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The Untold Story of Bram Stoker The Man Who Wrote Dracula

The Untold Story of Bram Stoker The Man Who Wrote Dracula by David J. Skal

Where to begin?

Begin at the beginning, as one talented writer famously suggested. Extra points if you know which one – he was a contemporary of Stoker’s.

So I will begin: the story of Abraham “Bram” Stoker begins with his terribly, and mysteriously, ill infancy and childhood. Born in 1847, in Dublin, Ireland, young Bram was a sickly child, unable to even stand upright. He spent his youngest years confined to bed – and then, as a young man and in an uncanny way, shot up to a robust six feet two inches, at a time when most men stood about five and a half feet. Not just massive, Stoker was strong and athletic and handsome.

And possibly gay, at a time when his close friend Oscar Wilde was tried and jailed for such “crime,” and when an estimated twenty-five percent of Victorian English men suffered from syphilis. He was also troubled with a brilliant mind, a difficult and likely unwanted marriage, an overbearing mother, and a failure to realize his enormous success as a novelist in his own lifetime.

As fascinating as the life of Stoker is, equally enthralling is writer David Skal’s tour-de-force job of researching, literally beginning with Ireland’s prehistory, every letter, diary entry, article, book and movie that touched upon the subject of Stoker and his greatest accomplishment: the creation of Dracula.

Within the first few pages, we learn that Ireland is a land of magic and mystery, with myth and legend and story-telling as much a part of it as its green hills and rugged coastlines. We’re taken into ancient graves decorated with spirals and occupied by Druids, and then pulled forward into early 19th century Ireland where “resurrection men” are digging up corpses to provide them, illegally, to the surgeons intent upon discovering the mechanisms of life, illness, and death.

Skal speculates that the Irish romance with fairy stories and the general fascination with death and the macabre that captured the fancy of the early Victorians may well have contributed to young Bram’s curious turn of mind, as, with little else to do in his sickly years, the boy immersed himself in books and fantasy – and likely his mother, with the ghastly scenes of the Irish potato famine which haunted her, added to his interest in matters of life, death, blood and bodies.

Skal reminds us that early “fairy tales” were far from benign, cute stories of pumpkin coaches and glittery dust. In fact, many of them were more than a little frightening – parables about what happened to naughty children, or dark and dangerous creatures that no doubt haunted the isolated young Bram’s mind.

Soon enough, though, Bram, fully recovered and athletically gifted, was off to Trinity College, though his parents continually stayed barely a hop skip or a jump ahead of poverty in the meantime, moving house frequently to ever less imposing addresses. At Trinity, Bram was introduced to friendships with other young men, athletics, and the “rage” of the day: the occult. Mesmerism, phrenology, Gothic and sensational literature were all popular, as were seances and even experimentation with drugs and experiences that heightened all the senses.

Around this time, too, Stoker became enthralled with the world of the theater, which again suited his dramatic, quirky and sometimes dark personality. And he met and befriended Oscar Wilde.

At this point in his story, Skal takes us off on to additional deeply researched paths: Stoker’s life in the theater; his friendships (if not more) with Wilde, actor/producer/director, Henry Irving, and writer, Hall Caine; and all the criss-crossing influences of hedonism, the arts, a fascination with the dark side of life, the need to hide one’s sexual preferences yet at the same time indulge them in the dim and poverty stricken streets of Victorian Britain, and finally, the many forces that might have been brought to bear on Stoker in conjuring up the character of Dracula. Each chapter is many pages long, each page crammed with information, insights, tidbits of history, samples of books, poems, theatrical performances, trips, relationships, and periodically intriguing photos and sketches from the era.

I set myself the task of a chapter at a sitting, but that never happened. There was too much information, the chapters too dense and full of references that simply needed to be dug into further. There are 578 end-notes; 12 pages of bibliography; and dozens of index entries, beginning with Aberdeen, Lord, and ending approximately with Yeats, W.B. Yes, an information junkie’s
paradise.

But not to worry, Dracula fans: there is plenty of detail about The Book, the vampire, the many ways the story has been interpreted, portrayed (it was always Stoker’s desire that it be a stage play), done well and done horribly – but most significantly, an in-depth assurance that it was an original: a character that, while he —Dracula— sired no children, he certainly spawned an industry of books, plays, films, spin-offs, re-creations, toys, costumes, and games. Dracula has become one of the most enduring and recognizable hero/villains of all time.

And in reading this book —or perhaps better put, engaging with this book, as “reading” is too slight a word for undertaking it— you will come to know his creator almost as well as you do Dracula himself.

Thanks, M.D., for sharing this book with me!

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.