Digging Up the Truth about Bram Stoker

By Fleming, Colin | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Digging Up the Truth about Bram Stoker


Fleming, Colin, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Digging Up the Truth About Bram Stoker The Forgotten Writings of Bram Stoker. Edited by John Edgar Browning. Foreword by Elizabeth Miller. Afterword by Dacre Stoker. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 288p. HB, $30.

ABOUT ONCE A YEAR, I reread Dracula, an act which, were I to stop with that book alone, would make its author, Bram Stoker, disheartened, I suspect. A tick more than 100 years after Stoker's death, Dracula endures for a host of reasons: the visage of terror at the core of its narrative, the scope of its plot, and its mélange of styles. Romance, mystery, potboiler, penny dreadful, medical casebook, travelogue, it all goes into the soup of Stoker's most famous work in a way that is, we would believe, dissimilar from the rest of his writings, which have failed to gain Dracula's eternal life. Stoker would have insisted that this perception should not be the case, that he was not some "one -hit wonder," a literary version of one of those bands whose name you can't remember who nonetheless has its lone chart-topper play on the oldies station constantly.

Dracula remains ubiquitous and has gone into enough sundry forms since its 1897 publication that many a Twilight buff has probably never even heard of Stoker at this juncture. Stoker, though, regarded the novel as another of his well-crafted, well-researched books, a successful work at the level of language and story.

But despite Dracula's success and endurance, Stoker's other works are unknown to just about any reader who has taken the time to travel to Transylvania with poor Jonathan Harker. If you've read any other Stoker, it's probably The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), a tale of archaeology gone way wrong. Or maybe you have read The Lair of the White Worm (1911), which is truly twisted - enough so that Ken Russell made it into a god-awful 1988 movie starring Hugh Grant - and does feature an actual giant white worm, a creature which somehow manages to be a secondary villain. "Dracula's Guest," a short story that appeared posthumously in 1914, gets some attention, mostly on the conjecture that it's the excised first chapter of its novelistic counterpart, even though Stoker intended it as a stand-alone work.

Stoker's ascent to Dracula was not a steep one, but must have seemed a shock to those who knew him. Born in Dublin, in 1847, Stoker was bedridden for much of his early life. He attended Trinity College, developed an interest in the theater, married a former paramour of Oscar Wilde (to Wilde's irritation), began writing theater reviews, and moved to London, where he became the manager of the actor Henry living's Lyceum Theatre, a job that was both time-consuming and energy-draining. On the side, he wrote. His first novel, The Primrose Path, appeared in 1875. There would be three more before the appearance oí Dracula in 1897.

Stoker almost always wrote well, and did so in a manner that confounds the expectations of today's readers. Simply put, he was never as much about the macabre as we think. What has been too little considered is that Stoker imbued his work with a sly humor that managed to evince both piquancy and charm, a rare blend, even though, from a putative standpoint, we're supposedly here for horror. And if you're reading Stoker's oeuvre - including Dracula - mostly for chills and thrills, you might come away feeling like you've been cheated somewhat, that the boogeyman has not been sufficiently macabre to earn his title. But as the doggedly assembled The Forgotten Writings of Bram Stoker (2012) attests, Stoker the writer would be far better served if readers made a point of reading his work on its terms, rather than on their own. An important volume in Stoker scholarship - with writings that have mostly (or perhaps entirely, in some cases) gone unseen since the time of their original publication - the core lesson is this: Leave the boogeyman in the closet. Should he come out, he comes out; otherwise, let's be mindful of the threat of him while we're busy exploring other worlds - and the literary means of conveyance through them. …

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