Count Dracula was the brainchild of the Irish writer Bram Stoker, who might seem to us today to be more of a literary entrepreneur than a mere author. Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) had provided the facilities for developing the vampire into a handy product for mass literary and cinematic consumption. There had been other vampires in literature, as well as other charismatic supermen, but Stoker’s coup was to compact them into the supreme Gothic seducer and supervillain.
Stoker had been a fan of the actor Sir Henry Irving since first seeing him perform in 1867, and then an adulatory critic, and then a friend, and then a travelling companion, and increasingly a kind of worshipper, and then an employee, and finally his biographer. Irving had appointed Stoker the business manager of his Lyceum Theatre in London and Stoker would put down roots here for twenty-seven years. If Dracula was indeed the hybrid of a vampire and a superman, Irving had donated much of the superman. Stoker bestrews his creation with Irving’s mannerisms and characteristics, so much so that Dracula becomes almost like an actor who is playing Irving.
The vampire indeed drinks from its victims rather in the same way that a stage role demands flesh and blood from a living actor. Unfortunately, Irving did not want to play himself, or himself as had been reflected back to him in Stoker’s magic mirror. So whilst Dracula was partially Irving, Irving would never be Dracula.
One is invariably conscious of the Dracula novel’s theatrical materials and its general sprawl of theatrical untidiness. Grand scenes are always being set up, not least when the whole town of Whitby becomes a darkened audience that is breathlessly watching a drama out at sea. At Castle Dracula, we break into Dracula’s backstage world and find his personal quarters to be as bare as a dressing room. The Count’s pursuers are typically thinking out loud and collectively, rather like characters assembled on a stage would do, and you are always aware of how the story is shifting them all about. Dracula, for his part, soon becomes inaccessible or viewed from a remove, a little like the Pepper’s Ghost stage illusion.
Dracula led me next to Stoker’s short fiction, where I was certain that I would greet this writer in a more hospitable element. Middlebrow short stories are usually diverting contraptions that are built from nuts and bolts, particularly in the late-Victorian period when they were in the paid service of popular entertainment. They also do not necessitate psychological realism, which is the very dimension that is in Dracula a vacuum (rather unaccountably, considering that it is otherwise the most marvellous Freudian funfair). Aside from the Count himself, it often feels as if Dracula is a novel inhabited by some perfunctory, slap-up characters that are on loan from a short story.
My curiosity walked me down to the university library and to its own single sampler of Stoker’s short fiction, The Bram Stoker Bedside Companion (1973). This comprises ten stories, or more properly eight and two chapters from a novel, and they are edited and introduced by the Australian author and opera buff Charles Osborne. It would be altogether better if my library had stocked Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories (1914), the anthology that was produced by Stoker’s widow Florence. Yet Osborne’s edition looks like a similar house from the outside and within it contains much of the same furniture. “A Dream of Red Hands” (1894), which details an oddly intense male friendship, is probably the most disappointing omission.
Along with the condoms, we have in the Bedside Companion a selection of what is presumably Stoker’s best writing from across thirty years. The stories tend to improve chronologically, though since Osborne does not lay them out in chronological order we might feel that we are on a trail that is randomly going up and down levels. Some stories are crude and faint whilst others are powerful, streamlined, and sharply original. The impression is conceivably that of Stoker’s personality coming and going.
“The Squaw” (1893) and “The Burial of the Rats” (1896) are the very best stories, by virtue of them being the weirdest and the most honestly sadistic. One is reminded in this of the critic Maud Ellmann’s comments on Dracula. “That Stoker’s characters are flat and largely interchangeable is all the better,” she had reasoned, “because their mythic function is never befuddled by the nuances of personality.” It might be too grand to claim that these two stories evince any “mythic function” but they do plunge down undeviatingly and latch on to rampant, near-supernatural animals. “The Squaw” features a cat so hysterical with grief for her dead kitten that she is able to murder a man. It is rats that are unleashed in the second story and they can strip people down to still-warm bones.
During “A Star Trap” (1908), the “Master Machinist” Jack Halliday gets his revenge on Henry Mortimer, the Harlequin who is cuckolding him, by fatally rigging the “trap” that should propel this actor into the show. When Mortimer pops on to the stage as a dead man, to the horror of the entire house, one might register a faint correspondence with the ongoing motif of the vampire. Another theatrical role has devoured a human actor. But Mortimer’s failure is to have never actually mastered his role or to have equalled the guile of the Harlequin. “The Squaw” and “The Burial of the Rats” similarly climax with events that evoke disastrous stage-magic tricks, or tricks with a fatal absence of magic. The assistant who climbs into the box in “The Squaw” is accidentally impaled through the eyeballs; the participants in “The Burial of the Rats” magically disappear after being munched on by the swarming rodents.
The unnamed “tourist” in “The Burial of the Rats” roams backstage in Paris and, with more imagery from the dressing-room, he encounters some rag-pickers in soldier costume who are living in “an immense old wardrobe.” The clockwork guardsmen who later come to the narrator’s rescue, along with his own jaunty strain of derring-do (“An Englishman is always ready for his duty!”), sound tinny and almost like a product of delirium when compared to the nightmarish chases and the death in the dust. With his nonsensical motivations and his clichéd romantic love, this narrator is so much of a paper doll that he could be probably shredded by rats in a whisker.
Elias P. Hutcheson, the arch-villain and arch-victim in “The Squaw” has a cowboy career that more resembles a résumé of music-hall performances than the horrors of any heard-of warfare. He comes helpfully labelled “from Isthmian City, Bleeding Gulch, Maple Tree County, Neb.” The narrator says admiringly of Hutcheson that “from his quaint speech and his wonderful stock of adventures, [he] might have stepped out of a novel.” Hutcheson calls the narrator “Colonel” and later “General” and the narrator attributes this to the “pleasant way he had to bestow titles freely.” In other words, Hutcheson spins a constant whirlwind of flights of fancy. We might even suspect that he cooks up the story about the “Apache squaw” on the spot whilst musing on the cat’s frantic grief.
A swipe from the cat’s paw puts paid to this gimcrack adventurer. As with in “The Burial of the Rats” you have the impression of a real animal in amongst the toys, knocking them over, chewing them and casually causing unmendable damage. That Hutcheson dies inside “the Virgin” (a medieval torture device), makes him sound like a lover out of his depth and this adds to our sense of his inadequate stuff. The reigning paradox within this story is that the spikes of the Nuremberg Virgin are not intended to pierce its guest’s “heart and vitals.” You are meant to live inside this uncomfortable apparatus for as long as possible, and thus Hutcheson must be very flimsy indeed if he can succeed in perishing within such a carefully-constructed life-preserver.
Perhaps he is woven from grass – in one anecdote, he “spent a night inside a dead horse” and in another he found himself inside a dead buffalo. We might linger over the apparently wilful confusion between execution and torture that sits at the heart of this story, because it seems to be subtly entangled with the ineptness of the two newlyweds that has presumably caused them to seek relief in Hutcheson’s company. In innuendo that lies very near to the surface, the narrator’s young wife reportedly faints at the sight of the exposed Virgin. We might be scandalised by the narrator’s carelessness or absent-mindedness in attributing the “rude birthmark” on his son’s breast to this incident. It would be more appropriate for his wife to have been shocked so by Hutcheson’s spectacular squishing inside the Virgin, than by merely her first inspection of it.
Or maybe this is what the narrator was referring to, but the whole story gets caught on his weirdly garbled remark, the brief slippage in narration and the baby’s blotch in which the insubstantial, spangled cowboy is effaced, forgotten, and ultimately eradicated. Another third party had haunted Stoker’s own honeymoon: Oscar Wilde, who Florence had turned down for Stoker but whom she still, quite possibly, pined for. Stoker might have wished to exorcise Wilde from his marriage just as effectively as he crunches Hutcheson. Perhaps this is too strenuous a reading, since Hutcheson is presumably only invited to join the honeymooners because he is sexually unthreatening. With his undisguised claustrophilia, though, he sounds puzzlingly sinister and masochistic for a character who has been designated as sexually unthreatening. The sheer awkwardness of his presence on the honeymoon, and the decisiveness of his dispatch, speaks very much of Wilde.
Incidentally the two stories that Florence Stoker includes and Osborne omits, “A Gipsy Prophecy” and “The Coming of Abel Behenna” (both 1914) each portray a comparably uncomfortable threesome to that witnessed in “The Squaw.” In all three narratives, a married couple attempt to coexist happily with an odd man out. These pieces are therefore not wholly the playful literary trinkets that they purport to be, since they together allude with a remarkable frankness to a mistrust within Stoker’s own marriage.
There are more animals. In the earlier story “The Judge’s House” (1891), it is another rat that leads to the death of a man, but the creature is here operating in tandem with the ghost of a hanging judge. It could be that the baleful spectre is not in fact a ghost but another shapeshifting “undead” being and a prototype for Dracula. Once again the victim resembles a participant on stage who is being manoeuvred about in the skilful hands of a magician or a hypnotist. The judge “taking the rigid form of the student in his arms, carried him over and placed him standing in the oak chair.” A huge hungry audience has soon assembled. The irony is that the student, Malcolm Malcolmson, whose name sounds as if it is swallowing itself, had been trying to retreat from society and into empty self-reliance. It is a fantasy that you can ever rent a room and make it totally your own. Malcolmson duly erupts out of his sanctuary and into a sensational public spectacle.
We are backstage again in “The Secret of the Growing Gold” (1892). The stilted theatricality of this story, with its trite melodrama and stock Gothic characters, culminates in a scene in which the villain, Geoffrey Brent, gives all the appearance of being attacked by a wig. This is in fact the “golden” locks of his murdered wife and they are inching along the floor at the precise place where a malevolent rat or cat would more normally manifest in one of Stoker’s stories.
“Crooken Sands” (1894) and “The Watter’s Mou” (1895) in some respects holiday on the far-flung beaches of Scotland, but in others they unfold on the same familiar stage as all of the other stories. “Crooken Sands” is an initially Pooterish comedy that swiftly becomes nightmarish in placing inappropriate stresses on the two-dimensionality of the Charles Pooter character. The holidaying Arthur Markham dons a tartan costume that renders him an object of ridicule wherever he goes. Markham is a terrible actor – the chieftain role that he has chosen to fill is striking and noble, but he himself is clownish and soon horribly lonely. He additionally becomes consumed in a Gothic paranoia, in which he is stalked by a doppelgänger, but this, like with several other events in Stoker’s tales, actually results from a communication error within the performance. The spectre on the sands is not a Pepper’s Ghost but another actor, who is following the wrong cue and wearing the same costume as Markham.
In “The Watter’s Mou,” the sailor MacWhirter is required to act out the role of a villainous smuggler, but he too is a terrible actor. His daughter Maggie tries to rescue him from the stage. Her lover, William Barrow, is supposed to be the valiant coastguard but for almost the entire story he poses on a clifftop, a costume bereft of a performance, awaiting his cue. Like Mortimer from “A Star Trap,” Sailor Willy plunges into death at the point where he should have burst into action. The two lovers end up floating in the sea, along with the smugglers’ brandy, with all of them drowned instead of sorrows.
When first allowing my mind to graze on Stoker’s short fiction, I had assumed that the experience would be a lot more filling. I had thought that I would be grappling with the motif of the vampire and the related themes of desire and exploitation. But my portal into these short stories quickly became the idea of making theatre. The supernatural often appears in these stories as an all-encompassing theatrical production, which deploys all manner of contrivances to engineer flashy spectacles. The characters are typically blank, helpless or passive, and the mercy of these special effects.
In the title story “Dracula’s Guest,” Jonathan Harker is terrorised on the road to Castle Dracula. This story is like a little sprig of the novel that has been made into a harmless nosegay, though, as M. Grant Kellermeyer has chronicled in a recent blogpost, it is not clear how this story had been ever in sync with Dracula. It was wisely deleted from – or else never added to – the original novel, where it would have stolen the thunder from Harker’s consequent crisis at Castle Dracula.
“Dracula’s Guest” replicates the impression of a theatrical extravaganza in which everything that the vampiric director and manager can muster, from weather to wildlife, has been roped in, with no expense spared. Harker is assailed by hailstones, wolves, the undead, and fancy-dress horsemen, whilst the lurking director controls and monitors the unfolding pageant from offstage. Dracula will only ever send a message into this story from outside, via telegram.
If one was told that Stoker had had a long and complex relationship with a famous actor, one might, from his stories, and particularly from “A Star Trap” or “The Squaw,” picture an expert practitioner of slapstick such as Buster Keaton. Irving had, however, played Hamlet, Shylock, and Lear. Without his own consent, he had been also recruited to play Dracula. The superman is always very distant in these tales and we are always on the periphery of his world, in the shallows of his influence. For Dracula, Stoker had chosen an epistolary format that had meant that the Count was only ever witnessed or quoted, in documents that were written by lesser characters. In the short stories, he is naturally absent but one continues to feel this absence very keenly. As Kellermeyer notes in his analysis of “Dracula’s Guest”:
Had Stoker thrown back the door to have the Count burst in on us in full regalia – eyes burning, face radiating power – we would have been mesmerized by the potency of the scene, but it would a forgettable selling out – a fun story with no real tension or allure. “Dracula’s Guest” retains its fascination precisely because we know that the Count – whose face we can see, whose voice we can hear, whose presence we can sense – is lurking around every corner.
The dictatorial theatre-maker is forever the deepest and biggest fact in Stoker’s fiction.