Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Bram Stoker Bert McCannWritten by Mossy
It seemed that he was headed for a quiet and ordinary life. Born in 1847 he was a sickly child, who spent the first seven years of his life bedridden, stricken by an undiagnosed mystery illness. Provision of companionship fell to his mother Charlotte, who hailed from Donegal Protestant stock and who relished the role. Development of a rich internal life resulted as she regaled him with fairy tales and horror stories. She also talked of what was happening in the outside world including the fate of people devastated by An Gorta Mór which developed as he lay abed. As he approached his eighth birthday the ailment abated as inexplicably as it first appeared. When he was eventually able to leave his bedroom in the Clontarf house where he had been born, he was educated in a small private school and without further health complications the young Bram Stoker proceeded to Trinity College.
As if making up for lost time Stoker excelled in every endeavour that he undertook at college. Athletics, academic pursuits and student office including a spell as auditor of the College Historical Society, president of the Philosophical Society were grist to his mill. For a time though it seemed, in 1870, post-Trinity that he was prepared to settle for a life as a colonial government servant namely as Senior Clerk in the Dublin Court of Petty Sessions as his father Abraham had before him. Writing and a love of theatre won him over though and a modicum of good fortune took care of the rest.
Henry Irving had come to Bram’s attention when, at the age of nineteen, he saw the actor performing at Dublin’s Theatre Royal. Four years later he saw Irving again in the city and wrote an unfavourable review of his performance in a play, ‘Two Roses’, in the Dublin Evening Mail for which he had started writing on a part-time basis. Stoker published his first piece of fiction in 1872, a story entitled ‘The Crystal Cup’ soon to be followed by ‘The Chain of Destiny’. Irving came back into his life in 1876 when he brought his ‘Hamlet’ to the capital. A review of the classic penned by the writer pleased him and Irvine invited him to dine at the Shelbourne Hotel. The actor was planning to take the lease of London’s Lyceum Theatre and asked Stoker to consider being his business manager. Keen to enter the imperial capital’s literary world the reviewer agreed to consider the offer.
The project gelled fully in 1878. Bram Stoker married Florence Balcombe who had previously been courted by his friend Oscar Wilde. Originally from Co. Down her parents had a house in Martello Crescent in which her husband’s family home had been situated. The couple moved to London where Florence gave birth to a son while the writer and the actor cemented both an emotional and working relationship that lasted till Irvine’s death in 1905. In his role as manager of the Lyceum, Stoker travelled the world mixing with the crème de la crème of international political and literary society.
His writing career continued to flourish. The Daily Telegraph literary pages employed him and in 1897 his most enduring fictional work ‘Dracula’ was published. Stoker used several working titles for the story of Dracula the Vampire’s attempted migration from Transylvania to England. It was named variously as ‘The Dead’ then ‘The Undead’, ‘The Dead Undead’ and ‘Captain Wampyr’. For several years he had been reading the history of Balkan countries and was familiar with the life of King Vladimir Dracula III. He was a pretty unremarkable ruler but gained notoriety for his fondness for impaling his enemies on stakes. As he did this wholesale he became known, posthumously, as Vlad the Impaler. Dracul, meaning the dragon, was a title derived from an order of chivalry, ‘ The Order of the Dragons’ which was adopted by his father as a patronym and was then handed down the royal line. The author had come across the name in a book dealing with the affairs of Wallachia and Moldavia and became fascinated by its resonance.
Tapping into a Victorian enthusiasm for horror and the supernatural the book was almost universally well received. This was in spite of its wide range of erotic themes. The Victorians despite their strait-laced reputation were apparently more tolerant than history gives them credit for. Arminta Wallace, writing in the Irish Times, on the centenary of Stoker’s death last year reported the critic of the Daily Mail on the publication of the gothic horror epic as saying,
“We started reading it early in the evening. By ten o’clock the story had so fastened itself upon our attention that we could not pause even to light our pipe”.
Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes complimented Stoker in glowing terms and said ,
‘I congratulate you with all my heart for having written so fine a book.’
Further fictional works followed, but financial disaster loomed. Poor investment decisions, including a business relationship with Mark Twain and the failure of the great actor to make provision for him in his will, meant that when Stoker died, possibly of overwork, on the 20th April 1912 he possessed around four pounds sterling. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium in his adopted city. Dracula has never gone out of print and has inspired well over two hundred films including the recent ‘Harker’ starring Russell Crowe. Its regrettable, one might feel, that Stoker didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his work before he too, like his creation Count Dracula, was reduced to ashes and dust.