February 19, 2018
Stoker, Irving & Count VladOn this day in 1912 Bram Stoker died, at the age of sixty-four. Though the author of a dozen novels, three short story collections and four non-fiction books, Stoker is known almost exclusively for Dracula, published in 1897. The novel brought little fame or fortune in Stoker's lifetime, and in his last year he made so little from his writing that he had to petition for a compassionate grant from the Royal Literary Fund. Nor did the book's erotic violence raise eyebrows, although Ibsen's Ghosts, premiering in the same year and much tamer, had caused a furor for bringing up the issue of venereal disease. The reviewers of the day, perhaps reluctant to note the psychosexual subtext for fear of self-condemnation, tended to approach Dracula as an entertaining potboiler; modern critics read the book as a "veritable sexual lexicon of Victorian taboos," or as "a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in-all wrestling match," or as "sex without genitalia, sex without confusion, sex without responsibility, sex without guilt, sex without love -- better yet, sex without mention."
Waves of vampire hysteria swept Europe throughout the 1700s, and by the time Stoker took his turn with the legends they had been worked by Goethe, Coleridge, Byron, Southey, Dumas and others. The first English novel in the bloodsucking line was John Polidori's The Vampyre, written in 1819, from a fragment of a story developed by Byron, to whom Polidori was personal physician. (Polidori's story is most memorable as the answer to one of the classic questions in games of literary trivia: What was the other horror story which had its genesis in the Lake Geneva literary evening shared by Byron and the Shelleys?) While there is a subtext of depraved, confused or repressed sexuality in much of the vampire literature, some biographers believe that Stoker's interest in the theme came less from the legends than from his personal life, specifically his complex relationship to the famous actor Henry Irving. Stoker was manager and lifelong companion to Irving, and infatuated to the degree that he gave his son the name Irving Noel Stoker. Dracula, so this reading goes, is a jumble of homoerotic transference.
More traditional and less subliminal is the idea that Stoker's hero derives from his research into the fifteenth century Wallachian prince, Count Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. This link is apparently erroneous: Stoker was going to call his novel "Count Wampyr" until his research led him to believe, not quite correctly, that 'Dracula' meant 'Devil' in the Wallachian language. Thus, though the author knew little or nothing of the historical Vlad, or of Transylvania, the book has caused both to be consumed by the vampire empire. Until several years ago, the Romanian government had plans to build "Dracula Park" in the medieval city of Sighisoara, birthplace of Count Vlad; protestations from vampire scholars, defenders of Romanian history and anti-Disneyites then caused the site to be shifted to the Bucharest area. In early 2006, the Romanian government announced that, due to the delays or the controversy, plans for the Park had been cancelled entirely.
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