Review: The Essay

At a time when overexposure has long rendered vampires hard to love, The Essay’s week of broadcasts commemorating the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death (16-20 April, 10.45pm) succeeded in making the undead a great entertainment again. Two of the five programmes rated formidable strokes: Christopher Frayling’s monologue about his 1976 trip to Transylvania, where six of the novel’s 27 chapters are set, and Colm Tóibín’s elegant piece on the Irishness – or not – of the story.

By some fluke of inattention (a ski holiday with the wrong man), your reviewer found her­self in Transylvania ten years ago. After a catastrophic drive through the Eastern Carpathians in January, I can confirm that it was as though a whole species of demon had taken refuge within those mountains. Wolves howled in the forests (still dotted with metal direction posts left by the Nazis) and haggard dogs (called ursus – the Latin for “bear”) hung around in bus stops with icicles hanging from their beards. Frayling mentioned that his trip had been organised by the mysterious “Progressive Tours” in Marble Arch, which made one think nostalgically of the decades when people had long, garlicky lunches, draining butter from snail shells with a sound like water down a plughole, before lurching Pouilly-Fuissé-ishly into tour operators to book a self-drive around Cuba.
Another high point was Frayling recalling the moment in the novel when the miserable Jonathan Harker sees the count crawling down the castle walls, face down like a lizard, searching the rock for indentations (I have always imagined the count’s fingers to be fluttering and sensitive, like those of Vladimir Horowitz). 
Tóibín’s piece locating Stoker’s writing in post-famine Ireland was powerful: “The air [was] thick with the spirits of the dead who would come in the night to cry out and transform themselves,” he said and described Georgian houses in Dublin as “murderous old spaces”. Not only was the whole thing marvellously researched but it was delivered in Tóibín’s pretty tenor voice. An ageless voice, elastic and humorous, that promises conversations in which things happen. The moment he stopped speaking, I went back to listen again. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial