April 20:On this day in 1912 Bram Stoker died, at the age of sixty-four. Though the authorof 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’slifetime, and in his last year he made so little from his writing that he hadto petition for a compassionate grant from the Royal Literary Fund. Nor did Dracula‘s erotic violence raiseeyebrows, although Ibsen’s Ghosts,premiering in the same year and much tamer, had caused a furor for bringing upthe issue of venereal disease. The reviewers of the day, perhaps reluctant tonote the psychosexual subtext for fear of self-condemnation, tended to approachDracula as an entertaining potboiler;modern critics read the book as a “veritable sexual lexicon of Victoriantaboos,” or as “sex without genitalia, sex without confusion, sexwithout responsibility, sex without guilt, sex without love—better yet, sexwithout mention.”
Waves of vampire hysteriaswept Europe throughout the 1700s, and by the time Stoker took his turn withthe legends they had been worked by Goethe, Coleridge, Byron, Southey, Dumas,and others. The first English story in the bloodsucking line was John Polidori’s”The Vampyre,” written in 1819, from a fragment of a story developedby Byron, to whom Polidori was personal physician. (Polidori’s tale may be mostmemorable as the answer to one of the classic questions in games of literarytrivia: What was the other horrorstory born during the stormy Lake Geneva literary evening when Mary Shelleyconceived of Frankenstein?)
While there is a subtextof depraved, confused, or repressed sexuality in much of the vampireliterature, some biographers believe that Stoker’s interest in the theme camefrom his personal life, specifically his complex relationship to the famousactor Henry Irving. Stoker was manager and lifelong companion to Irving, andinfatuated to the degree that he gave his son the name Irving Noel Stoker. Dracula, so this reading goes, is ajumble of homoeroticism, Stoker having transferred his conflicted relationshipwith Irving to the world of the fifteenth-century Wallachian prince, Vlad theImpaler, son of Vlad Dracul.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.