cormac’s new book and the dracula stab

Christopher Lee was thrilled to become so popular playing Saruman in Lord of the Rings that people stopped asking about his turn as Dracula the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s. He played the role in seven movies for Hammer studios. A few years ago I watched the first six of his seven Dracula movies and didn’t enjoy any of them but I sat there bemoaning how tedious they were when I could just as easily have turned them off and tossed a ball for my then-very-alive dog, Mango, who was already blind but if he heard a tennis ball bounce he’d go to spastic paws-out ear-perked convulsions of whereditgo. Claws on tile saying scuttle scuttle. Sniff sniff. Spin.

The only ones I remember with any interest are the first one (1958), called either Dracula or Horror of Dracula depending on your country’s taste for confusion. I remember being charmed by how it looked both huge and small. Vast ornate gothic ballrooms, with three people inside; a camera that moved in such a way as to savor the enormity of the set, and then stopped moving completely for a very long time. The other memorable installment is the fourth one, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), which has a controversial scene in which the hero sneaks up on Dracula, asleep in his coffin, and pounds a wooden stake through his heart. This is a well-known tactic for killing vampires and also lizards and men called Ralph. Dracula wakes up very upset at being stabbed through the chest and, as he begins to climb out of his coffin, the hero’s accomplice, who might otherwise be gloating at the villain’s defeat, calls out, “Hey don’t forget to pray while you’re stabbing him!” 

We learn very abruptly and casually in Dracula 4 that vampires can only be killed by Christians. 

I’m thinking about it because a journalist named Jack Thomas died this week at age 83. He’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness just a few months prior and wrote about it in The Boston Globe, his seventh decade on staff. The mood of the piece is more bitter than sweet, which is refreshing, since these deathbed pieces tend to muster a huge amount of grace and dignified resignation that as a reader makes me feel all the more ill-prepared and panicked.

It creeps up on you, how many such pieces you read. Christopher Hitchens writes about it in the preface to his own deathbed meditation, Mortality, saying that a byproduct of modern medicine is that people tend to die after long expensive medical procedures in which you see the light getting brighter and brighter and at a certain point there’s no more denying what’s ahead. You get a chance to reflect. Oliver Sacks set a standard with his own deathbed essay and Clive James treated The New Yorker to an instantly-viral deathbed poem “Japanese Maple” (James had the mixed blessing of going on a kind of media farewell tour in 2013, when his prognosis was bleak, but then held on until 2019, at which point the major outlets seemed to feel they’d covered his death, and it was scooted toward the margin). Roger Angell lived another decade after he wrote “This Old Man” but the point of that essay seemed to be that everyone around him was acting like he was dead at 91 even while sharing a meal with him.

Cormac McCarthy, 89, is releasing his thirteenth novel in two volumes between October and November. The Passenger and then Stella Maris. He’s been working on it here and there since the 1980s. He submitted it for publication in 2015 but something happened and he went on tinkering for seven years. Folks at Knopf were kind enough to send me the volumes in galleys and I’ve read them both and plan to read them a third time soon with an online reading group. 

It’s a weird book. The first volume is enjoyable and the ending is beautiful but the whole thing is disorienting. The second volume isn’t much fun at all but it throws a revelatory backward light on the first one and makes it instantly re-readable.

There’s been rumor for years about another book McCarthy was working on, alongside this one, but the vibe among readers is that Passenger is it. The end of his work and his work on The End. It’s not about death or dying but, like in those essays by Sacks or Angell or Hitchens, everything’s shadowed by it. Here’s a quote, near the end:

I dont believe anything about God. I just believe in God…Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to…I think we’re probably almost there. I think the odds are on that we’ll still be here to see him wet his thumb and lean over and unscrew the sun.

The Passenger, by Cormac McCarthy

It’s certainly a different way for a writer to go out. Release a half-century novel opus instead of a straightforward graceful few pages about the beauty of it all.

Still sounds like a writer saying goodbye, just this time it comes with a prayer. 

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