[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in the March 31, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
Bram Stoker is best known for the quintessential vampire novel Dracula, which was published in 1897. He also wrote other horror stories and novels as well as other types of fiction and non-fiction.
Abraham Stoker was born in Clontarf, near Dublin, Ireland, on November 8, 1847. His father was a civil servant at Dublin Castle, and his mother was a crusading feminist. He was bedridden until about age seven due to an unidentified illness. His mother told him stories when he was a child – including horror tales and gruesome true stories, such as anecdotes of a cholera epidemic.
In 1864, Stoker entered Trinity College, where he excelled in soccer and was named University Athlete. He graduated in 1867 with honors in mathematics. While at Trinity, he developed a lifelong passion for the theater after seeing the great English actor Sir Henry Irving in a stage production. Also, he befriended Oscar Wilde, and through that friendship, traveled in the literary and theatrical social circles of Dublin.
From an early age, Stoker had dreamed of becoming a writer, but, in 1870, he followed his father into civil service at Dublin Castle. He became a clerk of the Petty Sessions (the lowest level in the court system) and remained in civil service for eight years. During this time, he wrote Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, but it wasn’t published until 1879.
He also wrote stories during this period. “The Crystal Cup” was published by The London Society in 1872. Three years later, “The Chain of Destiny,” a horror story about a phantom fiend, appeared in The Shamrock as a four-part serial. He worked as an unpaid theatrical critic for Dublin’s Evening Mail and as editor of The Irish Echo. In 1876, Stoker wrote a glowing review of Irving’s performance in Hamlet. Pleased, Irving arranged a backstage meeting with Stoker to thank him for the review, and the two became friends.
Stoker’s life changed dramatically in 1878 when Irving offered him a job managing both his career and his theater, the Lyceum, in London. Stoker quit the civil service, married the actress Florence Balcombe (after competing with Wilde for her hand), and moved to London. Within a year, their only child, Irving Noel, was born. Stoker’s work for Henry Irving took up a great deal of his time and energy, so much so that he and Florence became estranged, and their son grew bitter and dropped his first name.
During this period, Stoker met many luminaries, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and James McNeil Whistler. While touring the United States, he met Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Stoker wrote a book based on his tour: A Glimpse of America (1886). Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had deeply affected Stoker when he was in college, and he and Whitman corresponded extensively.
Despite being heavily involved with the theater, Stoker continued to write fiction. Under the Sunset, a collection of eight eerie fairy tales for children, was published in 1882. His first novel, The Snake’s Pass, an adventure story, came out in 1890, followed by The Water’s Mou’ (1894), a sea story about smuggling.
In 1890, Stoker started the background work for Dracula. He claims the idea for the novel came to him in a nightmare, but he was probably also influenced by the tales of Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian adventurer and folklore expert, who introduced Stoker to the legends of the vampire. He also may have been influenced by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novel Carmilla.
Dracula was published in 1897. It sold fairly well, more so in the United States than in Europe, and earned mixed reviews. Stoker’s mother wrote him: “It is splendid. No book since Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein or indeed any other at all has come near yours in originality and terror.” Doyle also praised the book: “I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years. It is really wonderful how with so much exciting interest over so long a book there is never an anticlimax.” Unfortunately, Stoker never made much money from his magnum opus, especially with U.S. sales due to a copyrighting problem.
Some say Irving was the model for Count Dracula, and Stoker hoped that the actor would star in a stage production of his novel. However, Irving spurned the idea.
Stoker’s next novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1907), was also acclaimed, being called “a tale of mystery and imagination equal to anything that ever emerged from the fertile brain of Edgar Allan Poe.” It tells of ritual magic and an attempt to raise an ancient Egyptian queen from the dead.
Irving died in 1905. This event was so traumatic to Stoker that he suffered a stroke. Now without his theater job, he turned to journalism to earn a living. He worked for the London Daily Telegraph and contributed interviews and profiles of celebrities, including a young Winston Churchill, to the New York World. He continued to write books, including The Man (1905), a romance; Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906); The Lady of the Shroud (1909), another vampire novel; and Famous Impostors (1910). The last novel published during his lifetime was The Lair of the White Worm (1911), a tale of strange terrors. The collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories appeared posthumously in 1914. The title novella, until then unpublished, was actually intended to be the first chapter of Dracula, but it was cut out by the publisher to keep the book at a reasonable length (some scholars dispute this).
Stoker suffered a second stroke in 1909, and his health eventually deteriorated to the point where he had to apply for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund. He died in London on April 20, 1912.
Stoker’s legacy lives on in the countless stories, novels, and films inspired by Dracula, which reportedly has never gone out of print. The Bram Stoker Clan, headquartered in Dublin, is a society dedicated to promoting Stoker and his works. The Horror Writers Association honored this old master by naming its annual awards for excellence in horror writing the Bram Stoker Awards.
Dracula is readily available in all sorts of editions. Many of Stoker’s other works can easily be found in on-line bookstores and are available for reading at various web sites.