Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood. By Jim Steinmeyer. Tarcher/Penguin. $26.95.
Whether they are old, ugly and deeply evil or young, attractive and ambivalent in their loyalties and concerns, all modern-day versions of vampires ultimately take their cues from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. Whether today’s vampires are created in the mode of Stoker’s or deliberately developed in a different direction, Stoker’s character looms over them all. But where does Stoker’s vampire come from? That is the question that Jim Steinmeyer, author of several books about stage magic and stage history, sets out to answer in Who Was Dracula?
Many people today know that there was a historical figure called Dracula, a 15th-century ruler who was named Vlad the Impaler and known as “Dracula” (“son of the dragon”) and feared or celebrated widely – depending on which side you were on – for his bloodthirsty cruelty and his method of disposing of enemies by impaling their bodies and putting them on display. But a direct line from Wallachian prince Vlad Țepeș to Dracula cannot be drawn, Steinmeyer argues, because Stoker used the long-ago ruler’s name but grafted onto it characteristics of celebrities of the 19th century.
Stoker’s Dracula, says Steinmeyer, is “a pastiche of living historical characters,” specifically including poet Walt Whitman, playwright Oscar Wilde, famed stage star Henry Irving (whose biography Stoker wrote), and shadowy mass murderer Jack the Ripper. Using Stoker’s own notes and information on the history of the theater in Victorian London, examining the events in Stoker’s own life before Dracula and while he was creating the novel, Steinmeyer fascinatingly traces the creation of the book’s central character as an amalgamation of real-life but larger-than-life personalities. He also points out one of Stoker’s greatest accomplishments, which has allowed Dracula and vampires in general to be differently interpreted and reinterpreted for more than a century: Dracula, an epistolary novel, contains very little information about its title character, which means that a great deal about who or what Dracula is must be left to the reader’s imagination – an imagination that conjures up greater depth and more horrors than Stoker himself would have been able to present in his writing (which, as Steinmeyer points out, has a number of generally-agreed-upon flaws).
Steinmeyer’s theatrical knowledge and interests skew his analysis of Stoker and Dracula, but Stoker was, in fact, a man of the theater, and a great deal of what Steinmeyer argues or unearths makes sense. He points out, for example, that the Dracula with whom most people today are familiar is not Stoker’s but the character at the heart of a British play of the 1920s. Stoker’s own character, for all his comparatively small role in the book about him, is considerably deeper and stranger than most readers of Steinmeyer’s book will realize.
Steinmeyer is at times too determined to be scholarly in Who Was Dracula? The result is a style that tends to lurch and even bore: “The noted Dracula researcher Elizabeth Miller has demonstrated how Van Helsing’s account was completely drawn from [William] Wilkinson’s book and four other sources, as noted in Stoker’s papers, and then stitched together with assumptions.” Or: “The store consisted of many of the finest hand-painted drops, the most artistic castle interiors, cityscapes, and gardens, props, armor, platforms, and walls. It was the work of the finest scenic painters in the world, the designs of the finest technicians, the pictures that had formed the frame for Henry Irving’s artistry.” Much of this level of detail will be utterly fascinating for readers interested in theater history but decidedly less so for those looking for a greater focus on literary history and on Dracula in particular.
Some theatrical details, though, are telling and distinctly humanizing, such as the story of Irving’s love for his dog, a terrier named Fussie that died backstage after falling into an open trapdoor while trying to get a ham sandwich out of a coat that a workman had dropped on the floor. “Only after the performance did they break the sad news, each man removing his hat and bowing his head as poor Fussie was handed over to Irving.”
Scattered throughout the book are details about Stoker’s own life and career and how his creation of Dracula fit into them, plus considerable information on the people from whom Steinmeyer believes Stoker pulled together the character of his most famous literary creation. Not all of this will be equally enthralling to readers, but the portions of the book directly devoted to Dracula will be, such as the fact that Stoker singlehandedly created virtually all the elements of vampire lore that seem so familiar today – what vampires must do to continue to exist, the underlying sexuality of the vampire’s bite and the “spreading moral pestilence” it represents, how vampires can be destroyed, and much more. Also of considerable interest will be Steinmeyer’s information on Stoker’s original, more-elaborate ending of the novel, and on the inconsistencies within the book. Like Dracula itself, Steinmeyer’s book is sometimes overdone and not always elegant in style, but there is more than enough fascinating material in it to make it a highly worthwhile read for anyone wanting to know more about the real-world connections of the most famous vampire of them all.
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