by Campbell Geeslin
“Ever since Dracula stepped from the shadow of a Transylvanian castle in Bram Stoker’s novel of 1797, he has cast a spell over our supposedly rational modern age,” wrote Elizabeth Lowry in The Wall Street Journal. She was reviewing Who Was Dracula?, a new book by Jim Steinmeyer.
For the origins of Dracula’s “queasily erotic overtones,” Lowry wrote that Steinmeyer suggests we “look to a prominent member of Stoker’s circle of acquaintances.”
Stoker knew Oscar Wilde and the shocking revelations exposed during his trial for “gross indecency.” It was also the time of Jack the Ripper, and Stoker must have known some of the unsavory suspects. Stoker then, Steinmeyer believed, used the weaknesses and traits of many well-known people. “In the figure of Dracula,” wrote Lowry, “he organized what he saw ‘into a new kind of nightmare’—one that remains ever vivid because we replace his associations with our own.”
Why is being frightened so entertaining? Gangs of grotesque zombies stagger through books, TV series, and even a Brad Pitt movie. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster had his day. Werewolves and mummies were nightmare makers. But the most durable boogieman of all is that bloodsucking vampire.
Zombies must eventually exhaust their current popularity, but Dracula will endure because he reminds us of creeps that we have known in real life.
LEE’S LAUGH: “Proust Orders from the Cart” is the title of a 1989 Lee Lorenz cartoon from The New Yorker, now on display at the Morgan Library. The caption reads, “I’m out of madeleines, Jack. How about a prune Danish?”
THE LEAKS: The revelation of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified documents set publishers into action. Holt’s Metropolitan imprint hired Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who broke the story, to write a book due out in March.
Penguin Press has asked Barton Gellman, a reporter for The Washington Post, to write a book on the surveillance-industrial state. And Nation Books has signed up Robert Scheer, editor in chief of the Truthdig blog, to write about the conflict between personal privacy and national security.
MIDLIST BLUES: J.K. Rowling’s statement about why she had used a pseudonym for her latest novel inspired a letter to the editor of The New York Times from Jerry Oster of Chapel Hill.
Oster wrote (smoke coming out of his ears?), “I’ve had 23 novels published ‘without hype or expectation’ and can testify that it’s neither ‘a liberating experience’ nor ‘pure pleasure’ as Ms. Rowling said.
“Ms. Rowling surely knows that the midlist is merely the underside of the iceberg, and that it’s a cold and lonely place, not suitable for slumming.”
On Friday Julie Bosman of the Times reported that the secret was revealed when a lawyer from Rowling’s law firm told a friend, and that friend told a newspaper reporter. The author issued another statement: “I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced.”
Secret exposed, the publisher said that we might expect a sequel by Galbraith next summer. Will Galbraith’s tales prove to be a Potter-like smash series for adults?
AMAZON AID: Some Barnes & Noble’s bookstores are shutting down, and that’s not good for Amazon, according to The New York Times media columnist David Carr.
“Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Haissen book on the front table,” Carr wrote last week, “but sometimes treasures, deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation.”
Some B&N visitors find a book they want to buy, but they go home and order it from Amazon. Carr thinks that if Barnes & Noble dies, Amazon, publishers —and authors—are going to lose sales.
MAKE ‘EM REAL: Readers of a novel should feel as if the characters are people they have never known before. And they want to know more about them.
That thought comes from Silas House, who is the author of five novels and teaches at Berea College. House’s books include The Coal Tattoo and Eli the Good. His article on creating fictional characters appeared in The New York Times. The headline was “Tell Their Secrets.”
House said that true writing must “show the unexpected, the secret, the profound in a way that it has never been shown. And it must create characters that are so interesting and endearing (whether we love them or love to hate them) that we never forget them.
“The books that have meant so much to us are the ones populated by characters . . . who resonate because they epitomize our own hopes and struggles and stories.” His prime examples were Atticus and the children in To Kill a Mockingbird.
AMEN: A book that Dwight Garner reviewed in The New York Times last week reminded him “of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.”
FOR TEENS: “Teenagers can sometimes seem to be walking around wearing blinkers, looking at the world through an aperture so narrow that they can only see themselves and their friends in the all-absorbing here and now.”
The quote is from Meghan Cox Gurdon’s column about children’s books in The Wall Street Journal. She went on to complain that too many Y/A books these days “are told in the first person present tense, a depressingly common narrative style in books for the young—as if adolescents can really only conceive of ‘I’ in the ‘now’.”
Another writer on the subject of teenagers is Diane Doubtfire. “Youngsters think deeply,” she writes in The Craft of Novel-Writing, “feel deeply and care about social issues. They respect honesty. They love fun. They are also selfish, arrogant and lazy—just as you were at their age.”
Doubtfire’s credentials include six novels for young teenagers and five for adults. She added to the above, “Most [teens] love to hear an absorbing tale, but many have yet to form the habit of reading for pleasure. If your story can beguile them into curling up with a book, you have done them a service for life.”
Two further words of advice: “Don’t sermonize.”
WINNING WAY: After 10 years of rejections, Brittany Geragotelis, 34, changed her luck. The author of Y/A fiction and her husband live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
In 2011, she turned over a novel, Life’s a Witch, to Wattpad, a writing site. The book attracted 19 million hits—and Simon & Schuster. S&S published Geragotellis’ first book in a new paranormal action series in January. The second, an edited version of Life’s a Witch, came out this month.
A New York Times Sunday article suggests that Geragotelis is on a roll.
FIRST LINES: Barbara Robinson, 85, died July 9 in Berwyn, Pa. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was the most memorable of her several children’s books and plays.
That book begins, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.”
POET: F.D. Reeve, 84, died July 6 in Lebanon, N.H. He was the author of more than 30 books, including translations from Russian authors. President John Kennedy sent him with poet Robert Frost on a good-will trip to the Soviet Union in 1962. Reeve was also a poet and founder of The Poetry Review. In his young days he was an actor and he said, “For the first time I discovered what happens when a person really acts: the self disappears; you entirely, inside and out, become the character.” He was the father of actor Christopher Reeve, a movie Superman.