Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Count abides

Can any book be considered truly frightening these days? Maybe not, what with an entire generation now conditioned to equate horror primarily with power tools and torture porn. But there was a time when certain books kept a lot of people awake at night, alert for a subtle creaking on the stairs, a scratching at the window. That time started in 1897, with the book Dracula.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was the first really scary book I ever read. I was 13 or so. I picked it up again a couple of days ago, since my wife bought a copy -- her book group has selected it for October in a nod to Halloween. I can report that the book is less terrifying this time around, possibly because its style and structure have been appropriated and diluted by so many imitators since. Stephen King, for example, in his first novel Carrie, used Stoker's idea of presenting the story as a series of journal entries, letters and news reports. It's a good trick, and it must have seemed doubly so in 1897.

So many other authors and filmmakers have based their work on Stoker's prototype that the original now seems trite. Stoker didn't invent vampire lore, of course, but he was the first to invest it with such authenticity. I can imagine how horrifying the book must have been 112 years ago, when science and folklore remained equal competitors. It's too bad readers new to the book won't get that.

Somehow, I don't think the ladies will like it. Bram Stoker was no Amy Tan. The characters, especially the female ones, might seem a bit one-dimensional. And the book, in 2009, seems longer than strictly necessary.

The newest edition of Dracula has a long, scholarly introduction, the usual claptrap about Victorian sexuality and repressed longings and the obligatory hints of homoeroticism. I say, who cares? If you read the book, forget all that. Forget Bela Lugosi, forget Dark Shadows and Anne Rice and especially forget the execrable Twilight series. Imagine a time when only guttering lamps lit the darkness. Imagine discovering the Count's true nature through a series of reports from those unfortunate enough to encounter him. In short, suspend your disbelief. You might find it a little frightening yourself, even all these years later.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Autumn and algebra

Autumn cometh. Snow in the mountains, leaves in the wind. Just kidding about the snow, since we're in Wichita and there are no mountains within several hundred miles. But the leaves really are beginning to drift up at the edge of the yard and and we've run the furnace a couple of times. Something about fall: this is the time of year some of us ponder the middle distance and reconsider our old best dreams.

My dreams never involved taking introductory algebra again. About 40 years ago I was happily certain I'd left that subject behind for good. And yet here I am, sitting a classroom every day, struggling through the little tricks involved in graphing polynomial equations. I don't hate it as much as I expected to. Algebra has an elegance of its own, not least because the correct answer is not a matter of subjective judgment. After working exclusively with English words for nearly all my life, with all their unruly ways, it's kind of refreshing to learn the precise language of mathematics. 

Anyway, that's what I've been reading lately: Introductory Algebra, 10th Edition, by Marvin Bittinger. The plotting is wooden and the characters nonexistent, and the used paperback version I bought cost $85 -- about three times what Dan Brown is getting for The Lost Symbol.  Let's just say it's not for everybody.