Some novelists write a great deal, and develop their art to a level of superlative achievement. Then there are those rare few who write much less, or very little at all, and yet manage to achieve smashing success in one great project. Bram Stoker belongs to the latter category. His novel Dracula remains perhaps the finest such creation ever written.
Stoker understood on some fundamental level that the invocation of horror has to rely on the creation of a mood, rather than on simple set-piece scenes. Everything has to contribute to that mood: words, names, locales, dialogues, even punctuation. All must advance to this crescendo of dread.
There was nothing in Bram Stoker’s background to suggest that he might be suited for horror literature. He did not, unlike H.P. Lovecraft, come from an old family over which an atmosphere of decay hovered, and neither was he sickly as a youth. And, unlike Edgar Allan Poe, he was not addicted to drugs or alcohol.
He was born in Dublin in 1847 of Irish parentage and was educated at Trinity College. Upon graduation from university he took a liking to the theater and served for a time as a critic of theatrical performances. He moved to London after his marriage in 1878 in order to be closer to the acting community.
From 1879 to 1898 he managed the famous Lyceum Theater. It was perhaps due to his familiarity with the stage that he developed a taste for dramatic flourishes in his writing.
It was in London that he came to work for perhaps the most famous actor of his generation, Henry Irving. With him Stoker traveled the world; he even managed to visit the White House on at least two occasions, and was introduced to both Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley.
At some point during his travels, Stoker met a man who would have a fateful influence on his life: Armin Vambery, a Hungarian writer, linguist, and traveler. He may even have acted as a consultant on Dracula. Vembery was steeped in the ancient folklore of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and was perhaps one of the first to advocate for a linguistic connection between the Hungarian and Turkish languages (it is now recognized that they are indeed distant relatives).
Theater work was time-consuming, but not necessarily lucrative. Stoker was naturally curious as a man of the world, and began to write in his spare time as a way of supplementing his income. His first efforts were of unsatisfactory. He had shown little previous aptitude for literary greatness, but, as so often happens in history, genius has a way of springing up in unlikely places.
In 1897 he published a novel he called Dracula. It was originally to be titled The Un-Dead, but Stoker changed it at the last minute. We cannot be sure, but it may have originally been intended as a stage play. By either name, it is the greatest Gothic horror novel ever written.
The action of the novel is cleverly conveyed using fragments from letters, diaries, and alleged “first-hand accounts.” The general course of the action is that an ancient “undead” vampire named Count Dracula wishes to escape from his confines in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania and move to a more populated city (London), where he can “infect” people with vampirism.
Following closely on his heels is the stern and steady Dr. Van Helsing, who knows what vampires are and how they can be destroyed.
The novel derives its extraordinary power from a number of different sources. It plays on our fears of infection and the spread of a weird disease that can take possession of our very souls. It plays on our fascination with sexual predation and unchecked carnal appetites. It plays on our innate revulsion at having our life-blood drained away by unseen forces. And on top of all these psychological underpinnings, it is great story: the pursuit and destruction of an ancient evil makes for a fine storyline.
In this passage, from the “journal” of Johnathan Harker, a visitor to Dracula’s castle, we get our first indication that the Count may be not quite human:
As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a storey below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count’s own room would look out…I drew back from the stonework, and looked carefully out. What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window…But my very feelings changed to revulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes…
Of course, things only get worse for Harker and his friends.
How much Stoker knew about the historical Dracula, or about Easter European folklore in general, is still hotly debated. Dracula was not the first novel to have vampirism as its subject. These things matter little, however; noting in literature is completely original. The greatness lies in the writer’s ability to rework the raw material he has into a form that is compelling.
It is clear that Stoker was a wonderfully creative writer who blended preexisting myths of Vlad The Impaler, vampirism, Elizabeth Bathory, and Victorian popular fears in a way that was irresistible.
The novel was instantly successful and has never been out of print. But Stoker himself was dogged with bad luck. Perhaps Vlad Dracula himself had cursed him. Stoker, not a professional writer, had failed to copyright his work outside the United Kingdom. This was also the era before international treaties automatically took care of such things.
The appearance of the 1922 film Nosferatu was a definite copyright infringement; Stoker’s widow won that battle, but by then the Dracula legend had entered popular culture to such an extent that it had nearly become common property.
As an interesting side-note, the priceless original manuscript for the novel, long thought to be lost, was unearthed in a Pennsylvania barn in the 1980s. How the document came to reside in such a place has not been discussed in the articles I have found on the subject. It now is apparently owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, probably one of the few private parties in the world who could afford it.
If you are new to horror fiction, this is a great place to start. It has never been adequately filmed, in my opinion. Its special strengths and atmospheric intensity do make it ideal for a miniseries, and perhaps one day we will see it done justice on the screen.
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