Book Review: Something in the Blood
The Untold Story of Bram Stoker,
the Man Who Wrote Dracula
by David J. Skal
Count Dracula, the titular character of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, is remembered forever for a few bad weeks. He’s a descendant of Attila the Hun; he’s a supernatural being; he’s centuries old – even the least imaginative reader of Dracula has no trouble thinking up dozens of epic background stories more interesting than one slightly awkward and abortive attempt to fill England with vampire wives. He’s frozen in the popular imagination for the one odd, final misadventure of his long life.
His creator could doubtless sympathize. Bram Stoker, born in Dublin in 1847 and famous for being the manager for great actor Henry Irving and business manager for the Lyceum Theatre in London, spent his entire life writing – a dozen novels, dozens of short stories, plenty of journalism. But all of that work never had a chance; he’s forever frozen in the popular imagination for one odd, mesmerizing novel.
Like every other Bram Stoker biographer, David Skal can’t avoid this problem, and unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t try. His book Something in the Blood is subtitled “The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula,” but most of facts and figures he lays out have been laid out before – this isn’t a revelatory biography in any of the overt or gimmicky ways that tend to be supported by a newly-found laundry list or a newly-unearthed mortgage. Instead, Skal earns his subtitle in honest and straightforward way that wasn’t, truth be told, common among the biographers of the great and the famous in Stoker’s own day: Skal builds his subject up year by year and document by document, fleshes all this out with energetic psychological guesswork, and creates over 600 pages the best and most immediately involving life ever written of one of literature’s most famous one-hit wonders.
Stoker’s relationships – with his family, with the literary and theater-world luminaries of his day, and especially with Irving – form the centerpiece of the book, and Skal goes at each of them with fresh vigor and plenty of insights. He does an especially good job analyzing the complexities of the business relationship between Stoker and his famous boss, but here as everywhere throughout the book, a Certain Someone keeps elbowing in:
Stoker’s managerial acumen, brilliantly deployed by Irving, radically transformed the Victorian stage But Stoker, working for himself, transformed the future of popular culture by creating the most mediagenic superstar of all time, a creature born in the oral traditions of folklore, gestated in the written word, and made immortal in the age of the moving image. Despite his talents, Irving simply didn’t have the range, or the reach, Dracula did.
Skal ends his fantastic biography with its best chapter, “The Curse of Dracula,” which opens with the line “Shall we pity Bram Stoker?” The long chapter tours readers through the incredibly rich and often maddening afterlife of Dracula as a character. Skal is on solid ground in this chapter; he knows most of his readers will be more familiar with theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Dracula than with the life and times of the man who invented him. Even with all that concerted attention, however, the character remains elusive:
It has become a standard, pedantic refrain among fans and academics alike that no stage or screen adaptation of Dracula has ever been truly faithful or done justice to Stoker’s vision; even the versions that hew most closely to the original story cannot resist taking major creative liberties. The overriding curse of Dracula, as intuited by stoker in his working notes for the book, is that the master vampire’s true self would never be accurately reflected by painters or photographers (whose images would appear skeletal, like x-rays), or, by an extension of dream logic, producers and playwrights, screenwriters and filmmakers, or composers and choreographers. Stoker wondered whether his book would be remembered, and on this point he was prescient: a great deal of it was doomed to be forgotten, ignored, altered, and/or mutilated – or left otherwise lifeless on the cutting-room floor.
“The pile of dust Stoker left us at the end of the novel has never been acceptable,” Skal writes. “That is why Dracula always get another chance, a media-franchise afterlife that truly goes on forever.” And the immortality of the character makes readers perennially interested in the man who made him. The interest is seasonal and shallow – it’s the Count we care about, now and always – but it’s never been better served than Something in the Blood.