We’re remembering Bram Stoker on his birthday with a look at his most famous creation, Count Dracula.
Fans of “Twilight,” take note: on the 8th of November in 1847, Bram Stoker was born. Though kids with Robert Pattison posters on their walls may not be familiar with the name, they have Stoker to thank for bringing the modern vampire to life.
Stoker’s classic 1897 horror novel “Dracula” wasn’t the first vampire tale to be published. That honor goes to John Polidori’s 1819 “The Vampyre,” 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 more than 100 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.
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 “Carmilla” author Sheridan Le Fanu, who published his vampire story 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 — Irving asked Stoker to be 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 romance novel “The Shoulder of Shasta.” But when inspiration struck, Stoker showed himself a natural at writing the supernatural.
Preparation for “Dracula” began with seven years of research into 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 he learned of historic figure Vlad III Dracula — aka Vlad the Impaler — he knew he had found his vampire’s name. Good old Vlad also provided the book’s title, with “Dracula” a clear improvement over Stoker’s working title: “The Dead Un-Dead.”
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, and 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; in others he simply 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?
Since the book’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 the book’s popularity to create their own vampire legends. Many share some or all of Dracula’s vampiric traits — from the enhanced strength and shape-shifting abilities of Barnabas Collins, to Lestat’s telepathy and flying ability. 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 April 20, 1912. More than a century later, his legacy remains undead.