The Man Behind Dracula

Image courtesy mobiarch.net

Image courtesy mobiarch.net

By Christopher Zoukis

His ashes sit in a white porcelain urn, which looks like a fat, Greek cookie jar.  There’s a silver hasp on each side to keep the lid on.  The urn, half-hidden in shadow, perches on a gray marble shelf.  The shelf is one of many such ‘niches’ in the columbarium, which is the vault that holds the ashes of many cremated bodies.

A dry chill hangs in the vault, as if the vault is sighing every now and then.  And it has bad breath for the air smells of burnt crayons and cinnamon.  It’s a dismal place – a showroom of urns full of dead people’s ashes. 

There are, in fact, the ashes of two people in the fat, white urn – first, those of the father.  Then forty-nine years later the ashes of his cremated son were poured in with his, a literal rendering of the biblical suggestion, “ashes to ashes.”  I don’t know if they actually stirred them up, mixing them, or not. 

Ideally, his wife’s ashes were supposed to have been poured in the urn along with his, not the son’s.  But his wife preferred having her ashes scattered in the Gardens of Rest.  Those were her instructions and since her husband was already dead and cremated, he couldn’t complain.  It fell to the son to fulfill the agreement, at least partially.

The vault is called the East Columbarium.  It stands, as per its name, near the eastern boundary of Golders Green Crematorium, London, England.  

His name was Abraham Stoker, although everyone called him Bram.  Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Stoker was a bed-ridden invalid until the age of seven, when, miraculously, healing occurred.  It happened like this:  one day, unexpectedly, he rose from his bed.  His mother screamed and then fainted.  Unfazed, Bram dressed himself and left for school. 

Later, he attended Trinity College in Dublin, taking a degree in mathematics.  He then took employment as a civil servant in his hometown.  The work was boring, which proved fortunate, as it lanced a creative sore deep within Stoker’s being.  He had an ailment, which could only be controlled by writing.  So he did.  He wrote a non-fiction book entitled The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland.  Pretty boring stuff, it did little to quell his lust for expression. 

Stoker found himself attracted to the theater.  Sitting in the audience, watching and listening, immersed him in another dimension.   He began writing theater reviews for The Dublin Mail newspaper.  After a while, he developed quite a following.  This, in turn, led to interviews with the actors, which led to his friendship with Henry Irving, the most celebrated actor of the nineteenth century.  Irving was the Laurence Olivier of his day.

Stoker began writing short stories and novellas.  In 1878 he married Florence Balcombe, who was famous for being famous and beautiful.  She ran in the celebrity circles.  One of her many male companions had been Oscar Wilde.

Having moved up the social-celebrity ladder by marrying Florence, Stoker and his famous wife moved to London, where Henry Irving offered Stoker the position of business manager of the Lyceum Theatre.  Stoker accepted.  Because of his wife and Irving, Stoker rubbed shoulders with London’s social elite, among who were James Whistler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  And due to Irving’s fame and dependence upon his business manager, Stoker traveled throughout the world, including the United States.

At the age of forty-two, Stoker got the idea for his novel Dracula.  He spent almost a decade researching vampire myths and tales of horror.  As he began writing the book, a unique idea struck him:  to write the book from the viewpoint of personal diaries, telegrams, letters and newspaper articles.  This technique would make the story more real, more historically authentic, and less fantastic.  It was a lightning bolt of genius.

Dracula, published in 1897, was moderately successful, and relegated Stoker to the mid-list of writers.  Additionally, it saddled him with the name of ‘horror-writer,’ which was far below the ‘literature’ any respectable writer produced. 

Disappointed, a low-level depression settled on Stoker, like a net dropped from above.  Yet he kept writing, publishing Miss Betty in 1898, The Mystery of the Sea in 1902, The Jewel of the Seven Stars in 1903, The Man in 1905, The Lady of the Shroud in 1909, and The Lair of the White Worm in 1911.

All of these novels, with the exception of The Lair of the White Worm, were mediocre.  None of them came close to Dracula in scope, believability, or style.  Only in The Lair of the White Worm did Stoker once more find his muse, allowing her to remove the shackles he had placed on himself through depression, boredom, and the rut of his marriage and life.  For Florence, though beautiful and kind, was interested in only superficialities:  wealth, cosmetics, jewelry, fine dining with other elite but empty-headed nitwits.  There was nothing intellectual about Florence; she thought her husband was wasting his time by writing “horrible stories about horrible monsters.”

With The Lair of the White Worm, though, Stoker produced a verbal psychedelic trip into the dark box of horror and incipient insanity.  Years later the book was made into a movie, which instantly became an underground cult hit.

Bram Stoker died believing he was a second-rate novelist.  He had no idea of how successful Dracula would become – the most filmed book of all time except for the Bible, spawning many popular, bestselling vampire-novels.  Since its first publication, Dracula has never been out of print.

Shortly after Stoker’s death, Friedrich Murnau directed his film version of Dracula, calling it Nosferatu.  The film varies considerably from Stoker’s book, portraying the vampire as impoverished, highly sexed, and disconsolate over his fate. 

Florence Stoker, the dead author’s widow, sued Murnau, demanding royalties, and the destruction of all copies of the film.  Eventually a settlement was reached, and the film was supposedly destroyed.  Yet a few copies surfaced years later.

 

I read Dracula when I was thirteen.  The book scared me to death.  It was the personification of evil, and the language hinted at a feral sexuality, taking place in the background.  And yet there was something darkly endearing about it – the love story.  Years later, after many other readings of the book, I realized Dracula is nothing more than a love-story.  The story features two kinds of love:   romantic love, and Count Dracula’s love for his own life, which encompassed millennia and was infinitely miserable.

Dracula probably contains elements of Bram Stoker’s autobiography.  His need for love, which Florence failed to provide, and the dark color and depth of his own life’s abyss.  He was obliquely sympathetic to the vampire as he wrote the story.  

I judge it equal to other great classics of literature, such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Melville’s Moby Dick.  Both of which are examples of modernized horror novels.

Bram Stoker, on the surface, looked happy.  He had a good job, hung out with literary stars and famous actors, hobnobbed with the social elite.  So in that sense, I guess he was contented.  But something important was missing, and I can’t put my finger on it.  It’s like he had wildness about him, some primitive quality – a lust for a more raw way of life, one without drawing rooms, decorous behavior and the bray of domestication.  There was a secret compartment in his head, and that’s where the stories Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm came from.  He would unlock the door, step in and sit down, letting his other reality play over him.  Then he’d leave, carrying the dust – the primitive powder – on his very proper English clothing. 

Stoker was like the ugly duckling in that he became a majestic swan.  Except Bram Stoker never looked down and saw his reflection.  He didn’t know he was a swan.  In that sense, he was like Count Dracula – no reflection in the mirror. 

When Stoker married Florence, he was like the ugly duckling in the farmer’s barn – a captive.  Like the ugly duckling, he should have fled for his life.  But he didn’t.  Instead he tried to escape through his writing.  That didn’t work either, for Florence, unlike the children who saw that the young swan was the most beautiful, saw only herself and her circumstances.  Florence never fanned the flame of Stoker’s creativity.  In effect, she snuffed it out, or tried to.  She was like the old biddy hen in the Ugly Duckling – “We and the world…”