By MARK W. CURRAN
Talk to any modern horror fiction reader today and ask what the name Bram Stoker means to them, they would likely cite him as the original author of Dracula, the most famous and iconic horror novel of all time. But many would be surprised to know the truth about this historic writer and his contribution to what has become known as “literary horror fiction.” A somewhat reclusive figure, Bram Stoker has remained shrouded in the shadows of literary history, yet his groundbreaking work continues to influence us today.
Abraham Stoker (8 November 1847 – 20 April 1912) was an Irish author, best known today for his 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula. While working for the Irish Civil Service, he became the theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, which was co-owned by Sheridan Le Fanu, an author of Gothic tales. Theater critics of the day were held in low esteem, but he attracted notice by the quality of his reviews.
In December 1876, he gave a favorable review of Henry Irving’s Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Irving invited Stoker for dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel where he was staying, and they became friends. Stoker also wrote stories, and “Crystal Cup” was published by the London Society in 1872, followed by “The Chain of Destiny” in four parts in The Shamrock. In 1876, while a civil servant in Dublin, Stoker wrote the non-fiction book The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (published 1879) which remained a standard work. Furthermore, he possessed an interest in art, and was a founder of the Dublin Sketching Club in 1879.
Stoker visited the English coastal town of Whitby in 1890, and that visit was said to be part of the inspiration for Dracula. He began writing novels while working as manager for Irving and secretary and director of London’s Lyceum Theatre, beginning with The Snake’s Pass in 1890 and Dracula in 1897. During this period, Stoker was part of the literary staff of The Daily Telegraph in London, and he wrote other fiction, including the horror novels The Lady of the Shroud (1909) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911). He published his Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving in 1906, after Irving’s death, which proved successful, and managed productions at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Before writing Dracula, Stoker met Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian-Jewish writer and traveler (born in Szent-György, Kingdom of Hungary now Svätý Jur, Slovakia). Dracula likely emerged from Vámbéry’s dark stories of the Carpathian mountains.
Dracula is an epistolary novel, written as a collection of realistic but completely fictional diary entries, telegrams, letters, ship’s logs, and newspaper clippings, all of which added a level of detailed realism to the story, a skill which Stoker had developed as a newspaper writer. At the time of its publication, Dracula was considered a straightforward horror novel based on imaginary creations of supernatural life. It gave form to a universal fantasy…and became a part of popular culture.
Dracula‘s story is that of Count Dracula, an undead, centuries-old vampire, and a Transylvanian nobleman who claims to be a Székely descended from Attila the Hun. He inhabits a decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains near the Borgo Pass. The story is told through its main narrator, Jonathan Harker, a young English lawyer as he travels to Transylvania. Harker plans to meet with Count Dracula, a client of his firm, in order to finalize a property transaction. Harker is seduced by three female vampires, from whom he barely escapes.
Dracula has been interpreted as an expression of anxiety about eastern Europeans invading western Europe, as represented by a Transylvanian who arrives in London and terrorizes its residents. Others see Stoker’s novel as an exploration of suppressed sexual desire and a reaction to the patriarchal and conservative norms broadly prevalent in Britain during the Victorian period.
According to Britannica, Dracula “inverts the era’s stereotypical gender roles through the highly sexualized actions of the female vampires. Yet Dracula can also be seen as the evil of temptation personified as he preys on women who must then be protected by the men around them. The novel’s complexity, especially in its representation of gender, allows numerous, sometimes contradictory, interpretations.”
It is widely accepted that Dracula brought vampirism to modern popular culture, where it has remained ever since. Vampires have occupied the annals of both fiction and movies. Some of them have been modernized, as in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. Others have maintained the integrity of Stoker’s original Count Dracula, as in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), a novel King claimed had been inspired by Stoker. Even the American children’s television show Sesame Street developed a character, Count von Count, modeled on Dracula; instead of drinking blood, this vampire counts everything around him (and helps his audience learn simple mathematics).
Many have speculated through the years that Bram Stoker’s inspirations for the Dracula story may have included a visit to Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, a visit to the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, and the novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. But what of Stoker himself? As he has remained an enigmatic and deeply private figure in horror history, here are some things I learned in my research on this iconic author.
Stoker took a keen interest in science and science-based medicine. Some of Stoker’s novels represent early examples of science fiction, such as The Lady of the Shroud (1909). He had a writer’s interest in the occult, notably mesmerism, but despised fraud and believed in the superiority of the scientific method over superstition.
Posthumously, the first film adaptation of Dracula was F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, released in 1922, with Max Schreck starring as Count Orlok. Florence Stoker, the executor of Bram Stoker’s estate, eventually sued the filmmakers, and was represented by the attorneys of the British Incorporated Society of Authors.
Her chief legal complaint was that she had neither been asked for permission for the adaptation nor paid any royalty. The case dragged on for some years, with Mrs. Stoker demanding the destruction of the negative and all prints of the film. The suit was finally resolved in the widow’s favor in July 1925.
A single print of the film survived, however, and it has become well known. The first authorized film version of Dracula did not come about until almost a decade later when Universal Studios released Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi.
Fast Facts About Bram Stoker:
- Stoker’s Dracula is the most adapted villain in a work of fiction. There are more than 217 Dracula films and 1,000 plus books featuring this famous (or infamous) character.
- Bram Stoker spent 7 years researching European folklore and superstitions before writing Dracula.
- The legendary writer was bedridden until the age of seven and needed a little assistance to walk.
- Stoker’s mother was a writer and she read horror stories to him while he lay sick in bed. This would later influence his interest in the supernatural and occult many years after.
- The original 541-page typescript of Dracula was believed to have been lost until it was found in a barn in northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. It consisted of typed sheets with many emendations, and handwritten on the title page was “THE UN-DEAD.” The author’s name was shown at the bottom as Bram Stoker. The manuscript was purchased by billionaire Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.
- Though he was legally married to a woman, it has been widely speculated that Stoker was bi-sexual.
- Vlad the Impaler, a real historical figure, infamous for impaling his enemies on stakes and watching them die in slow agony was the inspiration for Stoker’s book, Dracula. He was also known as Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia.
Bram Stoker passed away in London on 20 April 1912. Some biographers attribute the cause of death to overwork, others to tertiary syphilis.His work continues to influence new generations of readers and writers of all ages, but he will always be best remembered as the creator of Dracula, the greatest, most famous horror novel ever written.
Mark W. Curran is a book author and horror film blogger. His indie horror films ‘Hoodman’ and ‘Abandoned Dead’ are now in worldwide release. He edits the weekly Horror Fiction Newswire and moderates the Horror Fiction Central website which feature the latest in horror fiction publishing, news and events.