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Bram Stoker

The man behind the monster

Created date

February 21st, 2017
Author Bram Stoker, best known for his classic novel Dracula.

Author Bram Stoker, best known for his classic novel Dracula.

Dracula. The name alone evokes images of pale skin; long fingernails; sharp, mesmeric eyes; and brilliantly white, blood-laced teeth. 

For almost 120 years, the fictional character Count Dracula has been known and recognized around the world. Hollywood has long used him to its advantage, as have publishers, theater managers, and Halloween costume designers. 

Convinced that one of its medieval rulers, Vlad Tepes, was the sole inspiration for the famed literary villain, the Romanian tourism industry has even hopped on the bandwagon with t-shirts, bumper stickers, and an official postage stamp. 

But what about the man who created this merchandising free-for-all in the first place? Bram Stoker may be synonymous with his classic book’s namesake; however, his own story has remained lost in the shadows of the magnum opus that made him famous.

At least, until recently.

Author and film historian David Skal has spent his professional life studying horror stories and the motion pictures they inspired. His latest book, Something in the Blood: The Man Who Wrote Dracula (Liveright, 2016), is perhaps the best biography yet to chronicle Stoker’s life.

And Skal would be the first to confess that the job was no easy task.

“When I started working on this project,” he explains, “I didn’t think I would have enough material. Stoker was a difficult man to get to know.”

Bringing Stoker to life

In fact, he was a veritable closed book. Like many Victorians, he held his personal life close to the vest. 

As Skal points out, nary a portrait exists of the man smiling. To the contrary, he kept a surprisingly low profile given his considerable fame and cultivated a stoic exterior that belied his highly imaginative true self.

A born author, Stoker wrote compulsively—he kept a journal for just about anything and everything he did. In the end, the records filled an entire room, and he ordered them all destroyed upon his death.

“The loss of those documents has cost us an enormous amount of valuable insight,” Skal laments. “But it was not an uncommon practice to eliminate such papers once a person was dead.”

Even so, Skal won a research fellowship at Stoker’s alma mater Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, which happens to be the home of the Stoker family’s papers. Countless letters and official documents from friends and relatives, as well as some of Stoker’s own handwritten literary manuscripts, enabled Skal to learn about the author through vicarious channels.

“These papers were tremendously helpful,” he says, “because they gave me a strong sense of the people with whom Stoker surrounded himself. I was able to immerse myself in the times that so influenced who he was and what he wrote.”

To be sure, the Victorian era was laden with Gothic imagery—a period in which Old World superstitions converged with the boundless modernity of the approaching twentieth century.

There were seemingly magical innovations like movies, the phonograph, and electric light, at the same time combined with barbarous developments such as the Jack the Ripper murders in London’s East End. These various elements were inspirations to authors like Stoker, and Skal’s biography demonstrates this with remarkable clarity.

“Bram Stoker was a Victorian, a product of his time,” he says. “He was a prosperous theater manager, personal assistant to the great actor Henry Irving, and a close friend of novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde, all of them quintessentially nineteenth century.”

‘Children of the night’

Indeed, Skal discovered that it was from a book on Irish mythology belonging to Wilde’s mother that Stoker borrowed the phrase “children of the night”—Count Dracula’s name for the howling wolves that surrounded his castle.

For a man about whom so little is popularly known, Stoker was himself a character with a depth and significance that went well beyond his 1897 masterpiece. 

He was a respected literary critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, an art lover and founder of the Dublin Sketching Club, and a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction. These neglected facets of Stoker’s life, when placed within the rich tapestry that was late nineteenth-century Europe, make for fascinating reading.

“I’ve read all of the previous books about Stoker, each of which depicted a rather cardboard figure,” says Skal. “I wanted to give readers a living, breathing man; a real person.”

And in spite of his subject’s elusive nature, he has succeeded.