Such an odd choice by Destiny for the creator of an eternal monster, that Stoker fellow. Such a Renfield, such a Sorcerer’s Apprentice. From his diligent research, his industry, his graphic and sex-charged vision grew an icon which overwhelmed the life of its creator. The King Vampire forced everything else about him into shadow, reduced a lifetime to a footnote, grew engorged and powerful while his literary father faded to mist.
To date there have been no less than nine Stoker biographies (Jim Steinmeyer, Barbara Belford, Lisa Hopkins, Paul Murray, Daniel Farson, Henry Ludlam, David Skal, Elizabeth Miller, Catherine Wynne) and innumerable essays — quite an uptick since I was a kid, when he rated a mere one paragraph encyclopedia entry.
Let’s get the stats out of the way. Abraham (“Bram”) Stoker, born 8 November, 1848, third of seven children. Father, also named Abraham, worked his entire life as a clerk at Dublin Castle; mother regaled the boy with Celtic ghost and boogey tales. Allegedly incapacitated until age seven, Bram blossomed into an athletic achiever, excelled in debate and sport at Dublin University, graduated with honors. He followed his father into dreary civil service while writing freelance theatrical reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail; dabbled in fiction. The reviews led to his lifelong friendship with actor-manager Henry Irving. When Stoker was 30, he married Florence Balcombe (previously courted by Oscar Wilde). Their only child was born in 1879, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker (his middle name an acknowledgement of Stoker’s elder brother, a noted physician, the first name a tribute to the actor). Reportedly Florence turned off the conjugal tap in distaste, leaving Bram to fend for himself elsewhere.
Bram spent the next 27 years as business manager to Irving and his Lyceum Theater in London, where the actor specialized in macabre roles like Richard III and Mephistopheles. There he met Irving’s on-stage and off-stage leading lady, Ellen Terry, an exquisite “New Woman” in the repressive era. Stoker continued to write: children’s fairy tales, essays, and short stories. His work was all over the map: romances, adventure, humor—but most memorable were his horror stories, notably “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw.” and a novel, The Un-Dead, retitled Dracula at the last minute. In print from 1897 onward, the book never made Stoker much money, nor did any of his other works receive such high praise and broad readership.
Irving’s grand productions, lavish lifestyle and outsized performances lost favor with audiences, and he sold the Lyceum; Stoker remained on with Irving, devastated at the actor’s death in 1905. Stoker continued to work and write. His other, less trenchant, novels included the nearly Lovecraftian Lair of the White Worm (filmed even more bizarrely by Ken Russell), and Jewel of the Seven Stars, a combination of esoteric magick and Egyptian myth which inspired Hammer’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and the later big-budget The Awakening. He also wrote the non-fiction book Great Imposters and, unsurprisingly, a two volume history, Personal Remembrances of Henry Irving. He died impoverished on April 20, 1912, of what was euphemistically called “exhaustion,” often interpreted as the result of tertiary syphilis, or Bright’s disease (itself linked to syphilis.). Obituaries mentioned Dracula and his other works in passing, but predicted Stoker would be remembered for his hagiographic biography of Henry Irving. Wrong.
There is no doubt that Dracula is loaded with sex, overt or sublimated. As hetero as some defenders of Stoker may claim he was, there is a strong male-bonding aspect to his work and life. In his college days, he became a stout defender of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s then-scandalous collection of homoerotic poetry. A fanboy a century before the term existed, he wrote an effusive fan letter to the poet then filed it away for four years, finally daring to send it to America. In that letter, Stoker offered Whitman his self-effacing view of himself:
“I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight [168 pounds] naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world.”
Does the description—other than the oddity about being naked!—seem similar to this one, of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing?:
“… a man of medium weight, strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest… The head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy brows come down and the mouth tightens. The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart, such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possibly tumble over it, but falls naturally back and to the sides. Big, dark blue eyes are set widely apart, and are quick and tender or stern with the man’s moods.”
In his twenty-seven years as a beleaguered Watson to Irving’s Holmes, Stoker walked among the giants of the age: Wilde (Bram and Florence visited Wilde in his last, sad exile in Paris), George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, Mark Twain, Whistler, Edwin Booth, Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aleister Crowley. On Irving’s theatrical tours of America, Stoker met his idol Whitman three times, as well as Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Many Stoker historians see a similarity between Count Dracula and Henry Irving, or at least his performances: the grand theatricality, the brooding dynamism and moments of on-stage fury. Stoker walked in Irving’s shadow all his adult life, liked by many, but seen by just as many as a loyal adjutant, an appendage, the street-sweeper following Irving the Elephant in the theatrical parade. Stoker had a pat answer to what inspired Dracula: a nightmare after a big dinner of crab which had gone off. The gag had subliminal truth in it. Impish Ellen Terry, referring to her lover/boss’s slightly bow-legged gate, privately referred to Henry Irving as “the Crab.”
But much the same argument can be said of Whitman as an influence. Though elderly when Stoker at last met him, Whitman’s poems sung of the beauty of youth and the desire of the old to experience renewed life through osmosis from the young.
Stoker on Whitman: “On the opposite side of the room sat an old man of leonine appearance. He was burly, with a large head and high forehead slightly bald. Great shaggy masses of grey-white hair fell over his collar. His moustache was large and thick and fell over his mouth so as to mingle with the top of the mass of the bushy flowing beard.”
Stoker on Dracula: “Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache…his face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, 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.”
Great reams of theories have been offered by serious academics: the novel is a repressed paean to sexuality, a comment on desire and repulsion in the Victorian age, a closeted homoerotic diatribe, a metaphysical dance between Eros and Thanatos, a direct ancestor of Polidari’s book and LeFanu’s Carmilla, a fictionalization of the historical Vlad Tsepes or Elisabeth Bathory, a paranoid fantasy about Jewish and Polish immigrants befouling England, a nightmarish reflection of Stoker and the people in his life, a left-handed warning about venereal disease, subconscious rebellion against the domineering Henry Irving. It’s really all of that, wrapped in a boogeyman yarn.
“The novel’s genesis was a process,” wrote Barbara Belford in Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula, “which involved Stoker’s education and interests, his fears and fantasies, as well as those of his Victorian colleagues. He dumped the signposts of his life into a supernatural cauldron and called it Dracula.” Indeed.
Unlike Stoker’s short stories and fairy tales, his research and noodling on The Un-Dead stretched over six years, though he said at the time he actually only wrote for three years. Thank goodness he found a reference to the historical “voivide” (prince) of Walachia and grabbed his name, otherwise we’d have been stuck with “Count Wampyr.”
On at least a superficial level, every character has a progenitor in Stoker’s life:
- Jonathan Harker: A young professional who accepts an offer to travel on work but finds himself trapped in an ancient fortress by a charming but evil tyrant (young Bram Stoker at Dublin Castle and/or the Lyceum.)
- Mina Murray: A strong, resourceful woman at the mercy of the bloodsucker who nevertheless is put on a typical pedestal by the men around her: Ellen Terry.
- Lucy Westenra: A beautiful young woman who transforms into a monstrous, child-endangering harpy: Florence.
- Dr. Jack Seward: A noted, intelligent physician (as was Bram’s brother Thornley.)
- Abraham Van Helsing: The all-wise father-figure whose wife has gone insane (yet he stays married out of loyalty). He sees the vampire for what it is. (Bram again, under his own name and that of his father.)
- Quincy Morris: Flamboyant American cowboy and adventurer: Buffalo Bill Cody
- Renfield: A madman in the thrall of the monster (Bram, again)
- Count Dracula: Superficially elegant and courteous; mesmeric; an imposing figure with aquiline features and mannered, oddly-accented English; a habit of sleeping all day and coming alive at night, regaling Harker in long conversations until dawn; the ability to transform himself (via magic—or make-up). Secretly a soulless, selfish fiend who exists by absorbing the life force of others: Henry Irving.
On May 18th, 1897, eight days before the publication of the novel, Stoker arranged the only dramatization of Dracula in his lifetime, on the boards of the Lyceum. Robert Louis Stevenson had lost potential royalties from pirate stage versions of Jekyll and Hyde, and suggested Stoker go through the motions of a “stage adaptation” to establish theatrical copyright. A playbill survives, with the title Dracula, or The Un-Dead. Notably, Stoker’s name is absent, though prominent on the cover is “Royal Lyceum Theater, Sole Lessee and Manager, Henry Irving.” It lists players only by last name, the eponymous character played by a “Mr. Jones,” probably Lyceum regular T. Arthur Jones. Ellen Terry’s daughter Edith, billed as “Miss Craig” played Mina.
According to yet another legend, Irving chanced to pop in on the reading, observed it for who-knows-how-long, then exited with a one-word comment: “Dreadful.”
True, that alleged one-word summary could have been a general dismissive comment on Stoker’s work from an imperious Irving. That has been the assumption for a century or so (or dating from whenever this unattributed anecdote appeared). There is valid ex post facto logic to conclude that Irving rejected the very idea that Dracula would be an appropriate vehicle for him, or a stage adaptation at all—despite his rival Herbert Beerbohm-Tree’s great success as a similarly mesmeric Svengali in Trilby.
But logically valid does not mean “true.”
Assuming the comment was indeed spoken by Irving, what was “dreadful”? Surely the presentation was ponderous, garrulous, inelegant, visually unimpressive and amateurishly staged. Four hours’ worth of actors reading long chunks of dialogue and description is scarcely a riveting experience. “Dreadful” indeed, or perhaps “excruciating,” “fustian-filled” or “butt-numbing.”
But what would the word “dreadful” mean to Henry Irving? He was no fool, nor known for terseness when it came to discussing theater. His writings about presentation, staging and interpretation are seriously considered, his dissections of other actors’ performances precise, intricate and often amusing.
Though Irving eventually received honorary degrees from Cambridge, Dublin and Glasgow Universities, he dropped out of school when he was 14. He was an autodidact whose education was the theater, especially Shakespeare’s works (not a bad way to get an education, or a vocabulary). Throughout his performing career, critics noted his odd, mannered delivery, an artifact, I expect, of learning to overcome his original regional dialect, as did actor Claude Rains and director James Whale a generation later. The unlettered, provincially-accented Henry Broadribb from Cornwall transformed himself into the elegant “Henry Irving” through speech and the words he chose.
Every one of the 66 uses of the word “dreadful” in the Bard’s works imply the same definition, and none reflects the haughty dismissal which has now become the standard colloquial meaning. Among them: “Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!” “O’ the dreadful thunder-claps,” “As venom toads, or lizards’ dreadful stings.” “… to hover on the dreadful shore of Styx.”
What exactly was Henry Irving saying of Dracula? Was he sniffing an uncharacteristically curt insult? Or was he accurately describing what Dracula– the play, the story and the character— could and should be? Awesomely ominous… terrifying… potentially overwhelming… horrible to contemplate…
Could the actor who played the deviously evil Richard III (“Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths… our dreadful marches changed to delightful measures.”) be that unaware of the potential in this villain? Or were his observations reduced by an anonymous eavesdropper to one hurtful word? I’d like to think it’s the latter. It’s the romantic in me.
What was Dracula “really” about? When asked directly about the moral of the story, the ultimate meaning, Stoker slyly equivocated. “I suppose that every book of the kind must contain some lesson,” he remarked in a newspaper interview a month after the book’s publication, “but I prefer that readers should find it out for themselves.”
The horrible irony of Stoker’s life was the ultimate triumph of his King Vampire.
Not until the theatrical play and subsequent motion pictures appeared did Stoker’s creation truly appear in the general consciousness—years after his death. Now, more than a century later, does anyone hum Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, or does anyone under 60 know the complex lyrics? Other than hardcore theater devotees, can anyone really sit through a George Bernard Shaw play without their rear-end falling to sleep, or really laugh at the fabled Wilde wit? The ephemeral performances of Irving have vanished except for silent photographs and one scratchy audio recording, as have those of Ellen Terry. Prospero in The Tempest says, “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air…We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Who could have foretold that, of all those spirits melted into air, only one would eternally survive? This phantasm has and will continue to rise to undead life again and again, a creature formed of dreadful dream-stuff spawned in the mind of Bram Stoker.
“I am Dracula.”