Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dracula the King Part II

Continuing the chapter I submitted in my proposal for my book Vampires' Most Wanted years ago, I offer an entry on the author himself, Bram Stoker. 

2.  The Author

Bram Stoker
He seemed a perfectly respectable man. A pillar of society, one might even say. Unlike masters of horror such as Edgar Allan Poe whose personal demons were evident in his photographs and his deeds; Bram Stoker’s demons, if he had any, were hidden in the cloak of Victorian respectability. That there may have been demons seems apparent at least in Stoker’s writings which were full of any number of horrors from blood sucking vampires, to demonic cats, to psychopathic children. That last example was from a book of fairy tales actually published for children called Under the Sunset.

Stoker was born Nov. 8, 1847 in Dublin, Ireland and was no doubt subjected to a number of superstitious tales concocted by the Celtic heart. In fact, he was probably influenced heavily by stories of the terrible cholera epidemic that gripped the country in 1832 where whole families were wiped out by the plague. His mother Charlotte told a story of a traveler who fell to the plague on the road outside of town. Digging a pit, the townspeople pushed the still living man into it feeling that it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to the disease. This was a tale of cold reality that must have stayed with him and perhaps flavored the character of Van Helsing who could so methodically stake, then decapitate the corpse of a young woman to save her soul. Stoker suffered from a strange affliction the first eight years of his life that left him bedridden. His sudden recovery leads one to suspect that this invalidism could have been more psychological than physical. If that were the case, then perhaps his demons were capable of manifesting themselves.

By the time he entered university, any lingering illness had long since gone. He was described as a “red haired giant” excelling in football and track and eventually becoming the athletics champion of Trinity College. So physically fit was he that later in life he would be awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society when he jumped into the Thames to save, in vain, the life of a suicidal man. He also began to exhibit the type A personality and passion for history that would serve him well in later years, becoming president of the Philosophical Society and “auditor” of the Historical Society. With honors in science Stoker graduated from Trinity in 1871. His father Abraham was a civil servant in Dublin Castle and after graduation, Stoker found himself working as a clerk at the Castle as well.

Henry Irving performs
It was shortly after this that Stoker would meet Dracula; or more to the point, the man who was very likely the true inspiration for Dracula. Seeing Henry Irving perform in “The Rivals” and three years later, “Two Roses” sparked a passion that Stoker may have always had for the theater and began to spark his writing career as well. After Irving’s performance of “Two Roses” prompted no notices in the paper, Stoker contacted the Evening Mail demanding to know why. He was told, quite simply, that they couldn’t afford a critic. So in 1871 he became the paper’s unpaid critic. It was a busy time for the aspiring writer who, along with his civil service job, attended theater performances and wrote reviews at night, and worked on a master’s degree in mathematics at Trinity. Then there were the stories. “The Crystal Cup” his first story, a fantasy, was sold to the magazine London Society. His imagination sparked yet still chained to his desk job, in 1878 he published The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland a book detailing his experiences and thoughts on the rather dull life of a civil servant. In 1876, pleased with Stoker’s review of his performance as Hamlet, Irving arranged to have dinner with the aspiring writer and a deep friendship was formed. Over the years, they would visit each other, Stoker traveling to London, Irving to Dublin until 1878 when Irving invited Stoker to join his venture to take over The Lyceum Theatre.

The Lyceum Theatre
The theater had been around for over a hundred years prior to that, had burned down in 1830 and was rebuilt to be even larger, capable of holding 1,500 theater goers. The history of such an establishment must have called to Stoker as much as the chance to work with his great friend Henry. Yet, it would be risky. After 13 years of civil service, Stoker would be giving up a dependable job and a pension to join the uncertain world of the arts. He also had a responsibility to the beautiful Florence Anne Lemon Baclombe, whose life as the future Mrs. Stoker would also be affected by his decision. There had been a rival—somewhatfor Florence’s affections in the form of one Oscar Wilde. Seven years Wilde’s senior, Stoker had had some past acquaintance with the future writer, evening dining with Oscar’s parents occasionally who undoubtedly found more in common with the staid Stoker than they did with their own son. Florence did have some feelings for Wilde who was closer to her age but his future at the time seemed too uncertain for a woman craving stability. Eleven years her senior, Bram Stoker seemed to possess the stability that would see her safely and comfortably into old age.

If she resented Stoker’s ultimate decision to take Irving’s offer, it didn’t stop him. The couple married Dec. 4, 1878 and traveled on to Birmingham, joining Irving less than a week later. As acting manager of the Lyceum, Stoker had his hands full, especially since the fledgling company had no real capital, a personal overdraft of 12,000 pounds and Irving’s desire to have everything new, costing in excess of 10,000 pounds. The theater was beneficial to Stoker both financially and spiritually offering him a chance to put not only his mathematical mind to good use, but also his imagination. Promotion was a big part of his duties and he publicized upcoming productions with vast advertising. He worked incessantly, writing hundreds of letters a day in Irving’s name, along with the speeches the great actor was deliver to outside organizations.

In 1878 Irving Noel Thornley Stoker was born to the couple, but as absent a husband he was, he also turned out to be equally as absent a father. A day’s work at the Lyceum could last well into dawn the next morning. Some blame for this has been said to rest on the lovely shoulders of Florence Stoker, who it was claimed was a very frigid woman unable to even scrape up much maternal interest in her son. Still, one has to wonder if Florence simply found it far too difficult to compete with the likes of Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre crowd for her husband’s affections. For over two decades, Irving had a hold over Stoker that couldn’t be broken. One which even Stoker himself might have realized and acknowledged in the character of Dracula. 

In 1882, Under the Sunset was published and well received by critics. Kept busy with a few annual Lyceum Theatre company tours of the United States (where he was also able to meet some of the top names in theater and literary circles of the time such as Ethel Barrymore, Arthur Conan Doyle and Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain), Stoker at last published his first novel, Snake’s Pass in 1890. Stoker’s drive and passion helped him with the incredible work schedule he insisted on keeping, but did cause his writing to suffer since it left him little time for rewriting. Later novels, written in desperate need of cash, would suffer from this as well. With Dracula, he took his time and got it right. The majority of his research for the novel was done at the British Museum. Having holidayed with his family in Whitby, a fishing village and seaside resort on the North Sea of England, he was heavily influenced by the stone abbey found there. Whitby must appear in the novel, but the source of the evil would emanate from Transylvania where vampire folktales and superstitions ran rampant.

Dracula was published in 1897 to mixed reviews, some, perhaps put off by what has ultimately made it so unique—the story told in letters and journals—for making it seem somehow disjointed. It was not an immediate hit, its success building slowly over time until by 1901 it was translated into a number of languages such as French and German. There were bright spots: accompanying the Lyceum Company on yet another tour to the U.S. in 1899, the American press quickly acknowledged their amazement that the author of Dracula was a business manager.

The business manager, however, was finding life becoming increasingly difficult. To keep up with Florence’s desire for middle class respectability, there was no way they could afford to live on his royalties as a writer, so he was forced to remain with the Lyceum Theatre. Things were beginning to sour, however, as Irving’s grand style and expensive tastes began to catch up with the theater’s coffers and Stoker was left fending off the creditors. After a serious bout of pleurisy and pneumonia left him unable to perform for several weeks, Irving sold the Lyceum Theatre agreeing to stay on as actor-manager. Not being consulted first, Stoker felt betrayed and while he stayed on with the theater, this drove a stake in what had been the closest of friendships.

Later novels would follow into the 20th century, some horror, some romance. He wrote often of young women defying convention, as Mina Harker did in her small way in Dracula. He wrote about mummies, werewolves, giant white worms, and revisited the vampiric theme in Dracula’s Daughter, Dracula’s Guest and other Weird Stories and The Lady in the Shroud, but none would gain the success or the influence that Dracula did. In 1905, after a performance of Becket at a London Theater, Henry Irving collapsed and died in the lobby of his hotel. Stricken by the loss, it was up to Stoker to send out the missives that the great actor was dead. Mourned by the country, Irving’s ashes were buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Marker in Westminster Abbey
The name of Bram Stoker was noticeably absent from the actor’s will. 

For decades, the hearty “red haired giant” had worked himself incessantly, enjoying the highest of opportunities and suffering the lowest of disappointments. In his 57th year, it seemed as if his constitution had finally begun to wane. A year after Irving’s death, the man who would take long rambling walks was left partially crippled by a stroke that also affected his eyesight. This did not stop him from writing Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, a memoir of his time with the great actor that was published in 1906. Perhaps unable to express his own misgivings of the negative side of Irving (though those misgivings could have already been expressed in Dracula), Stoker’s work was more a star-struck salute than a deep insight into the complicated relationship between the two men. Curiously, in 1908, in articles he wrote for Nineteenth Century Magazine, Stoker wrote out against the raciness of many novels then being published, perhaps truly never realizing the sexual subtext that ran like blood through the veins of his greatest work. It seemed, with the work load he shouldered, so much of his creativity was almost instinctual, flowing from imagination to paper without a second thought.

On April 20, 1912 Bram Stoker, living off the largess of friends and a grant from the Royal Literary Fund a year before, threw off this mortal coil, dying in the small London apartment that he and Florence were forced to move. He published several books, but would be remembered not for the other novels or for his prolific output, but rather for the one character that perhaps haunted him in his final years. Dracula.

The ashes of Stoker and his son in an urn on display at Golders Green Crematorium

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