BOOKWORM: ‘Who Was Dracula’ looks at Bram Stoker

  • Posted: Friday, April 12, 2013 4:27 p.m.
"Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker's Trail of Blood"

“Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood” by Jim Steinmeyer, c.2013, Tarcher, $26.95/$28.50 Canada, 336 pages

It’s only a movie.

That’s what you kept trying to remind yourself the first time you saw a classic vampire movie: it’s all special effects. Vampires aren’t real. Transylvania is miles away. It’s only a movie. That helped sooth the creepiness factor, but you still kept your turtleneck sweater handy, fang you very much.

Surely, it took a lot of imagination to invent a blood-chilling character that sleeps in a coffin and bites necks, right? And in the new book “Who Was Dracula?” by Jim Steinmeyer, you’ll see that imagination only half-Counts.

It would be easy to think that actor Henry Irving was somewhat of a Victorian diva.

From start to finish, Irving created lavishly dramatic spectacles to delight London theatre-goers, paying strict attention to detail both on-stage and off. Cast and crew called him “The Governor” and nobody contradicted him – except Bram Stoker.

As Irving’s “Acting Manager,” Stoker kept tight budgets for all presentations and made happen that which Irving dreamed. Though Irving was technically Stoker’s boss, Stoker was Irving’s equal in attention to detail, and the two became close friends.

It was a shocking surprise to Stoker, then, when literary sycophants gained cheeky access to Irving’s inner circle. Stoker grew angry – he’d had an idea for a novel, and Irving’s new friends were less-than-complimentary. It gnawed at him, too, that Oscar Wilde, the son of personal pals, had enjoyed writing success.

Still resolute, Stoker collected information and made notes, tweaking and creating his masterpiece. Vampire lore had been around for centuries by then, and he was careful to craft details for bits of mythology. Dracula was a well-rounded, thrilling monster. So on whom did Stoker base his vampire?

Steinmeyer says that the answer is complicated. Surely, there’s a bit of Irving in the Count. Stoker may have personally known an infamous murderer, and his research gave the vampire a name and loose historical basis. Add a bit of autobiography, influence from a randy American poet and a scandalous playwright, and Stoker had a hit.

Think of all the vampires you’ve known and loved: cartoons, romances, toys, movies (good and bad), even breakfast cereal. Now consider this: Stoker’s creature appears in a mere 62 pages of the original novel. So how did Dracula seize our imaginations so strongly?

Among other things, Steinmeyer answers that question. Along the way, he busts myths and gives his readers menace, jealousy and mystery, as well as a wonderful sense of life for Victoria literati.

While I very much liked the foreboding, I sometimes struggled with Steinmeyer’s flights off-topic. They were more information than I wanted, but I do have to admit that those parts are relevant, if not entertaining, and they do help to understand why we’re repelled and fascinated by this culturally-changing, bad-accent-using bloodsucker.

If you’re looking for gruesomeness, there’s little of that here. Mostly, this book is literature about literature, but if you’re a garlic-fearing vampire fan, it’s clearly a don’t-miss. For you, “Who Was Dracula?” is a book you’ll want to sink your teeth into.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been a professional book reviewer for more than a decade. She lives in Wisconsin.

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