Sunday, December 18, 2016


But Bram Stoker Remains a Mystery
by Don Stradley

By creating Dracula, Bram Stoker gave us one of the most enduring characters in all of literature - the bloody Count stands alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, Huck Finn, Dr. Henry Jekyll and, for that matter, any Shakespearean character you'd care to mention, as an immortal icon, a figure who may be killed by a stake through the heart, but lives on and on in the pop culture - yet, Stoker is never mentioned alongside Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson. There are seasons for this, the most obvious being that he simply wasn't in their league as far as putting the words down - he was a ham-handed author, his writing more in line with the cheap melodramas of the day. Also, Stoker never came up with a worthy followup to his most famous creation. Finally, Stoker was a secretive, shadowy figure. If Stoker  was anything like the lonely, sexually conflicted ex-jock depicted in David J. Skal's Something In The Blood, a heroic and thoughtful attempt to uncover the man behind Dracula, it's no wonder we know so little about him. Even Dracula, a big seller in its day, was treated by Stoker as just another side project, a potboiler written to help pay some bills. As Skal suggests, Dracula probably meant less to Stoker than it has come to mean to us.

The young Stoker was a sickly boy who loved fairy tales and the macabre, but grew into a hulking athlete who played rugby at Trinity College. He would go on to became one of Dublin's most popular theater critics, no mean feat at a time when venturing out to a live performance was risky; in those days, customers were usually loaded to the gills and not above brawling in the cheap seats. Stoker once reported on a drunken reveler who got up to dance and immediately puked; the fellow used his own vomit as a kind of lubricant to slide across the floor.

But just as Stoker was establishing himself as a journalist, he chucked aside his blossoming career to become the business manager of actor Henry Irving. It was a peculiar arrangement - Stoker worked like a dog for this egocentric, domineering actor, sometimes writing short stories on the side - though it's believed that Irving's magnetic personality, plus his performances of Faust and Macbeth, provided Stoker with a model for Dracula. At the least, Irving provided Stoker with a charismatic daddy figure, which the aspiring author seemed to crave. Indeed, a fan letter written by Stoker to Walt Whitman bordered on a declaration of love:

"How sweet a thing it is for a strong, healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, brother, and wife to his soul."

Strangely, Stoker is hardly the star of his own biography. He seems third billed behind Irving and Oscar Wilde. They may be essential to the story of Stoker - had Wilde not been scandalized and imprisoned for his gay lifestyle, Skal surmises, Stoker may have incorporated more homosexual themes into Dracula - but the result is that in comparison to Irving and Wilde, Stoker comes off as a dullard. Even Stoker's mother is of more interest - no wilting lily, she once took an ax to a cholera victim trying to break into her home. What Skal counts on is that we'll endure his narrative detours in hopes of learning more about the man who gave us "the greatest sex monster of all time." He teases us with Stoker's alleged secret life, but produces nothing.

Stoker, despite his sexual ambiguities, was a loyal husband and father. Though there's no concrete evidence that he ever acted on his apparent yearning for men, one almost wishes he did. Such a dalliance might have given Skal something to write about besides Wilde's bloated corpse, or Irving's bullish personality. Then again, even if Stoker had fully acknowledged his desires, he'd probably still have that vacant place in his soul that could only be filled by working, working, working.

Skal is a very fine writer and historian - an earlier book, The Monster Show, is a knockout - and he strikes some interesting notes when he speculates that Stoker, as many children do, may have absorbed his mother's anxieties about sex. But Stoker is too elusive, always wriggling out from Skal's grasp. Reading Something In The Blood  is akin to entering a large and ornate crypt, opening a coffin, and finding it empty. Of course, Skal is a good enough storyteller that readers may be satisfied just by his attempt to trace the origin of the vampire in fiction. You may not notice that the man you're supposed to be reading about, the one who never smiled in photographs, the one who may have died from a type of syphilis that brings on paralysis and madness, the one who wrote Dracula, remains unknowable. 

No comments:

Post a Comment