Friday Book Club: Bram Stoker’s Double Life

SWT-Book-Clubs

This month’s Friday Book Club is all about Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  Bram Stoker was an interesting guy – on the surface, frankly he’s pretty boring.   He was a civil servant and a business man, with a wife and a kid and possibly a picket fence.  Under the surface, he’s a man of mystery.  Here’s a short (very short) bio of the creator of Dracula.

photo of Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker was born on November 8, 1847.  “Bram” is short for “Abraham”.  He was born in Ireland, and in the first of many odd things about him, he was bedridden until he was seven years old.  Of what?  We do not know.  Nor do we know how he recovered.  But he did, and became a star athlete in college, where he studied math.

Bram Stoker graduated, became a civil servant, and wrote a book with the most boring title possible:  The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland.  He described it as “dry as dust”.  Then he met this guy:

Henry Irving

Henry Irving

Henry Irving suggested that Stoker become the business manager of the Lyceum Theater in London.  Stoker not only did that, but he also became “Irving’s secretary, confidant, accountant, public spokesperson, closest friend, business associate, and tireless companion”  (From:  The New Annotated Dracula).  Stoker married a woman named Florence Anne Lemon Balcobe, and had a child who he promptly named “Irving”.  Stoker was travelling or working most of the time, with Irving.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about Florence: she was also courted by Oscar Wilde.  In fact, Stoker and Wilde had a quite a falling out over it, although they eventually reconciled.  Needless to say, there is a lot of speculation about Stoker and Irving, who were far closer than even close platonic friends usually are.  Very little is known about Florence except that two very artistic and unusual men wanted to marry her.

Florence Stoker

Florence Stoker

The other bit of trivia I’m fond of is that Bram Stoker hired Pamela Colman Smith to work at the theater, and she is best known for illustrating the Rider-Waite Tarot.  Stoker was rumored to be a member of The Golden Dawn, an occult society.

Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897.  It was a solid seller, although not what we would think of today as a best-seller.   He wrote several other books, but his biggest hit during his lifetime was a two-volume biography he wrote of Henry Irving after Irving died in 1905, titled, Personal reminiscences of Henry Irving.

Bram Stoker suffered a stroke soon after Irving’s death.  He died in 1912 after several years of illness.

Thank you to the following two sources:  The New Annotated Dracula, by Bram Stoker, Notes by Leslie S. Klinger; and schmoop.com.  I highly recommend schmoop’s page of links – it’s a great resource!

Friday Book Club: The Fears of Bram Stoker

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to the first of October’s Friday Book Club Sessions!  This month we’re talking about Dracula, by Bram Stoker.  Is it my favorite book of all time?  Nope.  But, it is an interesting book to read in terms of culture, both Victorian and modern.

Dracula was so popular in its day because it played on late-Victorian Era fears – fears about immigration from Eastern Europe, fears about consumption and other diseases, fears about “the new woman”, fears about addiction, fears about science, and of course fears about sex.

And the impact Dracula has on modern culture can’t be overstated.  Of course there were vampire stories long before Dracula.  In addition to folktales, vampire novels were quite popular in the Victorian Era. Dracula was released in 1897.  In 1819, John William Polidori’s book, The Vampyre, introduced the idea of a gentleman vampire.  Varney, by James Malcom Rymer, was serialized from 1845 – 1847 (“Her bosom heaves, and her limbs tremble, yet she cannot withdraw her eyes from that marble-looking face…”).  And in 1872, Joseph Sheridan Le Fany published Carmilla, in which the beautiful vampire Carmilla preys upon the innocent Laura with an astonishingly explicit amount of sexual seduction.  For people with a reputation for priggishness, those Victorians were reading some pretty racy stuff.

Illustration from Carmilla

Illustration from the original edition of Carmilla, by D.H. Friston

Yet today, the book most remembered by readers is Dracula.  Without Dracula there would be no Twilight or True Blood, or Interview With a Vampire, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (anyone remember when Buffy met Dracula?  Good times.)  Dracula is the book that permanently embedded the link between drinking blood and having sex, and/or doing drugs, in the popular imagination.  Of course Dracula is also important as an example of gothic literature.  It just doesn’t get any more gothic than women wandering around in foggy cemeteries in white nighties.

cover of Dracula

1902 cover of Dracula

Why is Dracula, and not its predecorsors, so immediately relevant?  I can only assume that it’s because many of the fears Stoker’s contemporary audience held remain current, and while the story may not represent restrained, polished, poetical writing, it sure is a nail-biter.  Let’s look at some of those fears:

1.  Disease:  Stoker lived at a time when tuberculosis, or consumption, was prevalent.  People with consumption became paler and paler,and thinner and thinner, and wasted away – plus, they coughed up lots and lots of bloom.  In the modern era, a wave of vampire books and movies came out during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  The Anne Rice book Interview with a Vampire (later made into a movie) describes an ostracisezed subculture affected by something transmitted through blood exchange (highly sexualized blood exchange).  Near Dark, an early movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is very different in tone but almost identical in theme.

2.  Immigration and colonialism:  Stoker touched on the Victorian feelings of guilt and hostility and fear towards the people they had colonized.  Dracula is unmistakably “foreign”, and he invades England as a one-man (or rather, one-monster) malevolent, corrupting force.  A quick look at any newspaper from the last twenty years will confirm that modern Americans are having all kinds of political and social anxieties around immigration, race, and cultural imperialism.

3.  Drug addiction:  Victorians struggled with drug addiction in the form of heroin, cocaine, opium, laudanum, alcohol, and chloral hydrate.  The vampire could be said to be an addict – he (or she) must feed on blood, and only on blood, to live, no matter what the cost or risk to the victim or the vampire.  To make the connection more obvious, many Victorian drugs were injected directly into the vein.  Modern society also struggles with addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco.

4.  Sex:  I’m planning to do a whole separate essay on gender and Dracula. For now, I’ll just pose a couple of questions from the book.  What is a woman’s place?  Should she be at home or pursue a career outside the home, or maybe work from home?  Can a woman be sexually active and still be “good”?  What about initiating sex, can a woman do that, or does that make her ‘a slut’?  If a woman is raped, is she somehow complicit in the rape?  Is she permanently tainted, even if she is innocent of “provoking” the rape?  What is the role of men in relationships?  These are all issues that are in the headlines, on the web, and in discussion every day today and they are all addressed in Dracula.  My answers differ pretty dramatically from Bram Stoker’s.  But the fact remains that we are still arguing today about the roles of women in the workforce and the family, the dynamics of male/female relationships, and women’s rights to control their sexuality and their bodies.

1901 cover of Dracula

1901 Cover. This was the first paperback edition.

Dracula is crammed full of images and sequences that stick in the mind, which is part of why filmmakers love to adapt it – and the more films are made of Dracula, the more influential it becomes.  And the plot never lets up.  None of the movies are particularly faithful to the book (including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  It’s not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, believe me).  But the movies keep the book alive in the popular imagination, and the themes make it stick.  And oh yeah, weighty subtext aside, the idea of a supernatural figure that drains your blood while you’re asleep is still really scary!

Friday Book Club: A Short Film About Annabel Lee, Plus Links!

Annabel Lee

Art by luciediamonds

This short film was part of The Poe Project:  a chance for Sacramento area filmmakers to submit short films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  This film imagines the story of Annabel Lee, based on Poe’s poem of that name:

During our real live book club, the one where we are face to face as opposed to online, we had a great discussion about the issue of race in Poe’s works.  One of our members sent these links to some thought provoking essays on race in Poe’s stories.  Check them out!

“Edgar Allan Poe’s True Horror:  Racism” by Andrew Belonsky, deathantaxesmag.com

“Tell-Tale Art:  Antebellum Racism in the Fiction of Poe”, by John Adam Shelton

Starting next Friday, we’ll be examining Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.  Be prepared to think about the roles of women in Victorian times, Victorian fears about immigration, Victorian fears about disease, and how those fears still apply today.  Or, you know, just hang out for the excitement of the gory, creepy, disturbing story that has influenced culture from the Victorian Age right up until today!