There are a few comments I’ve heard repeatedly in fiction workshops: “The story really starts on the second page,” “I think some dialogue would reveal the personality of the characters,” and, “Why is today special? Why is this happening now?” The truth is that I take pleasure in finding violations of such sage advice in successful works of fiction. Despite breaking the rules, many novels still work amazingly well. It makes me think of that old saying: it is aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, but don’t tell that to the bumblebee.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a prime example: it violates the idea that the tale could not happen on any other day. There’s also some terrible dialogue, and the story doesn’t really start until the protagonist Jonathan Harker gets off the train eight long paragraphs into the novel. But, none of that really matters, because Stoker’s bumblebee has been flying a hundred fifteen years and shows no sign of stopping.
Abraham (Bram) Stoker’s story begins in 1847. Born in a lower-middle class suburb of Dublin, Stoker was one of seven children and very sickly; but his health improved and he began his studies in Mathematics at Trinity College at seventeen, graduating with honors six years later. Stoker’s first published work was a handbook about legal administration called The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland that he penned while working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, where he remained for ten years.
During the time he worked as a low-level administrator, Stoker wrote theatre reviews for The Dublin Evening Mail. It is likely that during this time Stoker wrote The Primrose Path (1875), a 5-piece serial that was published in a one-penny Irish newspaper called The Shamrock.
The Primrose Path—unlike Dracula—focuses on a single character, and there is rising action, dramatic tension, and a clear climax. The story centers on an honest set-building carpenter working in the Dublin theatre who moves to London for bigger and brighter things before he is ruined by alcoholism. It’s a simple morality play, like a thousand others of its time; it would be another fifteen years before Stoker created the work that made him a legend.
In 1878, at age 31, Stoker married Irish actress Florence Balcombe, with whom he had a son, Irving Noel Thornley, in 1879, the year his handbook was published.
The story of Dracula is familiar to most of us—versions of it, anyway—but let us recap: Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer, travels to Castle Dracula to retrieve signatures for real estate documents and other financial papers in relation to the Count’s immigration to London. Harker ignores the warnings the peasants give, and the crucifixes given to him as presents, and only casually notes the garlic lining the windowsills of his hotel. He is impressed by Dracula’s manners and knowledge of London, where the Count is planning to relocate. However, Harker finally understands something is wrong after almost getting eaten by three of Dracula’s wives. Thus, Harker escapes Castle Dracula, goes a little crazy, and checks into a Hungarian convent.
In London, the ship carrying Dracula arrives in the harbor with no crew. Meanwhile, Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée) worries, because her soon-to-be husband does not return. But this worry is overshadowed by the fact that Mina’s oldest friend, Lucy Westerna, is entertaining three marriage proposals—from an American named Quincey Morris; John Seward, a doctor that runs an asylum; and Arthur Holmwood, son of an English Lord. Lucy accepts Holmwood’s proposal but then falls ill.
Seward cares for Lucy at her bedside, and Mina notices two puncture wounds on Lucy’s neck. Seward invites Van Helsing, a doctor also versed in the occult, to investigate. Van Helsing determines that a vampire is involved, but Lucy dies before she can be saved.
Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward, and Morris later investigate Lucy’s tomb to find it empty. They wait until Lucy returns, blood on her mouth from feeding on the living. They subdue her and Holmwood decapitates her so she will not rise again.
After receiving letters from a Hungarian nun caring for the still slightly disturbed Jonathan Harker, Mina leaves for Budapest to retrieve her fiancé. They are immediately married in the chapel of the convent where Harker has been staying. When they return, Van Helsing and his gang of furious suitors confer with Harker and decide to kill the Count. To protect Mina, Seward locks her in his office at the asylum. But a madman at the asylum leads Dracula to Mina, and she is bitten.
Mina falls ill and the men know they must kill Draculabefore she becomes a vampire. They all chase the Count back to Transylvania and kill him once and for all.
Or, do they?
December 3, 1876, enter Sir Henry Irving into Stoker’s life, stage right.
Irving was a famous actor of the time, the first to have been knighted in English history. Stoker met him subsequent to writing a review on his performance in Hamlet. Many believe Irving to be the inspiration for Count Dracula. In his memoir, Stoker writes:
So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound. Outwardly I was as of stone…The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power.
Three years after meeting the domineering and magnetic Sir Henry Irving, the Stokers left Dublin and moved to London.
Stoker became the theatre manager Irving’s Lyceum theatre, a job he held for the next 30 years. As attaché to Irving and manager of the Lyceum in the West End, Stoker became a member of high society and created long-term friendships with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, novelist Hall Caine, and George du Maurier (grandfather of writers Angela and Daphne Du Maurier). Most accounts cast Stoker as a very busy man, with Irving as a domineering and thankless boss. However, his work as personal assistant allowed Stoker to travel to America, where he met Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, and Buffalo Bill Cody (who was likely the inspiration for Quincey Morris in Dracula). And meanwhile, Stoker’s devotion to Irving was unfailing; so much so that after Stoker’s death Hall Caine wrote the following in an article called “The Story of a Great Friendship,” for the London Daily Telegraph:
Much has been said of Stoker’s relation to Henry Irving, but I wonder how many were really aware of the whole depth and significance of that association. Bram seemed to give up his life to it…I say without any hesitation that never have I seen, never do I expect to see, such absorption of one man’s life into another.
Eleven years pass in this devoted and frenzied fashion.
Stoker had a restless nature and was often busy, publishing a collection of children’s stories in 1881 called Under the Sunset, and in 1886 he wrote a nonfiction account of Irving’s tour in America called A Glimpse of America. Then in 1890 came the romantic adventure novel The Snake’s Pass, his only work set in his native Ireland, published when Stoker was 43. Also in 1890, Stoker completed his legal studies and, passing the bar exam, became a licensed solicitor. Later that year, Stoker went on vacation, stayed in the small town of Whitby in Yorkshire, and discovered the name “Dracula.”
He found it in William Wilkinson‘s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ (1820). According to an Internet source, this novel contains the “only reference to Dracula in all of Stoker’s papers” (Vlad Tepes, a Hungarian nobleman, also known as “Vlad the Impaler,” and “Vlad Dracula III,” is mentioned in the book. Interestingly the name “Dracula” is derived from “The Order of The Dragon” a title given to religious knights in Bulgaria charged with protecting Christianity after the invasion of the Ottoman Empire). There is also official record of Stoker visiting the reading room of The British Museum in Whitby and reading various historical texts on Eastern Europe and occult superstition. Also during this time, Stoker claimed to have stumbled across “The Harker Papers,” the supposed real-life diary of a man who was trapped by a vampire in a castle, though many believe Stoker fabricated these notes himself. Extensive notes in Stoker’s journal indicate that his work on Dracula continued consistently for the next seven years, although the entries were often sporadic because of his duties to Irving. Dracula was published in 1897, when Stoker was 50 years old.
Dracula had its instant fans, but as Leslie S. Klinger tells us in The New Annotated Dracula, although the novel “was indeed published to some critical acclaim, commercial success eluded Stoker.”
Within a year of its publication, Dracula was successful enough that Stoker wanted to make a theatrical version. But Sir Henry Irving thought his personal assistant’s book was “terrible” and refused Stoker’s request that he, Irving, play the titular role. Some believe Irving felt Dracula was a caricature of him, others suspected he was jealous of his assistant’s success. Regardless of the cause, Irving sold the Lyceum, in 1899, without telling Stoker. Stoker remained in the role of personal assistant, but within two years they no longer had any contact. Irving died in 1905 and left Stoker nothing.
After Sir Henry Irving’s death, Stoker suffered a stroke the same year at the age of 58, lleading to a prolonged convalescence. Despite the fact that Stoker’s health was poor and never improved, this was the most prolific time of his life. He wrote six novels—none of which met with critical or commercial success, with the exception of his last, Lair of the White Worm(1911). Stoker’s best selling work in his lifetime was Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving—a two-volume mega-memoir about Stoker’s memories of his best friend. The memoir centers on Irving’s acting career. Reviewers at the time clamored for more information about Irving’s finances, while later scholars mulled over the text looking for hints of romantic love between the two men.
As a critic, I try to kill this book, but, much like Count Dracula, it stubbornly refuses to die.
Those writerly questions, Why is today special? Why is this happening now? demand that the author justify the existence of his words. I wonder if the novel might have been better if there was a moment where the Count decides that he needs to move to London, immediately. For me, just wanting to do more evil isn’t enough of a motivation.
Of the hundreds of re-imaginings of Stoker’s work, some have in fact attempted to “fix” this problem. An example is the 1975 film version of Dracula starring Jack Palance: during Jonathan Harker’s visit to Dracula to discuss real estate in London, the Count looks at a photograph of Harker’s fiancé, Mina, then looks with longing at an oil panting of his own dead wife. She is reincarnated, Dracula concludes, his beloved alive; and he can do nothing until he gets her back.
The Dracula story continues to be popular, likely because there is palpable nobility, dignity, and solitude in vampires. Often vampiric stories run in tandem with doomed love, tales of passion, and giving in to the forbidden. We all fear death as it approaches each day, but we love the idea of somehow living on, somehow cheating it, somehow becoming a person who can do all the things we were afraid to do in our first life. Also, perhaps most importantly, these tales are filled with hunger— a longing to find fulfillment in the life or the life’s blood of another.
In addition, Bram Stoker was quintessentially dramatic, and the Dracula story reflects this appealing flair for theatricality. Much like a thespian, Dracula plays many different roles in the novel: although Harker does not realize it, the coachman who picks him up at the train station is actually Dracula in disguise. The Count also appears in his “true” form as an old, thin, proper man with an aristocratic moustache, who is gracious and conversational in the castle with Harker. Later, the Count is seen wearing Harker’s clothes, playing the part of Harker while taking letters into town to put in the post. Finally, after gorging himself on blood, Dracula becomes a younger man, a seducer, a rake prowling London’s moonlit streets.
Dracula, the book that launched a thousand ships (or was it a thousand spinoffs?), is ultimately a brilliant mess of negative space: the novel is like a series of partial drawings sketched on pieces of semi-transparent paper. Each fragment carries part of the story transposed over another piece, which the reader must press together to form a single image. However, everything is not illuminated for the reader—there are still questions to be asked, mysteries unsolved. Neil Gaiman, in his introductory essay for The New Annotated Dracula, confirms that this is part of the greatness of Dracula: there are no answers because, “(t)he characters don’t know them, so neither do we.” It is unclear, for example, at the end of the novel whether the Count is killed or temporarily transformed into mist, fated to become solid again. The mystery of the novel is its allure, and the empty space it leaves allows us to participate in the act of creation ourselves by drawing our own conclusion.
Stoker died in London in 1912, one year after the publication of his last novel. After his death, he was cremated and placed in an urn in Golders Green Crematorium. When his son Irving died in 1961, his ashes were mixed into Stoker’s burial urn. Bram Stoker’s wife did not choose the same eternal fate, choosing instead for her ashes to be scattered in the garden outside her husband’s mausoleum.
And, Dracula lives on.
Click here for more about the ongoing legacy of Dracula.
Grant Bergland’s stories, poems, & essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Word Riot, Occam’s Razor, Full of Crow, Tattoo Highway, Short Story Library, Whim Quarterly and other publications. He is the winner of the 2010 R.V. Williams Fiction prize, is a part time professor at The New School, and has a teaching fellowship at Columbia University.