The Curmudgeon


Monday, September 30, 2013

Some of Your Blood

Dracula's Metafictional Mirror

This piece is partly concerned with the twist ending of Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood. If you don't want to know how it ends, don't read this.

Most readers of Theodore Sturgeon's masterpiece will have noticed that Some of Your Blood shares its epistolary format with Bram Stoker's Dracula; but the relationship between the two books goes considerably further than that. In various aspects of its plot and characterisation, the later novel both resembles and reverses its predecessor; and the prologue and epilogue of Some of Your Blood provide a remarkable and disturbing frame for the vampire's mirror image.

Both novels are contemporary in setting, and both (with a significant exception to be considered later) emphasise their up-to-date realism: Dracula with modern technology like Dr Seward's phonograph, Some of Your Blood with its focus on modern psychiatric techniques such as the Rorschach test, and both with their documentary narratives telling the story purportedly via primary sources.

George Smith's real first name is Béla, which presumably means his forebears were Hungarian. Although Smith writes only that his parents came from "the old country", Transylvania has a large Hungarian minority which includes Székely, the ethnic group to which Stoker's count was proud to belong. During Jonathan Harker's visit to his castle, Dracula uses their conversations to improve his English pronunciation so that he can blend in better with the natives when he emigrates; Smith, the son of immigrants, is initially bullied by other children because of his "honky talk", but quickly learns to speak American English like everyone else.

Van Helsing compares Dracula to a habitual criminal, intelligent but psychologically handicapped by a combination of ignorance and inflexibility: "This criminal has not full man brain. He is clever and cunning and resourceful, but he be not of man stature as to brain. He be of child brain in much." Dr Outerbridge and Lucy Quigley both diagnose Smith's emotional state as being "arrested at the lowest levels of infancy", in spite of his full physical development and the high level of native intelligence and verbal ability indicated by his autobiography.

The inversions are as neat as the parallels. Dracula is wealthy, aristocratic, ancient and supernatural; Smith is poor, common, youthful and non-supernatural. In life, Dracula was a successful and ruthless military leader; Smith joins the army as an enlisted soldier and is traumatised at the sight of casualties - though not, as later becomes clear, because he is particularly squeamish about violent death. While Dracula's blood-lust is for women, Smith's is less discriminating. He does use his girlfriend Anna as a source of blood, but he also uses a young boy, an alcoholic watchman and a wide variety of animals.

Dracula is structured as a thriller: the Count's evil nature becomes clear to Jonathan Harker in the opening chapters, and most of the story consists of move and counter-move between clearly-defined opponents, climaxing in a chase and unequivocal victory for the forces of Christian virtue. Some of Your Blood is structured as a "fair-play" detective story whose clues are embedded in Smith's tour de force of an autobiography. It starts with Smith in captivity, so there is no climactic chase; and for much of the story there is some doubt as to whether Smith has in fact done anything worse than accidentally strike an officer. Colonel Williams, who transfers Smith to Outerbridge's clinic so that he can be diagnosed and discharged as quickly and quietly as possible, believes that Smith's "dangerous, violent" classification derives from the vindictiveness of a major whom Smith punched during a scuffle. Smith's autobiography convinces Williams that Smith's "only sickness is scar tissue from a regrettable childhood" and that he has "placed sex in a genuinely wholesome perspective", and most first-time readers would probably agree. More sensitive than Williams to the peculiarities and omissions in Smith's narrative, Outerbridge is able to retain his focus on the basic problem of the case, the motive behind Smith's hunting.

Dracula has no omniscient narrator, and the journals, letters and memoranda and their authors are indicated with plain headings: "Jonathan Harker's Journal", "Dr Seward's Diary" and so forth. Some of Your Blood has a narrator who provides the prologue and epilogue, and who also continually appears between the documents in the story, identifying them with headings such as "Here is a letter" and "Here is the answer" or simply "A letter". The narrator also provides explanations of the psychological tests which Outerbridge uses on Smith, and at one point intercedes to remind the reader of the doctor's situation "on the struggling staff of an overcrowded, underequipped military neuro-psychiatric hospital" during the time when he was treating Smith. The narrator's voice is one of the most intriguing features of Some of Your Blood, not least because it begins by telling us to disbelieve what we are reading.

Some of Your Blood starts with an assertion that its characters and events are fictitious. Paradoxically, the denial of realism is couched in solidly realistic terms: the reader cannot simply float above the action and observe events, and is not merely told to imagine this or that, but instead receives detailed instructions to use a key, climb a flight of stairs, turn left for the study, open a drawer and take out the file containing the records of Smith's case. The reason all this is possible: "you are The Reader, and this is fiction. ... You're quite safe."

This reassurance, and the next (and last) sentence of the prologue, "It is, it is, it really is fiction..." provide a blatantly false sense of security. Why does it matter so much that what we are about to read is fiction, like the Dr Outerbridge whose own non-existence will prevent his objecting to our burglary of his study? If what we are about to read really is only a story, then why such emphatic repetition? The epilogue continues in the same vein, repeating that Outerbridge "exists only for you, The Reader" and proclaiming that "this is and must be fiction". The "must be" is ambiguous; it could mean that the story is inherently implausible, even impossible, or it could mean that the story is so horrifying that the possibility of its truth cannot be admitted.

This is rather more complex than Stoker's double-bluff at the end of Dracula, where Jonathan Harker notes both the story's implausibility and the unreliability of the written record: "in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document. ... We could hardly ask any one, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story." Harker quotes Van Helsing's "We ask none to believe us", but the narrator's voice in Some of Your Blood goes further and actively solicits our disbelief. Indeed, as noted above, in places it seems almost to beg for it. If confined to the prologue, all this might be seen as an authorial trick to gain our attention, a subtler variant on the "Proceed at your own risk" prologue which is the thrill-seeker's welcome-mat; but if that were the case there would be little purpose in reiterating the trick in the epilogue.

Besides stating that the story is and must be fiction, the epilogue invites the reader to take advantage of this fact by offering several alternative endings from which to choose. More precisely, it offers several alternative endings for George Smith, once Outerbridge and Lucy Quigley have been efficiently consigned to a happy and productive marriage. Regarding Smith, the reader is first told that he was treated and cured, married Anna and inherited his aunt's farm, where he continues to live quietly and harmlessly. Then again, "if the idea of such as George still offends you, why it's the easiest thing in the world to have therapy fail and we'll wall him up forever"; and if even this does not suffice, he could be killed off in a riot or an escape attempt. The reader is even offered a choice of where he could be shot, based on Smith's own observation that in Western films, "if the good guy gets shot it's always in the chest or shoulder and if the bad guy gets shot it's always in the belly".

A shot to the chest would mark Smith as a tragic hero, a shot to the belly would mark him as a bad guy; but morally speaking Some of Your Blood is a somewhat trickier proposition than either the traditional Western or the traditional vampire story. The narrator's mention of the belly connotes Anna's nickname for Smith, which is both a distortion of his real first name and an unwitting insight into his view of their relationship: as deduced by Lucy Quigley, "Rabbits and squirrels and little boys and old watchmen - each one is a mamma, full of warm sustaining fluid." In offering us the choice of having Smith shot in the belly, the narrator reminds us both of Anna's devotion to him and of the fact that his crimes derive from the appetites of a literally infantile part of his psyche. By implication, to want Smith shot in the belly is to want the shooting of a child, and a beloved child at that.

This ethical bait-and-switch is followed by the book's final paragraph: "But you'd better put the file back and clear out. If Dr Outerbridge suddenly returns you'll have to admit he's real, and then all of this is. And that wouldn't do, would it?" This makes clear the reason behind the neurotic tone of those earlier reassurances: the case of George Smith may be fiction, but - unlike a fiction about a supernatural vampire - it could be real. Poverty and deprivation; drunken husbands and battered wives; children whose home lives are so miserable that they can find relief in prison and the military; men who commit horrible crimes for reasons they themselves cannot understand: everything in the story could have happened and is always happening. It may be denied (it really is fiction) or dressed up as entertainment (you are the reader and it is your privilege); but manifestly it will not do.


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