BORN: 1847, Clontarf, Ireland
DIED: 1912, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, Nonfiction
The Lair of the White Worm (1911)
Bram Stoker. Stoker, Bram, 1906, photograph. AP Images.
Irish writer Bram Stoker wrote several novels in different genres, but he is typically, if not exclusively, best known for his Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897). Stoker scholars often agree that with Dracula, Stoker not only created one of the most identifiable figures in popular culture but set the standards for all horror-mystery books that followed.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Ireland Marked by Illness. Bram Stoker was the third of seven children born to Abraham Stoker Sr. and Charlotte Thornley Stoker on or about November 8, 1847, in Clontarf, a village just north of Dublin Bay. In rural Ireland, this was the time of the potato famine in which around a million Irish people died of starvation and another million or more immigrated to the United States, Canada, and Australia to escape the horrors in their home country. The Stokers, however, were solidly middle class, with the father a civil servant, working as a chief secretary at Dublin Castle, the administrative center of the country. The mother was two decades younger than her husband and a rugged west-of-Ireland woman who had survived the cholera epidemic of 1832 in her native Sligo. She was a social activist who fought for the rights of impoverished women and was a formidable presence for her children. Charlotte was especially important to Bram, a sickly child who was often bedridden during his first seven years. While Bram enjoyed his father’s well-stocked library, he also listened avidly to the gruesome tales his mother spun to entertain him—perhaps the seeds of his own future horror stories.
Civil Service Career and Work in the Theater. Stoker began writing ghost stories in his childhood, predicting that someday he would be famous for his literary efforts. As a student at Trinity College he excelled in athletics and earned honors in mathematics. Upon graduation, he worked as a civil servant. For ten years in the Irish Civil Service, Stoker kept this unfulfilling position but one which left energy for his literary pursuits, including writing drama reviews for the Dublin Mail, a newspaper co-owned by his fellow horror writer, Sheridan Le Fanu. Stoker’s drama criticism led him to meet with actor Henry Irving, whom he much admired. The friendship was mutual, and Irving hired Stoker as his personal manager as well as secretary, and even director of his Lyceum Theatre in London, positions he held until Irving’s death in 1905. It was about this time, too, that he fell in love with his nineteen-year-old neighbor, the stunning Florence Balcombe. The two soon married, on December 4, 1878.
Inspiration for Dracula. While working at the theater, Stoker entertained a wide variety of people, including the Hungarian adventurer and professor Arminius Vambery, who would relate stories of vampires in Eastern Europe. Shortly after this meeting, Stoker began researching vampirism. He would later claim that Dracula came to him in a nightmare following a particularly indulgent crab dinner, but scholars also believe that Stoker likely knew of several existing vampire stories: ‘‘Carmilla’’ (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘‘Le Horla’’ (1887) by Guy de Maupassant, and The Vampyre (1819), a novel by Dr. William Polidori. For four years, Stoker did extensive research and labored over his vampire novel. The book was published in 1897, and was a smashing success. Unlike any other vampire in popular artistic culture, Count Dracula became an international icon. Critics have speculated that the foreign, exotic villain with his evil, dirty habits played on British concerns about the growing number of Eastern European immigrants in England at the end of the nineteenth century. Many Jews of Eastern European origin fled persecution in their home countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They resettled in large numbers in England and the United States, where they often faced prejudice from those who feared their unfamiliar culture.
After Dracula None of Stoker’s later books matched the popularity of Dracula. His final novel, The Lair of the White Worm (1911), however, has received some critical attention in the decades since its publication, though not perhaps the kind of attention Stoker would have hoped for. As critics Daniel Farson and Philip Dematteis once noted, ‘‘Hilarious throughout, without one line of intentional humor, it could still become a cult classic.’’ A campy 1988 film adaptation of the novel by Ken Russell seemed to bear out that prophecy.
Stoker was already seriously ill when writing The Lair of the White Worm and died on April 20, 1912.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Stoker's famous contemporaries include:
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922): American inventor best known for his invention of the telephone.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): Irish novelist and playwright known for his flamboyant life and sharp wit.
Kate Chopin (1851-1904): American writer considered one of the first feminist authors.
Thomas Alva Edison (1837-1931): American inventor of Dutch origin whose contributions include the incandescent lightbulb, the cylinder phonograph, and 1,091 other patented inventions.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): French post-impressionistic painter also associated with primitivism and a return to the pastoral movement.
Menelik II (1844-1913): Ethiopian emperor of Shewa who was influential in introducing technological progression in Ethiopia.
Works in Literary Context
Little critical importance is attached to most of Stoker’s work, but Dracula is considered a landmark of horror fiction. Some critics have even dubbed it the first true horror novel.
Influences. Stoker was inspired by those he admired, and his realistic writing took influence from the period in which he lived, but many of his horror influences originated when he was young and very ill. His enforced bedridden state clearly made an impression on the course Stoker’s life would take. During the long months and years of his illness, Stoker’s mother would entertain her young son with macabre tales from her own youth, such as the story of the army sergeant who had apparently died of the plague. When the undertaker attempted to bury the man, he found the corpse’s legs were too long for the coffin. Determined to chop the legs off at the knee to ease the fit, the undertaker took an axe to the legs, but at the first hit, the sergeant suddenly revived. Such tales informed much of Stoker’s youth and his later horror works.
Epistolary Novel. Stoker’s most successful work, Dracula, was written during the literary period when the novel was not yet fully defined nor developed. Nineteenth-century authors were writing episodic works, publishing weekly chapters in the local newspapers (now known as serialized novels), and introducing the novel’s story and characters by way of collections of letters or journal entries written by the characters themselves or a narrator. This form, called the epistolary form, was used by Aphra Behn, a woman now considered to be one of the first novelists of the seventeenth century. It was also characteristic of eighteenth-century writers such as publisher and author Samuel Richardson and French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was further refined by Wilkie Collins in the nineteenth century. Dracula is written this way—as an epistolary novel made up of journal entries, a ship’s log, newspaper articles, letters, and phonograph recordings that tell of Count Dracula’s attempt to settle in England and of his ultimate demise at the hands of a team of Englishmen. It is a style of writing that, with the Gothic elements of the novel, allowed Stoker to contrast his characters’ actions with their own explanations of their acts.
Horror Fiction. Horror fiction is distinguished from Gothic fiction or novels about supernatural occurrences by its aim: to frighten or unsettle the audience. American author Washington Irving’s short story ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ (1820) is an early example. It features a monstrous headless horseman that pursues the hero. Monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies all arise out of human fears of the blurring of boundaries between life and death, human and animal. Stoker subtly brought many other fears into action in Dracula. For example, some scholars have pointed that there is a suggestion of an interracial relationship between Mina and the Count, something that would have been taboo to Stoker’s contemporaries. Later masters of horror fiction include Stephen King (author of The Shining, 1977, and many books) and Dean Koontz (author of Demon Seed and many other books).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also delivered compelling horror stories:
It (1986), a novel by Stephen King. In this popular and gripping horror story, something is feeding on the neighborhood children of Derry, Maine.
Interview with the Vampire (1976), a novel by Anne Rice. In this modern Gothic tale, a 200-year-old vampire tells the story of his life and loves.
Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. In this classic written by the novelist when she was nineteen, a scientist challenges nature (and God) by creating his own ''human'' being.
Works in Critical Context
Although most of Stoker’s novels were fairly well received when they appeared, they are dated by their stereotyped characters and romanticized Gothic plots and are rarely read today. Even the earliest reviews frequently decry the stiff characterization and tendency to melodrama that flaw Stoker’s writing. Critics, however, have universally praised his beautifully precise descriptions of various settings. Stoker’s short stories, while sharing the faults of his novels, have fared better with modern readers. Anthologists frequently include Stoker’s stories in collections of horror fiction. ‘‘Dracula’s Guest,’’ originally intended as a prefatory chapter to Dracula, is one of the best known.
Dracula. Initially, Dracula was interpreted as a straightforward horror novel, with early critics noting the ‘‘unnecessary number of hideous incidents’’ that could ‘‘shock and disgust’’ readers. One critic even advised keeping the novel away from children and nervous adults. Yet the Gothic horror novel was widely read and appreciated. A large part of the novel’s initial success was due not to its Gothicism but to how, as Daniel Farson points out, ‘‘to the Victorian reader it must have seemed daringly modern.’’ An early reviewer of Dracula in the Spectator even commented that ‘‘the up-to-dateness of the book—the phonograph diaries, typewriters, and so on—hardly fits in with the mediaeval methods which ultimately secure the victory for Count Dracula’s foes.’’ Further criticism points to the sensual or sexual appeal of the work. In 1916, critic Dorothy Scarborough wrote that ‘‘Bram Stoker furnished us with several interesting specimens of supernatural life always tangled with other uncanny motives.’’ In 1931, scholar Ernest Jones drew attention to the theory that these ‘‘other uncanny motives’’ involve repressed sexuality. And besides approaching the book from several angles—folkloric, political, feminist, medical, and religious—modern critics have continued to view Dracula from a Freudian psychosexual standpoint. Having fallen prey to Count Dracula, heroines Lucy and Mina change from pure and near-sexless to aggressively sensual. Were Stoker alive today, suggests Brian Murray, ‘‘the publicly prudish Stoker—who once wrote an essay calling for the censorship of works that exploit ‘sex impulses’—would probably be shocked to read much of the recent criticism of Dracula.’
Responses to Literature
1. Consider the differing roles of men and women in nineteenth-century England. How were women expected to behave in the company of men? What was expected of them socially as well? How were men expected to behave? Where do the men and women in Dracula break with convention? How does their behavior in the novel affect the plot and dialogue?
2. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the pseudo-science of eugenics. Write a paper in which you explore whether Stoker was influenced by eugenics in his descriptions of various classes and races of people in Dracula.
3. Why is society fascinated with horror stories? In your mind, what is this fascination based on? Can you find a passage in Dracula that may have been particularly horrifying at the time, but to a contemporary audience, might really seem almost silly? What defines ‘‘horror’’ today? Name a horror writer today that is successful and discuss why that is so. What is his appeal?
Carter, Margaret L. Dracula: The Vampire and the Critics. Washington, D.C.: UPI Research Press, 1988.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, vol. 36: British Novelists, 1890-1929: Modernists, 1985, p. 247-60; vol. 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919, 1988, p. 284-89.
Farson, Daniel.The Man Who Wrote Dracula: A Biography of Bram Stoker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
Jones, Ernest. On the Nightmare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
Scarborough, Dorothy. The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction. London: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 1917.
Senf, Carol A. The Critical Response to Bram Stoker. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Librivox. Audio. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://librivox.org/dracula-by-bram-stoker. Catalogued on May 10, 2006.
The Literature Network. Bram Stoker. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.online- literature.com/stoker.
McAlduff, P.S. Bram Stoker. Retrieved February 14, from http://www.geocities.com/psmcalduff.