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by Bamber Gascoigne

Bram Stoker (1847-1912)


Like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's monster, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become a cultural icon. It has been argued that the novel, published in 1897, might have fallen into obscurity with the rest of the author's works, if it had not been adapted for the stage and film. To Stoker's disappointment, Dracula's royalties were meagre during his lifetime, and his last years were filled with worries of health and money.

"For, let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome, he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chermosese, and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples for him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar. . . . The vampire live on, and cannot die by mere passing of the time, he can flourish when that he can fatten on the blood of the living." (from Dracula, 1897)

Abraham (Bram) Stoker was born in Clontarf in Ireland, the son of Abraham Stoker, a clerk with the British civil administration in Ireland, and Charlotte Mathida Blake Thornley, a charity worker and writer. The Stokers were staunch Protestants. In his early childhood, Stoker was a semi-invalid, unable to stand or walk until the age of seven. To uplift the mood of her bedridded son, Stoker's mother entertained him with Irish ghost stories.

By the age of sixteen, Stoker had developed into an all-round athlete, tall and full of energy. In Trinity College he excelled in rugby, race walking, rowing and gymnastics, and served a president of the prestigious Philosophical society. Stoker was six feet two inches high, weighted twelve stone naked, had a heavy jaw, big mouth, thick lips, a snubnose, and straight hair ('Bram Stoker's Correspondence with Walt Whitman (1872-6),' in Bram Stoker: Dracula, edited by Maurice Hindle, 2003, p, 408) The Irish Times mentioned him the most popular man at Trinity. During 1869-70, Stoker graduated with a BA (Hons) in science and acquired the Master's degree five years later.

Following his father, Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. He also frequented Dublin's theatres and was an unpaid drama critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, and editor of The Irish Echo for four months. His first short story, 'The Crystal Cup' (1872) came out in the minor periodical London Society. More prestigious journals returned his further stories. Stoker's first novel, The Primrose Path (1875), serialized in the newspaper The Shamrock, was fallowed by 15 works of fiction. Stoker also wrote the two-volume Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906).

In 1878, Stoker married Florence Balcome, an aspiring actress. Stoker lived next door to her family in Dublin. They had one son, baptized Irving Noel Thornley. It has been claimed that since the birth of their son, Florence refused sexual relations with her husband. The details of Stoker's personal life are sketchy and he never wrote an autobiography. It is still an open question whether he lived a double life. Stoker was  rumored to be a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, attended by Wilde's wife Constance and many of the theater people he worked with. However, there is no evidence of his alleged membership.

Soon after the wedding, the couple left Dublin for London. Florence had had a relationship with Oscar Wilde. He described her as "exquisitively pretty . . . just seventeen with the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw and not a sixpence of money".  Stoker also knew Wilde, who visited the family at their fashionable London residence on Cheyne Walk.

In London Stoker was employed by one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the Victorian age, Sir Henry Irving. Irving ran the Lyceum Theatre; biographers have seen him as a model for Dracula, who sucked all the energy from everyone near him. Stoker held his position as an indispensable help, administrator, and deputy host to Irving for 27 years. Author Horace Wyndham recalled, that "To see Stoker in his element was to see him standing at the top of the theatre's stairs, surveying a 'first night' crowd trooping up them. There was no mistake about it ‒ a Lyceum première did draw an audience that really was representative af the best of that period iin the realms of art, literature and society." During North American tours Stoker befriended Walt Whitman, whose poetry he admired, and Mark Twain, whom he met in Chicago in 1883, and with whom he corresponded. Much of Stoker's writing was done during his spare time. Under the Sunset (1882), based on Celtic themes, was a collection of horror stories for children.

Henry Irving died on tour in 1905 and Stoker organized the return of his body to London. The shock of the death of his employer caused Stoker to have a stroke, which damaged his eyesight, but he continued to produce novels, short stories, and essays. Moreover, he suffered from Bright's Disease and according to Stoker's great-nephew, Daniel Farson, he may also have contracted syphilis (see The Man Who Wrote Dracula, 1975). In 1910, his income totalled just £575. Stoker's final novel was The Lair of the White Worm (1911). He died at his home on April 20, 1912.  Among those who attended the funeral were the novelists Hall Caine and Ford Madox Ford. Stoker was cremated at Golders Green, London.

"My theory is that in fact Dracula is not only metaphorically and euphemistically about vampirism. Its real subject is the obsession of the fin de siécle, syphilis. Dracula is the great Victorian novel about VD, for which vampirism stands in as Stoker's metaphor." (Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, 2001, p. 147)

Before Dracula, the most distinguished vampire story was J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1871), about a female vampire. Stoker had read the novella and acknowledged his debt to it in a deleted chapter of Dracula, later published as 'Dracula's Guest'. Florence Stoker sold its film rights to David O. Selznick, who produced a low-budget sequel to Dracula (1931), entitled Dracula's Daughter (1936). This neglected classic, which took almost nothing from Stoker's original piece, portrayed a female vampire. As a metaphor, the vampire was not a novelty for the Victorian intelligentsia. Even Karl Marx wrote in Chapter 10 of Das Kapital: "Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks."

Dracula is an unique  mixture of Gothic horror, travel narrative, erotic fantasy, and supernatural mystery novel. Stoker spent six years working on the book. In a letter sent to the former British Prime Minister William Glanstone he explained that the story has "I think pretty well all the vampire legend as to limitations . . . . The book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to 'cleanse the mind by pity & terror.' At any rate there is nothing nase in the book and though superstition is brought in with the weapons of superstition I hope it is not irrelevant." On its apppearance, Dracula was not a literary phenomenon. The Observer wrote that "Notwithstanding the merits of the book, it is impossible to congratulate Mr. Stoker on his theme, which can but feel to be one quite unworthy of his literary capabilities." 

In his notes for Dracula, Stoker did not mention any of his literary inspirations. Undoubtedly he knew John Polidori's novella Vampire (1819), which had been created as a response to Lord Byron's challege to a circle of friends to write a ghost story. The famous challenge also resulted in Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Polidori's hero, named Lord Ruthven, was a thinly veiled caricature of Byron, an aristocrat, traveller, and seducer.

According to a family story, Dracula had its genesis in Stoker's nightmare about "a vampire king rising from the tomb to go about his ghastly business" (A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker by H. Ludlum, p, 100, 1962). Moreover, the dream had much to do with "too generous helping of dressed crab" that he had had for supper.

One of Stoker's major sources was Emily Gerard's essay 'Transylvanian Superstitions' (1885). He made also a cursory research into the fifteenth-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes (1431-1476). In general, Stoker's knowledge of Romanian history remained sketchy, he never traveled to Transylvania, and he did not base his Count on Vlad Tepes (see Dracula: Sense and Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller, 2000), although this historical figure is mentioned in Chapter 18 in Mina Harker's Journal. Vlad Tepes means "Vlad the Impaler", he was also called Dracula ("son of the dragon" or "son of the devil"). Due to his resistance against the invader, the Turks, the official Communist Party historians portrayed Vlad as a national hero. Stoker located his fictional castle miles away from the authentic one in Schassburg (Sighisoara in Romanian), where Dracula spent his early childhood.  Dracula's main palace was at his capital city, Targoviste.

Dracula was written in the form of diaries, letters, and news items, which give its fantastic events a kind of documentary tone. This epistolary technique was familair for Stoker from Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White (1860). Except the first four chapters, Stoker kept the count off stagde for most of the story. Stephen King has noted that "Stoker creates his fearsome, immortal monster much the way a child can create the shadow of a giant rabbit on the wall simply by wiggling his fingers in front of a light (in Dance Macabre, 1981, p. 64).

The story opens with the diary of Jonathan Harker, a London solicitor, who meets Count Dracula in his Transylvanian castle. "His face was a strong ‒ a very strong ‒ aquiline," Harker describes, "with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years." Dracula also had hair on his palms and bad breath.

While the count is on his way to England, Harker plans to escape from the castle and Dracula's bloodthirsty wives. His journal ends here. Dracula is shipwrecked at Whitby, where the story is taken up in accounts by Harker's fiancée Mina Murray, her sleepwalking friend Lucy Westenra, who has nightmares, and Dr John Seward. After Harker is released from a hospital in Budapest, Mina helps nurse him back to health. Van Helsing, a Dutch doctor and expert in vampirism, tries to save Lucy's life by hanging garlic flowers around her neck and rubbing garlic all over the room. Lucy transforms into a vampire, but her soul is saved by hammering a stake through her heart.  Dracula then turns his attention to Mina, who is forced to such his blood. Through her psychic link to Dracula, the vampire hunters follow the count back to Transylvania, where he is finally destroyed and Mina is cleansed of evil. 

Just  months prior the publication of Dracula, Stoker organized a stage reading of his novel at the Lyceum Theatre, mainly for to establish its theatrical copyright. Irving, however, was not interested in the role of the count. Hamilton Deane adapted Dracula for the stage 12 years after Stoker died. This reinvention of the novel was a huge success. John L. Balderson created with Deane a revised version which helped to launch Bela Lugosi's American film career.

Since its publication, Dracula has never been out of print, but it is not the novel, but rather the numerous film adaptations – many of which have nothing to do with the original work – that have secured Dracula's afterlife as an iconic character in Western popular culture. The book emerged in fiction around the time of the birth of cinema. Stoker himself had a great interest in science and technology. On several occasions Stoker refers to contemporary technology, to typewriters, phonograph diaries, Kodak cameras, telegrams, and so on.

F.W. Murnau lifted the plot line of the novel for his film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). The script was written by Henrik Galeen, who changed the names of the characters and towns and set the events in 1838. At that time the book was still under copyright and despite the changes Stoker's wife sued Murnau, and gained an order forcing the director to destroy the negative and all prints of the film. However, several pirated prints survived. Max Schreck as Graf Orlock had claws, long fingernails, pointed front teeth, bald head; he looks like a giant rat. Like Dracula, he was portrayed as a foreign threat, "a Shylock of the Carpathians". The word "nosferatu" was taken from Stoker, but its etymology is unclear: it is not a synonym for "vampire"  in the Romanian languages. Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, was adapted from the original Broadway play. This production introduced all the conventions of vampire film, except that Lugosi refused towear the fangs, mentioned in the script.

As Bela Lugosi had done before the WWII, Christopher Lee defined the vampire for a generation of viewers in the 1950s and 1960s  in Horror of Dracula (1958, released as Dracula in Britain). Its success launched a wave of sexually oriented Hammer vampire films. Lee was outfitted all in black; red contact lenses gave his eyes a demonic look. In contrast to Lugosi's exotic seducer, Lee developed the character as a complex human, who is cruel and intelligent, and whose whole being oozed with sexual menace. In one scene, he turned to the camera baring his fangs; this act would be repeated in subsequent films. Since Lee's portrayal of Dracula, no major actor has been associated with the role in a similar way. Francic Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) returned, briefly, the novel to the bestseller lists in the United States.

For further reading: A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker by H. Ludlum (1962); In Search of Dracula by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu (1972); The Man Who Wrote Dracula: A Biography of Bram Stoker by Daniel Farson (1975); Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times by Radu R Florescu, Raymond T. McNally (1989); Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula by Barbara Belford (1996); Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal (1990; rev. ed. 2004); Science and Social Science in Bram Stoker's Fiction by Carol A. Senf (2002); A Dracula Handbook by Elizabeth Miller (2005); 'The Vampire' by Margaret L. Carter, in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural by S. T. Joshi, Vol. 2 (2007); Bram Stoker: A Literary Life by Lisa Hopkins (2007); Bram Stoker's Dracula by William Hughes (2009); Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker's Trail of Blood by Jim Steinmeyer  (2013); Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Stage by Catherine Wynne (2013); Dracula and the Gothic in Literature, Pop Culture and the Arts by Isabel Ermida (2015); Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula David J. Skal (2016)   

Selected works:

  • The Primrose Path, 1875
  • The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, 1879
  • Under the Sunset (1881), comprising eight fairy tales for children
  • A Glimpse of America, 1886
  • The Snake's Pass, 1890
  • The Watter's Mou', 1895
  • The Shoulder of Shasta, 1895
  • Dracula, 1897
    - Kammoittava kreivi: (dracula) (suom. Risto Kalliomaa, 1952) / Dracula (lyhentämättömästä alkuperäisteoksesta suom. sekä johdannolla ja huomautuksilla varustanut Jarkko Laine, 1977)
  • Miss Betty, 1898
  • The Mystery of the Sea, 1902
  • The Jewel of Seven Stars, 1903
    - Seitsentähtinen jalokivi  (Suom.-amer. kustannusyhtiö, 1904)
  • The Man  1905 [US title: The Gates of Life / Through the Gates of Life]
  • Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, 1906
  • Lady Athlyne, 1908)
  • Snowbound: The Record of a Theatrical Touring Party, 1908
  • The Lady of the Shroud, 1909
  • Famous Impostors, 1910
  • The Lair of the White Worm, 1911 [US title: The Garden of Evil]
  • Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories, 1914
    - Draculan vieras ja muita kauhukertomuksia (suom. Inkeri Koskinen, 2012)
  • Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, 2008 (edited by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller)
  • The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years, 2012 (edited by Elizabeth Miller & Dacre Stoker)
  • The Forgotten Writings of Bram Stoker, 2012 (edited by John Edgar Browning) 

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