When Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897, in a first printing of 3,000 copies, the reviews were mixed, and the book didn’t seem particularly exceptional. But not even Van Helsing and his friends could really destroy the Count. Earlier male vampires, like the Byronic Lord Ruthven (created by John Polidori), were soon left in the shade or, rather, sunlight. Only Dracula survived to pass into the popular imagination.
Of course, Stoker’s novel provides an astonishingly rich feeding ground for modern academics, most obviously in its still-unnerving sexual symbolism (e.g., Dracula’s insistence that “this man belongs to me!”; the rapelike staking of Lucy; Mina kneeling to suck the vampire’s spurting blood). In recent years, though, scholars have been branching out to explore Stoker’s Irish background, his other books and his day job — for 27 years — as the business manager of the Lyceum Theater and the right-hand man of the great actor (and partial model for Dracula) Sir Henry Irving.
In “The Forgotten Writings of Bram Stoker,” John Edgar Browning gathers Stoker’s early poetry, some of his journalism, several interviews, a number of trivial short stories, the catalogue of his library, and many other odds and ends. Yet what surprises most in these pages is the humor, sometimes sentimental, sometimes macabre, sometimes utterly fanciful.
In the O. Henry-like “A Baby Passenger,” a big bruiser ends up walking a crying infant to sleep; in “Old Hoggen,” a man tries to dispose of a rotting corpse while various appendages gradually drop away from the body; in “Lucky Escapes of Sir Henry Irving,” the great man’s theatrical company experiences a series of misadventures that didn’t quite happen. In Washington, for example, the troupe troops up to the top of the Washington Monument. On the way down, the elevator breaks and plummets to “the hard concrete floor at the bottom of the shaft. When we were taken out there was not a whole bone left in any of our bodies.” Stoker then coyly adds: “That might have happened on our trip to the top of Washington monument, had the elevator collapsed, and it might have done so, you know.”
Although Stoker built up a Victorian gentleman’s library, with a special emphasis on theatrical books, he also owned a choice collection of inscribed material by Walt Whitman. In his “Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving” — extracts from which are available as another Swan River booklet in its Bram Stoker series — the author of “Dracula” recalls his two meetings with Whitman and how, after reading “Leaves of Grass” as an undergraduate, he had poured out his heart to the poet in a letter.