Bram Stoker at 165
On this date in 1847, a young man was born in a seeming ordinary middle class family in Dublin. He ended up famous, perhaps in the way he might have most preferred–as a novelist. His name was Abraham but so was his father’s so maybe that is why most folks seem to have called him Bram Stoker. Today, his name is given to the Horror Writers Association Award for “superior achievement.” Fittingly enough, the award itself looks like the model of a very gothic castle.
Fans of his seminal novel as well as of vampire fiction in general probably know the basics of his life. An invalid for many of his early years, his great distraction and recreation were the stories told by his mother. Suddenly, at age seven, he recovered and began to attend school. In time he became quite the athlete. He attended Trinity College, earning a degree in mathematics and participating in the literary life of the college. He championed “sensational” and fantastical literature, as well as defending American poet Walt Whitman. Even wrote the man fan mail, quite gushing stuff. To make a good living he got a job that led to his first book–The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland. About this time he and another man woo’d an exceptionally pretty young woman named Florence Balcome. Oscar Wilde found his overtures rejected in favor of Stoker and the two wed in 1878. They had one son, Irving Noel. Stoker wrote a review praising a performance of Hamlet by the most famous actor of the age, Sir Henry Irving. The two men met, hit it off, and Stoker eventually became manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London for 27 years. Irving proved a very tempestuous employer, and many theorize he was in some sense a model for Stoker’s most famous creation–Count Dracula!
Stoker led an extremely busy life, which may have led to the gradual emotional estrangement from his wife (although really we know little of how that began). On the other hand, he also had a rather odd imagination that manifested sometimes in strange ways. He saw a man jump into the Thames River for example and pulled him out, dragging the corpse back to his home in efforts to revive what proved to be an elderly sailor committing suicide. One wonders what Mrs. Stoker thought of this? Likewise, his free time seemed taken with researching and writing stories. The man in fact wrote many novels and short stories in his life, usually at a rapid pace. Dracula proved the exception. That took seven years, starting with a vacation in the northeastern port of Whitby. When published in 1897, it got mixed reviews and sold steadily if not with any great vigor. To secure theatrical rights, Stoker penned a quick stage version that was read aloud at the Lyceum. Irving, whom he hoped to impress, pronounced it rubbish and left.
Following a fire at the Lyceum, then by Irving’s death, the Stokers found themselves in reduced circumstances. Once part of the cultural and social elite of London, their fortunes and status dwindled. Stoker died one hundred years ago, in 1912, his passing eclipsed by the sinking of the Titantic. His widow increasingly depended upon royalties from Dracula for her living. Hence her successful attack on the German fimmakers who dared make the motion picture Nosferatu without first obtaining permission! She did grant such to one Hamilton Deane, who fashioned a play out of the novel (changing much in the process) for touring theatres. Critics loathed the thing. Audiences adored it. When brought to Broadway, John L. Balderston did some editing and it eventually made a Hungarian emigre named Bela Lugosi a star. For awhile anyway.
Almost everyone reading this article probably knew all of the above. But there was more to the life of this man than a quick biographical sketch. For example, he renewed a friendship with Oscar Wilde after moving to London, even visited the man after his imprisonment and exile. Some might say this gives a hint at Stoker’s own sexuality, but a genuine kindness seems just as likely. He had only a few close friends (such as the actress Ellen Terry) but those few remained very loyal to him. Quite a few look at the bare bones of Stoker’s life and make a lot of assumptions. Some of them a bit presumptive. The persistent rumor he died of syphilis, for example. Medical science in 1912 wasn’t as robust as these days, but it seems fairly obvious he passed away from Bright’s Disease (which also took Jane Austen–make of that what you will–another author of massive posthumous popularity). Other ideas abound. In the 1970s it became popular to believe he’d done massive research on Prince Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, from whom he got the name “Dracula” (the character was originally to have been named Count Wampyr). In fact research by Elizabeth Miller shows he got the name, the location (Transylvania, next door to Wallachia) and the merest outline of what a life of such a warlord might have been like. Nothing else.
Relatively few realize Stoker abridged his own novel, and that for one edition even suggested a specific inspiration for his story–the murders of Jack the Ripper! A descendant, Dacre Stoker, co-wrote a so-called “official” sequel years later using this very point. But many have written literary as well as theatrical and cinematic follow-ups to that book. Stoker seems to have realized this was in some sense his magnum opus. Certainly it took the longest to write. In his final novel, The Lair of the White Worm, he seemed to be trying to capture that magic once again. Did it work? No, not really. For one thing the book is quire repellingly racist, but still retains that odd hint of great feminine power. In his more famous tale, women all too often become sexualized demons that prey upon men and children. Yet the quiet leader of the vampire hunters turns out to be Mina herself, not so much in terms of giving orders but by example and reminding the men of important matters they’ve ignored. So claims of misogyny in Stoker seem at the least simplistic.
A compelling documentary titled Dracula’s Bram Stoker, narrated by John Hurt, is worthwhile looking up. It captures the sense of a real person rather than a caricature or cardboard cutout man. One gets the sense of both pride and disappointment, of a life that contained a full range of experience and achievement and a certain melancholy that often marks those of great imagination. Like the vampire invader himself, Stoker comes across as something of a stranger in a strange land. And mysterious still. He took many secrets to the grave. No doubt we all do.