nolead begins By David J. Skal
Liveright. 652 pp. $35
Reviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn
nolead ends Several years ago, I read Dracula for the first time, expecting Bram Stoker's 19th-century fable of blood, lust, and the undead to be a quaint echo of Dracula's many screen incarnations. I was astonished at its creeping, unstoppable horror, still spellbinding more than 100 years after its publication.
In Something in the Blood, David J. Skal, a cultural historian, has written an exuberant combination of biography and cultural history that thoroughly investigates the real-life horrors of the Victorian era that influenced the creation of the Count.
Stoker was a dutiful child of Dublin's middle class. Beyond the genteel precincts of Stoker's neighborhood, the potato famine ravaged the countryside. Cholera killed with swift, horrifying brutality. In the city, cemeteries were so overcrowded the decay of corpses threatened public health, and "resurrection men" routinely snatched bodies for medical instruction. Stoker absorbed it all, but he continually set aside his writing to work another job or three, as journalist, theater critic, civil servant. His life took a turn when the British actor Henry Irving recruited him as his business manager. In his lifetime, Stoker worked completely in Irving's shadow. He managed Irving's Lyceum Theater in London and published stories strictly as a sideline - tales of ghosts and monstrous horror, burbling out of his fertile, repressed Victorian imagination.
Skal goes at the Dracula story from every angle - its early inspirations, its reflection of Victorian England's fears of sex, illness, and Darwin's theories. He attempts to show that Stoker, if not a closeted gay man, preferred male company and loved men, including the poet Walt Whitman and the popular 19th-century novelist Hall Caine, to whom Dracula is dedicated.
Why did Dracula capture the public's imagination? Certainly Stoker drew on every trick he had learned in the theater. He studied other epistolary novels (notably Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone). He soaked up Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the real-life terror of Jack the Ripper.
Caine, Stoker's fast friend, wrote that Stoker "took no vain view of his efforts as an author. He wrote his books to sell."
"In the final analysis," Skal writes, "the most frightening thing about Dracula is the strong probability that it meant far less to Bram Stoker than it has come to mean to us."