:02 PM (UTC)

I wrote pretty extensively on the use of framing in classic horror fiction some time ago, and it’s returned to mind: I just started listening to an audiobook of Dracula.

I read Dracula for the first time as a teenager on a trip to Wyoming, carting along the only copy the library had, a large print trade paperback. I read it (when I should have been resting up for the next day’s exertions) late at night, on the outskirts of a small town where nightly I could hear the howls of coyotes. It was delicious, and the large print, by increasing the rate of page-turning, perhaps added to the suspense.

I’m rereading it, of course, for its own sake and mine, but this form was suggested to me by my dad, who said he’d listened to a narrated version of it once and found it fabulous. So here I am, sitting down to listen (and sew a button onto my coat), and I notice at once the frame story, a little introduction. I have transcribed this, because the first few online texts I consulted (for instance, Project Gutenberg) did not have this paragraph. Perhaps I had better research the publication history a bit!

How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.

What a different sort of frame story this is! Rather than trying to sucker you into (as described in my previous blog post) a believable outer reality so that you will more readily except the inner story, it simply begs you to believe the inner story as literally true. Facts, not fancy. And how? With an appeal to documentation — since it’s an epistolary novel, hardly a surprise — and to modernity. We are understood to doubt the story because it contradicts our “later-day belief” (‘latter’? Remember, I transcribe.) and the things which should reestablish the veracity of the narrative are “contemporary”. In the sentence, of course, it means contemporary with the events depicted, but I find the choice of word suggestive. We are meant to believe these things happened to contemporary people, something underlined by the next lines: “Jonathan Harker’s Journal: kept in shorthand”. Recently I heard this peculiar detail called out by my learned friend Mike: shorthand, at the time, was modern, a new technology of the pen.

An interesting little frame, however it ended up inserted into the narrative. It draws our attention right away (as Mike drew mine) to one of Stoker’s thematic preoccupations: modernity. This little introduction prepares our minds just as we are about to meet Harker, with all his talk of crossing from West to East, his anxiety about the paucity of high-quality maps of the area and the timetables of trains. (“It seems to me that the further East you go, the less punctual are the trains! What ought they to be in China?”)

Before we even begin, we have this reassurance, a hint of what is to be contrasted with all Harker’s comfortable, plausible, bustling Western modernity: a very British vision of the East as Other, irrational, ancient, threatening, full of Victorian fears. Such a reassurance, that these things did happen in precisely this way, carefully and rationally set down by modern, trustworthy sources (in shorthand!) is less a reassurance, and more of an invitation to fear….

I’m about to leave for this year’s World Fantasy Convention, so I may not blog any more this week. If so, I must make bold to wish you all in advance a spooky and delightful Hallow-e’en!


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