On 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 Dracula‘s erotic violence raise eyebrows, although Ibsen’s Ghosts, premiering in the same year and much tamer, had caused a furor by 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 “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 story 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 tale may be most memorable as the answer to one of the classic questions in games of literary trivia: What was the other horror story born during the stormy Lake Geneva literary evening when Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein?)
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 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 homoeroticism, Stoker having transferred his conflicted relationship with Irving to the world of the fifteenth-century Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler, 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.