Something in the Blood by David Skal is one of the best literary biographies I have ever read. It is 583 pages of main text, plus notes, index, and bibliography, and all of it is interesting. While Skal likes to go off on tangents, all the tangential material is still relevant and fascinating. Besides giving us Bram Stoker’s entire life story, a lot of the book is devoted to Oscar Wilde and particularly his infamous trial. We also get a lot of information about Stoker’s best friend, Hal Caine, and about his employer, the great actor Henry Irving and the history of Victorian theatre. Finally, the last hundred pages of the book are about Dracula’s legacy after Stoker’s death. Skal does not discuss every film or play version of Dracula, but he hits most of the highlights, so that this book might really be seen as an exploration of the creation and evolution of Dracula from influences in Stoker’s childhood to the present.
It’s impossible for me to discuss everything contained in this book, but I’ll just point out a few highlights. At the center of the book is Bram Stoker. Skal is very interested in Stoker’s sexuality and the possibility—very likely—that he was homosexual or bisexual. Surprising and fascinating to me was that Stoker was a great admirer of Walt Whitman, and Skal reprints letters Stoker wrote in admiration to Whitman. Eventually, they developed a close friendship and Stoker met him when he visited the United States on tour with Henry Irving’s company. Skal implies Stoker’s interest in Whitman may have been because of the homosexual references in his poetry, but it’s not clear whether that was his primary interest or just the life-affirming voice of his poetry.
Stoker was very involved in both the theatre and literary world so he knew many of the celebrities of his time. He was friends with Mark Twain, although Skal brushes over this; I would have liked to know more about their friendship. Hal Caine was clearly Stoker’s greatest friend—he dedicated Dracula to him—and he was also the bestselling novelist of his time. Stoker often did editing and other literary work for him on the side when not busy with the theatre. I doubt either could foresee that one day Stoker’s creation Dracula would be a household name and live eternally while Caine’s books are basically forgotten.
Also fascinating was Stoker’s relationship with Henry Irving. Irving has often been discussed as the source for the character of Dracula, and Skal explores this possibility. Here we get to the heart of Stoker’s sexuality and psychology. He was never Irving’s lover, but he was his worshiper. Bram Stoker was a big strong, athletic man, over six feet tall, and yet, likely because he was gay or bisexual, he felt the need to hero worship another powerful man. Irving was talented, which led to Stoker admiring his performances before he began working for him. But Irving was also a taskmaster, and Stoker was clearly a workaholic given his doing work on the side when not busy with the theatre and also pursuing his interests in writing his own novels. How Irving treated Stoker doesn’t seem to be really clear, but it is known that Irving could be difficult and Skal states that he even at times got angry enough to hit his fellow actors. Skal goes on to say that the idea that the depiction of Dracula as a sort of revenge on Irving is false because Stoker actually worshiped Irving. Irving treated Stoker like a slave and Stoker, being a masochist, felt validation and gratification as a result of this treatment (p.442).
As for Oscar Wilde, he and Stoker never really had any sort of relationship, but Skal discusses how Wilde was always sort of an absent presence in Stoker’s life. Stoker likely met Wilde on numerous occasions. Stoker attended Wilde’s mother’s salons in Dublin. Wilde was interested in marrying Florence Balcombe, who later became Bram Stoker’s wife. As a result, Stoker must have been aware that Wilde was the ex-boyfriend. And Skal hints that Florence must have frequently considered what her life would have been like had she married Wilde instead—both the pain she would have felt over his trial and imprisonment, and later in life, how she might have benefited from the royalties of his plays whereas Bram Stoker was not a very successful author, and after Irving’s death, she was not left with any real source of income other than from his writing. Skal also suggests that Florence likely knew and was disgusted by her husband’s homosexual proclivities and hated the book Dracula as a result. That said, after his death, she had to work strenuously to protect her rights to the book, even taking the creators of the film Nosferatu to court for making an unauthorized film based on the novel. Wilde’s disgrace must have hurt her deeply. However, there is no record of either of the Stokers’ thoughts on Wilde during the worst times of his life. Skal also believes Stoker kept diaries that he destroyed that mentioned Wilde. Unfortunately, the details of the relationship between Wilde and the Stokers, if there was any, have been lost.
Finally, Skal drops information throughout the book about the creation of Dracula and what may have helped inspire it. He discusses the Irish and fairy tale influences on the novel, and early Gothic works’ influences on the novel, including the works of Wilkie Collins, and of course, vampire fiction prior to Stoker. Stoker’s novel basically set in stone basic elements of the vampire legend. At the same time, Skal discusses details from films that have become part of the myth or popular imagination about Dracula that were never in Stoker’s book. Foremost of these is the idea that Bram Stoker equated Dracula with Vlad Tepes. Stoker probably had no knowledge of Tepes and it wasn’t until McNally and Florescu’s book In Search of Dracula that this idea became popular, and then films like Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the more recent Dracula Untold have caused Vlad and Dracula to be equated by most Dracula fans.
Skal also notes that the equation of vampires with bats was Stoker’s creation. I disagree with him on this point because Paul Feval’s French vampire novel, Vampire City, bring bats into the vampire mythos (see my blog Paul Feval and the Vampire Gothic: The Path from Radcliffe to Stoker. Skal also offers a couple of possible sources for the name Mina in Dracula—Amina from Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula and Minna in Prest and Rymer’s The String of Pearls (p. 110). However, Skal never mentions that in Feval’s Vampire City there is a dog named Mina. I believe Stoker must have had access to Feval’s novels, although I have never seen any scholar make a connection. Stoker certainly traveled in France and could have purchased them (Feval wanted nothing to do with having his books translated into English), and I would assume Stoker could speak French at least moderately. Whether he could read French, however, I am not sure, but it would not have been unlikely.
Many filmmakers and others would take liberties with Dracula in the years after its publication. The actor Hamilton Deane was the first to wear a high-collared black cape in a theatre production in 1924, which made the cape become standard for Dracula. The cape is only mentioned once in the novel when Dracula is crawling up the castle wall (p. 512-3). Skal also mentions the recent discovery that the Icelandic translation of Dracula was not a true translation but may have been based on an earlier manuscript of the novel. The translation was just published in English as Powers of Darkness in February 2017, about three months after Skal’s book appeared, so he did not have access to the translation and could only go on reports of what it contained. (I’ll be blogging about Powers of Darkness in the future.) Skal suggests, based on information from scholar Hans Roos who produced this new translation into English), that the Icelandic translator, Valdimar Ásmundsson, may not only have worked from an earlier draft of the novel but taken liberties in altering or completing the story. If that is the case, it was the first time someone decided to expand or change Stoker’s text.
I will admit Something in the Blood has a few shortcomings. There are several typos where it’s clear dates are wrong and at one point he mixes up which Bronte sister wrote Jane Eyre and which Wuthering Heights. More importantly, I wish that Skal went into more detail about some of Stoker’s novels like The Snake’s Pass and Miss Betty which he only mentions briefly. I would have liked the book to contain more literary criticism altogether. Some of the tangential information throughout the book was also a bit much, and it seemed like Skal was at times reaching/guessing what might have been true about Stoker where evidence did not exist—in terms of whether he was gay or not and what if any relationship he had with Wilde. But I didn’t mind these stretches—it’s fun to guess and wonder what the real Bram Stoker was like, and not surprising that these secrets went with him to the grave.
Overall, anyone interested in Bram Stoker, Dracula, Gothic literature, Victorian gay culture, Victorian history, or vampire film history will find Something in the Blood a treasure trove of interesting information. I’m sure I will be consulting it many times in the future. It is hard to imagine anyone writing a better biography of Bram Stoker unless a bunch of lost manuscripts and letters are discovered to fill in the gaps, which seems unlikely at this point.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, which is a study of the Gothic tradition from 1794 to the present. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.