Mar 29 2013 2:00pm
Who Was Dracula? (Excerpt)
Check out Jim Steinmeyer’s Who Was Dracula?, out on April 4 from Tarcher Books:
An acclaimed historian sleuths out literature’s most famous vampire, uncovering the source material – from folklore and history, to personas including Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman – behind Bram Stoker’s bloody creation.
In more than a century of vampires in pop culture, only one lord of the night truly stands out: Dracula. Though the name may conjure up images of Bela Lugosi lurking about in a cape and white pancake makeup in the iconic 1931 film, the character of Dracula—a powerful, evil Transylvanian aristocrat who slaughters repressed Victorians on a trip to London—was created in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel of the same name, a work so popular it has spawned limitless reinventions in books and film. But where did literature’s undead icon come from?
Pity Bram Stoker.
He was one of the lucky authors who managed to create a character more mysterious and more interesting than he was. And he paid for it. He suffered careful dissection and analysis by generations of literary sleuths, biographers and psychologists, attempting to find the man behind the vampire. A proper Irishman and a careful Victorian, Bram Stoker’s job, for almost thirty years, was keeping his head at the Lyceum Theatre in London, and then remaining perfectly unobtrusive in service to Henry Irving, London’s leading actor. Bram Stoker performed that job well.
Late in his career, he wrote a thick novel called Dracula, which garnered surprised reactions from his business acquaintances and mild praise from the critics. Stoker may have suspected that it was his best book. He had no way of calculating that it would become a phenomenon. As his great-grandnephew, the novelist Dacre Stoker, has written, “Bram would surely be surprised at the great number of works, books, movies, television shows, comics, et cetera, apparently inspired by... the vampire figure he created.” In the middle of the twentieth century, the character seemed to have become a patron saint for every desperate filmmaker on a budget. But amazingly, Dracula’s reputation has remained untarnished, continually inspiring some of entertainment’s leading lights, like Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola. Dracula is one of fiction’s greatest, most recognizable, and most popular characters. He has glided through every type of media with a seemingly supernatural power, commanding respect and always attracting audiences.
In the intervening years, Dracula proved too interesting, and Stoker apparently proved too dull, to perfectly satisfy critics, who recreated him in their own image, or dressed him in the fashions of their own age. Bram Stoker was burdened with suspicions and speculations—psychological motivations, physical ailments, and literary revenge—in an effort to properly explain his vampire. Annoyingly, Dracula has done his best to resist explanation. A psychological understanding of the novel seemed to elude even Bram Stoker.
Dracula was the very first adult novel I ever read—that is, a big, thick book from the adult section of the public library that didn’t have any pictures in it. When I was eight years old, a classmate named Aiden gushed over the novel, recalling the frightening events in the castle and the dramatic execution of Dracula. “They cut off his head!” At that time, the classic horror movies made only occasional late-night appearances on television, and the novel was a revelation. I checked the book out of the library and slogged through it, almost 400 pages of daunting grey text, glimpses of Victorian Whitby and London that became personal challenges for a fourth-grader. When I finally closed the back cover, Bram Stoker’s abject horror was mixed with my own personal sanctimony. I tried to indulge in a conversation about the book with Aiden, but he just wrinkled his nose. “What? I didn’t see that part,” he said. “I just read the very beginning and the very end.”
I later learned that most of us have been just reading “the very beginning and the very end.” Dracula has survived for over a century, despite the shortcuts—or maybe because of the shortcuts. We know about the castle in Transylvania, we know about the stake through the heart, and we can all fill in the rest. Generally, we’ve depended upon the theatre producers and motion picture screenwriters to reconfigure and redefine Dracula for us.
The West End, Broadway, and Hollywood quickly came to the rescue, and seem to have concurred that there were too many strange settings and incidents in the story—Dracula’s castle where he makes dinner and does the dishes; his exit out the window and down the wall; the attack of the lascivious vampire brides; Dracula’s multiple houses in London; the vampire hunters sharing quarters in an insane asylum; the vampire’s dapper daytime outfit, complete with a straw hat; and the part-Wild West, part Gypsy caravan chase at the conclusion.
So they omitted them.
They also determined that there were too many characters and plot twists—a beautiful young vampire victim who becomes a vampire seductress in miniature, terrorizing children; Stoker’s familial band of vampire hunters, which included a stuffy British Lord and a good old Texas cowboy; a return to Transylvania to murder Dracula’s three brides and purify his imminent bride.
They pushed them out of the story, focusing on a handful of characters.
For most of the twentieth century, the result had been a de-fanged vampire story, quite literally. In most of Dracula’s reincarnations, men in 1930s tuxedos stand around a sofa, or morosely consult at a bedside, adjusting wreathes of garlic as the heroine dozes. The French doors offer the necessary threat. There’s an occasional flapping bat. The vampire looks like a Latin Lover in a long cape.
For Bram Stoker, his story was probably also about “the very beginning and the very end.”
We now know that he assembled the novel in a gradual, meticulous fashion, between the years 1890 and 1897, when it was published. In 1890, when he first began taking notes on his vampire story, Stoker worked at London’s Lyceum Theatre; the theatre was at the height of its popularity and Stoker was at the height of his powers. A glittering array of guests came to see Henry Irving’s remarkable shows, and many stayed to be hosted by Irving and Stoker at elaborate dinners in the Beefsteak room—the Lyceum’s prestigious private dining club. There the mysterious journalist Henry Stanley purred of Imperialism in Africa; the idealistic traveler Arminius Vambery described the strange, wonderful people of Balkans; the adventurer and translator Richard Burton wove fanciful images from his visits to the Mid-East. These were rich pickings for Bram Stoker, and his imagination was fired. The tales were wonderful; the storytellers were even more interesting. The theatricality of Irving and the guests at those dinners formed an important influence of Stoker’s fiction, and various characteristics, bits of history and personal traits, worked their way directly into his vampire story. When he created Dracula in his Transylvanian lair—haughty, controlling, surrounded by lascivious lovers, and desperate for blood—it was a new twist on an old Gothic formula.
By the time that Dracula was nearing completion in 1896, the fortune of the Lyceum had begun a slow decline. Bram Stoker’s array of friends had been cursed with failure and surrounded by scandal. The story of the vampire in retreat—a frightening and powerful man now chased from London and hunted like an animal—seems to have fictionalized the desperate straits of many of Stoker’s professional friends and dramatized the loss of their own mysterious, daunting influence over society.
At some point as he assembled notes for his novel, Bram Stoker recorded a name that he found in a book on Eastern Europe, a fifteenth-century Wallachian Voivode named Dracula. It was the right name at the right time—he wove it into his outline (he’d been using the name “Wampyr”) and even gave it pride of place as the title of his book (he’d been using “The Undead”).
Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula, has since become one of literature’s greatest red herrings—a genuine mystery behind the horror. For decades it seemed logical that Bram Stoker had carefully researched this murderous Voivode and concealed his source, a fantastic inside-joke for fans of European history. The truth is even more surprising. Dracula’s name was virtually picked out of a hat by Stoker: an incredible bit of luck and good fortune. It is now apparent that the real history of Vlad Tepes would have surprised Bram Stoker—he knew virtually nothing about him.
A simple explanation is that Stoker’s novel is so interesting because it was compiled at a fascinating time in his life, when he was surrounded by amazing people. It calls for very little speculation to see Stoker’s inspirations, from the people and events that surrounded him in Victorian London, and the colorful characters that befriended him in America. I believe that the most important elements of Dracula were inspired by four people: poet Walt Whitman’s bold carnality; author Oscar Wilde’s corrupting immorality; actor Henry Irving’s haunted characters; and murderer Jack the Ripper’s mysterious horrors.
The real surprise is that Stoker knew these men—maybe even the mysterious Jack! They played important roles in his professional life. They weighed heavily on his personal life. For decades, scholars and critics have speculated whether these personalities had elbowed their way into the world’s greatest vampire novel.
It would have been remarkable if they hadn’t.
Los Angeles, California
Necessary Evil © Jim Steinmeyer 2013