Bram Stoker, Father of Vampire Fiction
Fans of Twilight, take note – on this day in 1847, Abraham “Bram” Stoker was born. Though his name may not be familiar to kids with Robert Pattison posters on their walls, they have Stoker to thank for bringing the modern vampire to life.
Stoker’s classic 1897 horror novel Dracula wasn’t actually the first vampire tale to be published. John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre is considered the first prose fiction vampire story. James Malcolm Ryder published “penny dreadfuls” (a genre so named because they sold for the low price of a penny, and the writing tended to be, well, dreadful) about Varney the Vampire from 1845 to 1847. And Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 lesbian vampire Carmilla was a precursor to the vampire gender-bending in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and TV’s True Blood.
But it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula that has had the greatest influence, leaving its fang marks on movies, TV shows and books for 113 years and counting. And although Stoker wrote more than a dozen other works of fiction and several nonfiction books, Dracula is the story we associate with him…so much so that folks would be excused for thinking him a horror-obsessed madman.
Bela Lugosi as Dracula, 1931
They’d be disappointed. Stoker was by all accounts quite mild-mannered. A native of Ireland, he started his writing career as a theatre reviewer for the Dublin Evening Mail. Interestingly, the paper was owned by Sheridan Le Fanu – author of Carmilla, which was published around the time Stoker began working there. It’s generally accepted that Carmilla was a major influence on Dracula, but that writing project was still a couple decades down the road for Stoker. First, he had to pen several well-received reviews for the paper, including a rave for Henry Irving’s Hamlet at Dublin’s Theatre Royal.
Irving was so pleased with the review that he invited Stoker to dinner. A friendship was sparked, and a job offer was soon to follow – acting manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker took the job and rose to business manager, working for the theater for 27 years.
Not too spooky yet, right?
Stoker’s biography never gets any eerier than that. He married the lovely Florence Balcome; enjoyed trips to America, where he met Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt; and remained friends with Henry Irving until Irving’s death. Stoker had a distinctly occult-free life.
Even the four novels Stoker wrote before Dracula were quite tame and grounded in reality, from The Primrose Path, about a carpenter who descends into alcoholism, to The Shoulder of Shasta, a romance novel. But when inspiration struck, Stoker showed himself a natural at writing the supernatural.
Preparation for Dracula began with seven years of researching Eastern European folklore and vampire stories. As Stoker finally began to write, he settled on a name for his vampire, a name that would become synonymous with the terror of the undead blood-sucking fiend, the horrific name of…Count Wampyr.
Stoker must have realized that Wampyr fell a little flat, and when his research led him to learn of the historic figure Vlad III Dracula – a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler – he knew he had found his vampire’s name. This also provided the book’s title, a pretty clear improvement on the working title: The Dead Un-Dead.
Max Schreck as Count Orlock (a thinly-veiled Dracula clone) in Nosferatu, 1922
And between the covers of the evocatively-named Dracula? A truly scary story written in the form of letters, diary entries, ship’s logs, and other notes that tells the now-classic tale of Count Dracula’s unnatural hold over Jonathan and Mina Harker, Renfield, Lucy, Van Helsing. Along the way, Stoker managed to outline the vampire traits still considered “the real thing” today.
Before Stoker, there was no vampire norm. Folklore gave a wide variety of qualities, often contradictory from one culture to the next. In some cases, Stoker invented Dracula’s abilities, and in others he just solidified shaky bits of folklore, but in the end what his work amounted to was the definition of the modern vampire.
Count Dracula is suave and aristocratic, able to appear as a human – this in distinct contrast to the corpse-like and physically monstrous vampires of Eastern European legend. He requires human blood as sustenance and can display or retract his fangs, uncommon traits of his folkloric predecessors. He has an affinity for creatures of the night and can turn himself into a wolf, a rat, a bat or mist. He can influence and read the minds of his victims. He sleeps in the ground. He is remarkably strong and resilient – though weakened by sunlight, garlic and religious symbols, he can only die by both being decapitated and having a wooden stake driven through his heart.
Sound like any vampires you know?
Gary Oldman as Dracula, 1992
Since Dracula’s publication– to rave reviews and a slowly building following of readers – homages and imitators have abounded. More than 200 movies have featured Dracula as a major character, and even more have drawn on Dracula’s popularity to create their own vampire legends. Many share some or all of Dracula’s vampiric traits – from Barnabas Collins’ enhanced strength and shape-shifting abilities to Lestat’s telepathy and ability to fly. Some take Dracula’s traits a step further – notably, the vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood, who can be destroyed by sunlight instead of just weakened.
And, of course, there are those who share few of Dracula’s characteristics…like vampires who sparkle. The Twilight vampires may not have a whole lot in common with Dracula, but they still owe him – and Bram Stoker – a debt. By making vampires suave and sexy, Stoker started our modern fascination with all things vampire.
After finding his niche and writing several other supernatural novels, Bram Stoker died in 1912. Nearly a century later, his legacy remains undead.