Bram Stoker, Ageless, Eternal, Forgotten
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Born on November 8, 1847, Bram Stoker was an Irish author best known for his gothic horror novel Dracula, which effectively ushered in the modern conception of the vampire. Through countless adaptations, modern retellings, and unofficial sequels, Dracula has achieved a degree of cultural ubiquity equalled only by Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. Now, almost 170 years after his birth, Stoker has almost been eclipsed by his own creation. Indeed, even when Stoker himself appears in fiction, it is often to evoke a sense of the vampire, as is the case in Neil Jordan’s Mistaken.
All of this is understandable. Dracula, after all, was immortal, ageless, and larger than life. It is hardly surprising that his memory should outlive that of Abraham Stoker, a one-time civil servant whose achievements in university included being named “University Athlete” for a combination of football and “marathon walking.” Ordinarily, this might be no bad thing, but it leads to a portrayal of Bram Stoker as something of a literary one-hit-wonder, which sadly effaces the rest of his writing.
With Hallowe’en just gone, the overwhelming majority of us are probably fed up to the gills with vampires. If you’re a Stoker fan and want to do something to celebrate a great writer’s birthday, without just re-reading Dracula endlessly until you’re reduced to a kind of burnt-out Renfield, we’ve got some some solid recommendations.
If you’ve ended up here because you’re sick of Stoker and everything he’s ever done, we’ve got some solid spite-reading for you too.
The Jewel of Seven Stars was published in 1903, just six years after Stoker made waves with Dracula. If Dracula had had a transformative effect on the western perception of the vampire myth, then The Jewel of Seven Stars was well placed to cement itself as a foundational text for the Egyptian mummy as a horror trope. Unfortunately, in the fullness of time we’ve seen the mummy relegated largely to B-movies, rather than becoming the target for horror-romance crossovers that the modern vampire has become.
Much like Dracula, The Jewel of Seven Stars opens with a young barrister, Malcolm Ross, who is called to a client’s home. There, he finds noted Egyptologist Abel Trelawny lying on the floor, bloody and senseless, apparently the victim of an attempted murder. Trelawny’s daughter, Margaret, is quite literally the girl of Ross’s dreams, and so he resolves to help the family as best he can.
From there, the story progresses, with Trelawny working to bring the mummified Queen Tera back from the dead. While The Jewel of Seven Stars and Dracula are both fundamentally about the supernatural, the supernatural elements of Dracula are largely internal. Dracula’s powers are mostly to do with his own physiognomy, and he gains power from drinking other people’s blood.
By contrast, the supernatural in The Jewel of Seven Stars is bound up with externalities and objects; relics must be arranged in a particular pattern for them to exert power on the world. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and one that presents a marked difference throughout the book.
Another interesting dichotomy between the two is that both feature something from outside of the "known world" of the British Empire and making its way to the colonial metropole. There, the foreign agent, whether it is a vampire or a mummy, wreaks havoc by assaulting the good people of the colony by means beyond the science of the everyday people who live there. It's a juxtaposition of the known and the unknown that works to this day.
The book also boasts a number of different cases of characters being found in a trance, a theme that emerges repeatedly throughout Stoker’s work. If you’re a student of somnambulism in the works of 19th century horror writers, or just a person who often finds themselves waking up in strange places, you couldn’t ask for a better author.
Stoker returned to epistolary for Lady of the Shroud, which lends the book a strong sense of similarity to Dracula. Where The Jewel of Seven Stars might seem to bear a striking resemblance to Dracula in that its protagonist is a solicitor, Lady of the Shroud takes place in the shadow of a castle in the Land of the Blue Mountains in Eastern Europe. It’s a rural place with heavy overtones of the supernatural, which allows it to soak in the same atmosphere that works for Dracula.
The novel follows Rupert Saint Leger, another serious young man cast suddenly into a situation rife with the supernatural. As you might have guessed, this is the Stoker novel that perhaps feels most like Dracula in style, and given the similar locales there is what feels like a genuine flirtation with the idea of vampirism. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, but one that’s genuinely quite fun.
The other curiosity of Lady of the Shroud is that it veers closer to the opening of Dracula and the first short story of Dracula's Guest than it does to Stoker's other work. Here again we see a stalwart Englishman outside the safety of the empire. So far from home, the ordinary rules that govern reality itself begin to break down, and the supernatural impinges on the world of men.
Bizarrely, the one area in which Lady of the Shroud outperforms most of Stoker’s other work is in its humour. We are introduced to the book by Roger Melton, who writes the proceedings with a cynical streak a mile wide. Highlights include his snide comments about writers,
“Sir!” he roared out. I suppose, if I was a writer, which, thank God, I am not—I have no need to follow a menial occupation—I would call it “thundered.” “Thundered” is a longer word than “roared,” and would, of course, help to gain the penny which a writer gets for a line.”
And his offhand commentary on less well-to-do members of his family,
“Mr. St. Leger, who was only a subaltern, was killed at Maiwand; and his wife was left a beggar. Fortunately, however, she died...”
This is a side of Stoker that we see far less of in his other work, and it’s only unfortunate that the tone slides into something more boring as the novel progresses. Once the story moves beyond Roger Melton, that levity of tone falls away.
Indeed, the great sin of Lady of the Shroud is that it starts out so well and ends up being so ponderous. If you’re the kind of reader who absolutely must finish a book, then you’ll be in for a rough time, but if you can cash out when you find the 19th century attitudes too overbearing to continue with, then there’s a lot to enjoy.
Unlike Dracula, Stoker was not ageless and eternal, despite his claims that he was “physically immensely strong.” In his waning years, Stoker wrote what is perhaps his worst novel, a book so thoroughly dreadful that it’s almost worth reading just out of a sense of morbid curiosity.
Published fully 14 years after Stoker wrote Dracula, Lair of the White Worm boasts nothing of the lasting reputation of its predecessor. Indeed, it landed at number 12 on R.S. Hadji’s list of the 13 worst horror novels ever written. It seems oddly fitting that the list is largely composed of low-rent Dracula knock-offs, including Count Dracula’s Canadian Affair (of which little remains) and Dracutwig.
For the curious, Dracutwig’s cover describes it beautifully,
“Dracutwig played her dead look to the hilt. Even her pets fit into the picture, darling little black bats constantly hovering near her shoulder. Who would believe that one of those bats was Dracutwig's daddy? And that Daddy was none other than the legendary Count Dracula?”
Lair of the White Worm lacks the immediate bad-book-oomph of Dracutwig, but it’s a pretty rough read all the same. You might be forgiven for feeling that Lair of the White Worm’s greatest crime is simply that it fails to deliver anything quite like Dracula, but the reality is that the book is piled high with racist and sexist commentary.
Ordinarily, there might be some value in writing it off as a product of its time and trying to enjoy what positives the book has. The truth is that it casts the book in such a poor light that many modern readers will find it difficult to read without feeling disgusted by it.
“But the face of Oolanga [...] was unreformed, unsoftened savage, and inherent in it were all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest of all created things that could be regarded as in some form ostensibly human.”
Ultimately, Lair of the White Worm is worth reading almost as a reminder that great minds can sometimes produce something really dreadful. It’s oddly comforting to read a book that is, frankly, such a disaster and know that it came from the same mind as one of the great classics of horror fiction.
Its manifold issues aside, the novel feels somehow closer to Lovecraft than it is to anything else by Stoker. It’s an interesting direction to read Stoker writing in, but the book feels as though it never quite came together, and knowing that it was published in the year before Stoker died makes it feel like something of an unhappy punctuation mark at the end of an otherwise strong career.
If, on the other hand, you actually do just want more of what you already love, check out Dracula’s Guest, which is suspected of being the original first chapter of Dracula. There are echoes of Frankenstein folded in for good measure, rounding out what is a strange short story of Jonathan Harker on his way to Transylvania.
The other stories are a scattershot collection of horrors and psychological thrillers, but they’re strong overall. Given the staying power of Stoker’s ideas and his excellent use of atmosphere, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some of his best work outside Dracula is bound together as a collection of short stories.
What is perhaps most interesting about Dracula’s Guest is that the emphasis on short-form storytelling gives us an opportunity to reconsider Dracula as a text. Obviously Dracula functions very well as a novel, but it also presents its story to the reader over the course of a series of eventful vignettes, moving from one locale to another at a swift pace, effectively functioning as a series of short stories itself.
It’s a little sad to admit it, given how totally Dracula has eclipsed the rest of his novels, but Dracula’s Guest is perhaps Stoker’s second best collection of short stories, behind Dracula.