An exhaustive portrait of the author of Dracula and his suppressed emotional life.
Skal (Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday, 2016, etc.), a cultural historian and horror film and literature critic, delves into Bram Stoker’s life (1847-1912) deeper than others before him—and there have been countless critical considerations of Dracula’s provenance since its appearance in 1897, many of which the author shares here. An exemplary gentleman of a certain class, Dublin-born Stoker embodied the anxieties of the highly charged Victorian era, especially fears about the (sexual) body, disease, miasmal vapors, and blood-borne “contagion” and “degeneration.” Indeed, Stoker gleaned early on as a bedridden child (born at the height of the Irish famine, no less) the ghastly tales his mother told about the cholera epidemic of her youth. Skal underscores how strikingly similar Stoker’s life was to that of Oscar Wilde. They both attended Trinity College, where they absorbed “pseudoscientific theories of mind, body, and eros,” were fascinated by the theater and fairy tales (terrifying theatrical pantomimes, in Stoker’s case), were drawn to the homoerotic work of Walt Whitman (Stoker wrote him bashful fan letters), and were romantically connected to the same woman, Florence Balcombe, who rejected Wilde and married Stoker. Skal uses Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray as a kind of touchstone against which to explore themes of male attraction and “the leprosies of sin,” foretelling Wilde’s public downfall and the “submerged self” that Stoker injected into his character Count Dracula. Mostly, however, Stoker was a man of the theater, the acting manager for the famous actor Henry Irving at London’s Lyceum Theatre for over 25 years, and such a workaholic that Skal wonders how he could have found time to write (stories, criticism, novels) so prolifically. The author also assiduously sifts through Dracula productions from then until today.
A wild, occasionally messy, ultimately enthralling work of biography.