Last year, British literary critic Robert McCrum included Bram Stroker's gothic novel, Dracula (1897), in his "Top 100 Best Novels." The list is a selection of British and American novels chosen by a London-based editorial team from The Observer and The Guardian. The most recent entry is No. 75, which he awards to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
Bram Stoker's Dracula is a ghost story about a man who can't die. Although many films have camped up the Count as a character (Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu silent film with Max Schreck, Browning's 1931 cult classic with Bela Lugosi, and even Werner Herzog's 1979 Phantom der Nacht), it's Gary Oldman's pitch perfect performance in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992) that reveals the monster's true nature.
Who is the monster? The undead vampire in Stoker's novel is an aristocrat in a castle, the devil in plain view. He is a gentleman: witty, courteous and hospitable. What's horrific about Count Dracula is that by day, he doesn't seem to be a monster: he's charming, bewitching, entrancing. He's a shape-shifter. Like the three vampire sisters (the "Brides of Dracula") who reside on his castle grounds, he seduces his victims by day, and "feeds" under the cover of night. What's striking about Coppola's adaptation is that it keeps the hard core of Stoker's gothic horror novel intact: that is, monsters are everywhere.
This core, oddly enough, is also the center of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Like Stoker's Count Dracula, Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is a suave, articulate — and yes, pale — man intent on seduction. Both are anti-heroes, if not monsters. Coppola's genius was to exploit and explore the shocking erotics of the bloodsucking, undead monster (see: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy, and, of course, the Twilight series). In Lolita, Humbert Humbert begins the novel with a lust just as thirsty:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three strep down the palate to tap, at three on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Yet not everyone knows that monsters are everywhere. And for those who believe that they've seen a monster — whether an eerie insomniac shrouded in the mountains of Transylvania or a vain, predatory pedophile shrouded in New England privilege — the world can feel topsy-turvy, surreal, gothic. This, really, is Dracula's central tension. In Dracula, the peasants of Transylvania are the first believers; they act out of fear, and develop superstitions. Yet they know the truth:
“Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? [...] Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”
Stoker's Dracula does something unexpected for the gothic novel: it shows that superstition isn't a simple belief in the fantastic. In its special mix of fin de siecle anxiety over science, its maddening, Sherlock Holmes-bait structure, and its wariness of technology, Dracula suggests that superstition isn't simple faith; it's healthy skepticism. It isn't naiveté, or a confusion of truth; it's an odd, gothic sort of "street smarts." This skepticism is what allows the peasants of Transylvania to see the Count for who he truly is: a monster. This skepticism, this belief in monsters, is protective: it prevents seduction.
Perhaps Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is a gothic monster who seduces not only the girl (Lolita), but also us, the reader. In his brief discussion of the novel's "controversial" bits in his Guardian post on Lolita, Robert McCrum cites legendary literary critic Lionel Trilling, who "warned of the moral difficulty in interpreting a book with such an eloquent narrator." Nabokov has said that Lolita was his "love affair with the English language." Reading this "affair" is, for us, a test of seduction.
Lionel Trilling suggests that reading Lolita is dangerous because it feels so good: "We have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting." This is why Lolita is horrifying: because the monster is not brooding in a remote Transylvanian castle, or ogling at a public park playground, or even typing at a writer's desk — no, it is hidden in plain sight. The monster is us.