Photo by Thomas Burchfield; wood sculpture by John Radostain

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Dracula: Endless Night": An Excerpt from a Screen Treatment

“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you”—Psalm 139:12


An eagle looks down from a stormy sky, its cold eyes hunting for a tiny shadow breaking from another shadow; debris kicked loose and rolling downhill; tiny heads bobbing in a woodland pond.

But the predator finds us instead, its eyes like needles through the heart.

We back away, across the road from where it perches on a broken old roadside, covered in cobwebs, teeming with dozens of spiders.

A big hulking horse-drawn carriage rumbles by on this rough country road that bumps and winds through the remote foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

It is the late 1890s, far away in space and time, from everything we know.

The coach does duty as both passenger and goods wagon: Six passengers sit in perilous discomfort on barrels, boxes, surrounded by crates of chickens and ducks, barely hanging on as the coach rocks back and forth. They include a high-class Prostitute (or high class for this part of the world); a pair of local Businessman; and two Peasants, all of them rough and wise in the ways of their world.

Jon Harker is the outsider here. He’s a peacock among these pigeons, dressed in a crisply tailored English suit and Homburg; a boyish flower of the British Empire. 

Good-hearted and naïve, he bubbles with the thrill of his first trip abroad. Along with his luggage, he carries a touch of smugness about him as he tries to make friendly chatter with his fellow travelers.

“This is a bit crowded,” Jon says. “We have much bigger conveyances, much nicer roads! In England, I mean. You should build more railroads. I took the train to Bistritz. Our engineers could build you a line—”

The coach bangs through a deep rut, tossing Jon into the lap of the fille de joie. While he tries to regain his dignity, she cheerfully flirts with him, making him blush.

“Sorry . . . my apologies. . . .”

“Next time it will cost you,” she teases. Then she asks, “You have a Frau, mein young Herr?”

“Uh . . . engaged, I guess, I mean, yes, I’m getting . . . here.”

He anxiously flips open a cameo locket that hangs around his neck. Nestled inside is a small photograph of his fiancé, Mina Murray, her face both pretty and bold.

“. . . married . . . getting married,” Jon finishes.

“Pretty, yes,” the Prostitute sniffs. She playfully draws the back of her hand under his chin. “Who knows? We may have to share a room at the end, no?” She laughs again. “Do not fret, mein Herr. We are far away from the world. Your secrets will stay in these hills.”

“But make sure you don’t, my friend,” one of the Businessmen warns.

Jon gapes in embarrassment. Everyone breaks into guffaws as he primly places his hat over his lap.

Finally, the second Businessman, a plump, well-fed fellow, asks, “Your destination, mein Herr?”

“I’m a solicitor. Visiting a nobleman. Vlad . . . Dracula?”

A cold hush falls, a silence so smothering, we wonder if we’ve gone deaf as Jon shakes his head as though trying shake wax out of his ears. The passengers’ eyes turn hard and bitter with fear and loathing. Even the fille de joie withdraws, as does the color in her face.

Only slowly do the sounds of the world return: the rumbling of the carriage, the hoof beats of the horses.

“You know him?” Jon stammers. “I understand he's an important chap. I hope I haven’t said anything. . . .”

But the chill remains, their faces averted from him. One of the Peasants stops to give him the evil eye as he ducks under his hat brim.

His eyes squirming, Jon turns his gaze out the carriage window.

Outside, the pine forest rushes by, a rippling green wall with bursts of brown, gray and sunlight. Then, slowly, through the trees, grey light flickers as the foliage thins out. Now, it’s a forest of dead trees, trunks shorn of their leaves, only stumps remaining. The countryside opens up . . . .

Opens up into a vast gray and white desert, a rugged wasteland of dead trees, drained and stripped of life, not a speck of color anywhere, shrouded in a sterile, but mysterious mist. In the distance, above the desolate mist, mountain peaks rise, a cold blue wall.

“Desert . . . .” Jon turns to his companions for an explanation. “My guide book doesn’t. . . .”

But they won’t even look at him now. They’ve spurned him completely, as though he were already dead, as though they have gone to sleep in order to escape what might happen next. Even the fowl huddle quietly in their cages. They’ll not speak to him again.

Later that afternoon, the coach rolls into Lugos, a poor and tiny village on the edge of the creeping desert, whipped and worn by dust and sand. Once it was a farm community and waystation. Then, as the desert took over, it became just a waystation. And now. . . .
There are no children here, no young people; only the middle aged and the old, a pale and sullen people with handkerchiefs decorating their necks, like brightly colored collars.

The coach pulls up at the inn, a sagging two-story shack.

The last one off, Jon motions to the Driver to take down his huge trunk from the luggage rack.
Meanwhile, one of the Businessmen confers in whispers with the gimlet-eyed Innkeeper.
Jon turns to find himself eye to eye with the Innkeeper whose wife hovers behind. The Villagers gather around in a tense circle.

“Your destination, Herr. . . ?” the Innkeeper begins.

“Harker. Jonathan Harker. Solicitor—”

“I do not care about your name, English. State your business.”

Jon squares his shoulders: “That’s confidential I’m . . . .”

He blinks as silver light flashes in his eyes, reflected off a knife blade held by one of Villagers.

Jon tries to disarm the threat with a harmless but nervous smile.

“Vlad Dracula,” the Innkeeper sneers. “Vlad Dracula.”

Jon struggles to recover his wits: “Uh . . . yes. Property. He's buying a house . . . in my country. England.”

The Innkeeper tilts his head, his eyes widening with surprise. He translates for his fellows. The atmosphere changes as they murmur among themselves.

“Then he is leaving?” the Innkeeper asks with a smile both astonished and cautious. He nods, turning it over in his mind. “Of course. What is left for him to take?” He points at Jon.

“And you have come to take him away!” He turns to his friends, addressing them in Hungarian, then turns his eyes to heaven, raising his fists.

“He is leaving us! For good!”

The Villagers erupt in cheers. The Innkeeper, smiling with amused pity, slings his arm around Jon and walks him to the Inn as though he were a hero.

Later that afternoon, Jon is sitting in the Inn’s dining room enjoying a sumptuous meal at the end of a long table. Behind him, a large window opens out onto the desert. The Villagers lounge about, watching him eat with great and grinning curiosity.

The Prostitute sits alone in a corner, ignored.

As the Innkeeper’s Wife sets another plate in front of him, Jon waves it away.

“Oh no! No more please!”

The Innkeeper claps him on the shoulder: “Keep your blood rich, my friend! For us!”

“Why do I get the notion you’re all fattening me up?”

The Innkeeper translates. Again, the people laugh heartily.

Then Jon asks, “Um, is there any brandy? Wine?”

“We never drink wine,” the Innkeeper says quietly, after a pause. “It pollutes the blood.”

“Ah, good sober Christian folk! There are many in my country who would strongly approve.”

“Then they will enjoy having our Lord among them.”

More laughter from the Peasants.

And then Jon asks, “Where are all the children?”

The Innkeeper’s eyes turn hard as another grim silence falls, broken by a woman bursting into tears. The Innkeeper looks like he’s about to turn on Jon—

But then, from outside, the sound of thundering hooves rises like a storm.

Jon turns to look out the window behind him.

Out of the grey misty desert comes a line of heavily armed men on horseback, bearing down on the village: Dracula’s Men.

Jon turns back. His hosts are even more fearful now, cringing as though anticipating a beating.
Seconds later, the door flies open. The Leader of the band strides in, a group of hard violent men behind him. The Villagers avoid their cruel stares as they take over the room.

The Leader glares at the Innkeeper’s Wife. She hurries out to the kitchen. Then he struts over the Prostitute and grabs her by the chin, studying her with a hungry grin. One of his Men whispers to him. His smile vanishes. He nods, says something probably obscene and roughly lets her go.
Then he turns on Jon. The Villagers back away. Jon looks up, fear and defiance running through him. The Innkeeper speaks Hungarian to the Leader. Somewhere in the garble there come the words “Vlad Dracula . . . Dracula.”

The Leader frowns, shakes his head in disappointment, backs away.

The Innkeeper's Wife hurries from the kitchen with a large basket of food. The Leader roughly takes it from her then knocks her to the floor. No one makes a move to stop him.

Except for Jon, who angrily rises to his feet, his fists clenched. But as the Horseman draw their weapons and the Innkeeper shakes his head, he realizes he is outmatched and sits back down.
The Leader signals his men. They leave.

The Innkeeper helps his wife to her feet. They all watch through the window as Dracula’s Men ride off into the desert, into the mist.

“So,” the Innkeeper sighs, “who of us here will die this night? No, not you, English.”
Jon follows the Innkeeper’s gaze to where it lands on the Prostitute who remains in her corner, vulnerable and alone. She looks to Jon for some kind of reassurance, but he can only shrug.

Hours later, night has fallen. Jon sits at a table in a shabby first floor room in the back of the Inn, scribbling in his diary by the light of both lamp and the full moon shining through the window.

“This village is such a sad place,” he writes. “The air is laden with misery and oppression. The people have food, but nothing else. Not even children! They have lost the will to live. They laugh without smiling, without joy. Even their tears seem drained away. The desert slowly overtakes them. But this desert is not a dead place. I feel a life, a power underneath it all—”

He stops writing and wearily sits back, eyes closed, searching for the right words.

And when he opens his eyes, he finds a large muscular spider sitting on his diary, its eight eyes glittering at him.

Yelling, Jon jumps up and falls back over his chair. White as a sheet, he rises gingerly picks up the diary and dumps the spider out the window. He clutches his chest, gasping, leaning on the table.

Then he looks closely at his dairy. Underneath what he’s just written, there is another entry, in another elegant, lovely hand:

“Welcome. You will be met tomorrow evening at Borgo Pass.”

Later that night, Jon slumbers restlessly under silver-blue moonlight. On his bed table sits his locket with Mina’s photo, a small photo of Queen Victoria and a larger one of Mina.
Jon twists and turns as something stirs under the blankets, crawling up his midsection, over his chest, toward his throat.

A huge clawing hand slides from under the covers, grabs onto his face.

Jon awakens with a yell. Frightened, he kicks off the covers. But there is nothing there but his own flesh. Confused and scared, he rubs his hands over his face. Then he looks at his left hand: “My hand,” he says with a nervous laugh. “Just my hand.”

He looks up at the silver dollar moon shining through the window. From somewhere upstairs, a man and woman are laughing together.

Now wide awake, Jon gets out of bed, crosses to the window, looks out over the moonlit desert. The laughter and the moonlight seem as one. It even draws a smile to his tired face as he gazes up at the moon.

Then the laughter slowly dwindles. That heavy silence falls again.

Suddenly, the silence is ripped by a tearing scream.

The Prostitute falls upside down in the window from the floor above, dangling by her heels, inches away, her eyes staring, her throat torn open.

Jon staggers back with a scream, as the woman’s lifeless body swings like a clock’s pendulum.

Though dead, her voice still pleads, a hollow sound, like bells ringing from a cave.

“Help me . . . help me . . . help me . . . .”

A graveyard on a nearby hill that following morning. No tombstones, crosses or monuments, only mounds of dirt. The Innkeeper is digging a grave for the Prostitute, who now lies wrapped in a blanket. Jon watches from nearby. They are the only mourners.

“Is this all you're doing for her?” Jon asks
“This is all we do for anyone,” says the Innkeeper.

“I don’t understand. You can't throw someone in a hole like this. Where’s your priest? Someone must pray for her. You don't even have a headstone!”

“What good is all that? Best to bury and forget, English. We never think about yesterday. Until you came, we had no thoughts for tomorrow.”

“Who is Vlad Dracula?” Jon asks. “Tell me!”

The Innkeeper stops digging and leans on his shovel.

“We have lived always under the fists of big men. He is the biggest, the greatest of all. For a time we thought him a hero, for driving off the Turks, at least the stories say. Go to him, English. Set us free. That is what you do for us.”

Jon shakes his head, uncomprehending: “How can you live like this? Why don't you fight back?”

“He who bows his head keeps it,” the Innkeeper says. He rolls the corpse into the grave.

(re-edited 10/14/16)


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