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.
Some of that letter is quoted in “The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years.” In it, young Bram writes that he is “ugly but strong and determined. . . . I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips — sensitive nostrils — a snub nose and straight hair. . . . I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self-control and am naturally secretive to the world.”
This sounds almost like a personals ad, and today’s reader can’t help but wonder, perhaps inappropriately, about its sexual implications. Yet Stoker did marry one of Dublin’s great beauties, stealing Florence Balcombe from none other than Oscar Wilde. An expert multi-tasker even as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, Stoker also managed to be a star athlete in several sports, including rugby, rowing and gymnastics; the president of the two most important university societies; and an aspiring writer, as the memoranda and short vignettes of this “lost journal” show.
These jottings were never published until now but are surprisingly delightful, especially when illuminated by the section essays of editors Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker (the writer’s great-grandnephew). What could be more of the period than this poetic tear-jerker:
So ends my dream. My life must be
One long regret and misery
Loved not, though loving, what care I
How soon I die.
For whilst I live my wail must ever run
Too lightly won! Too lightly won.
Elsewhere, Stoker imagines writing a series of “immoral essays”: “A Plea for Cannibalism,” “Envy Calmly Considered,” “The Vice of Cleanliness.” He records passing conversation: “Heard a man today speak of his wife as ‘my mother-in-law’s daughter.’ ” The novelist William Carleton even offers useful advice: “First you should lay a good solid foundation of healthy food — and then upon that you can pile up a noble & portly edifice of drink.”
Apart from these two catch-alls of Stokeriana, several of the writer’s other books have been republished in excellent editions. Penguin, for instance, has brought out “The Jewel of Seven Stars,” edited by Kate Hebblethwaite. In it, Stoker mixes archaeological discoveries, Egyptian magic and a dangerous experiment to bring the ancient Queen Tera back to life.
Valancourt Books, which specializes in out-of-print Gothic and transgressive fiction, offers Stoker’s adventure novel “The Mystery of the Sea,” edited by Carol Senf, and five of his other books, although not yet his astonishing last work, “The Lair of the White Worm.” In that weird farrago, the sinister Lady Arabella is connected, in some hideous way, with the nightmarish 200-foot-long creature of the title. Renamed “The Garden of Evil,”my tattered “Paperback Library Gothic” edition sports a cover on which the book’s blond heroine is shown fleeing from slinky Lady Arabella and the darkly looming Caswell Castle.
Still, even before trying any of these books, admirers of the sanguinary count should probably first explore Stoker’s horror stories, the most famous of which are “The Burial of the Rats,”
“The Judge’s House”
), “The Squaw”
(an unsettling conte cruel) and “Dracula’s Guest.”
Dover, Penguin and Valancourt offer good collections. “Dracula’s Guest,” by the way, is a rejected chapter of the novel, reworked into an atmospheric episode set on
. It is in this story that the unnamed narrator, presumably Jonathan Harker
, finds inscribed on the tomb of the vampiric Countess Dolingen that haunting phrase “The dead travel fast.”
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.