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Dracula’s Origins: A Review and Summary of Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula

Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (1996) is a biography of Stoker’s entire life, with some commentary on the history of Dracula’s influence after Stoker’s death and what happened to some of Stoker’s family and those close to him. More specifically, it gives a close look at Stoker’s relationship with Henry Irving, the famous actor whom Stoker worked for. The book’s premise is that Henry Irving was the inspiration for Dracula. Irving is depicted as a controlling man. Belford suggests Stoker was at his beck and call, and apparently enjoyed Irving’s power over him. This implies homeroticism in their relationship.

I do not doubt Irving was very demanding, but Belford’s argument feels weak or exaggerated to me. She has all the biographical facts here of Stoker and Irving’s lives, and I do not doubt Stoker idolized Irving, but she goes overboard in talking about how Bram Stoker considered Irving his master, much as Renfield calls Dracula master. She states that “The fascination and horror of Dracula, for males, was as a humiliator of men,” (9) focusing upon how Dracula is able to seduce all the women in the novel, taking them from the men, and especially how he is able to force Mina into drinking blood from his breast (symbolic of fellatio) while Harker lies there unconscious. I completely agree with this statement, but to suggest that Irving also was a humiliator of men and Stoker enjoyed this feels a bit of a stretch. I am not saying it isn’t very possible, but Belford is reading between the lines of their relationship without a lot of hard evidence. She makes other statements such as that Stoker, “even more than wanting to be admired, liked admiring” (28), and “Being anywhere with Irving was contentment for Stoker, who felt complete in his company, safe and protected” (121). I do not doubt Stoker admired Irving or he would not have gone to work for him, but that he worshipped Irving seems a stretch to me, and how can we know he felt safe and protected by him? Maybe he did in some financial sense since Irving gave him employment, but Stoker was a tall and strong man, who did not physically need Irving’s protection. Other such broad and sweeping statements include “As he approached middle age, Stoker’s infatuation with men of power continued, doubtless aided by his growing insecurity over Iriving’s affection” (189).

I am sure Stoker had affection for Irving as one would for a close friend, and there may well have been homerotic feelings between them, at least on Stoker’s end—but Belford’s statements seem overreaching and she does not always provide evidence to back up her claims. Of course, in Victorian England, neither Stoker nor Irving would have committed to paper any overt love felt for the other. This is made even more clear in the context of Dracula, in the sense that Stoker himself later advocated for censorship of overtly sexual and pornographic novels, yet Belford notes that Dracula is full of sexual imagery and overtones. That no one tried to censor the novel reflects that no Victorian was willing to admit they understood its overtones.

Henry Irving in the role of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. A Jewish character who would influence treatment of the Wandering Jew figure in literature and later characters like Svengali in Du Maurier’s Trilby, which in turn would influence Dracula.

Belford’s biography has many strong points beyond her questionable interpretation of Stoker and Irving’s relationship. It is an informative look into the Victorian theater, especially of Irving’s numerous and varied roles, many of which may have influenced Stoker’s creation of Dracula—performances such as Faust, for example. Other interesting plays are The Three Bells, a translation of The Polish Jew, about a mayor who kills a Jew and feels guilt over it. Eventually, a mesmerist causes him to confess his guilt. This play is a perfect example of the Victorian fascination with crime and guilt and Gothic wanderer figures. Belford also mentions many mesmerism novels of the Victorian period, including George Du Maurier’s Trilby, which sold more than 200,000 copies and was the first novel to really succeed by publicity efforts.

Of greatest interest to me were the many possible sources of inspiration for Dracula that Belford outlines. She notes that the heroine Trilby also has three rescuers/suitors like Lucy in Dracula, and that Trilby succumbs to the villain Svengali’s power through mesmerism much as the women succumb to Dracula’s hypnotic power. Both are also anti-Jewish novels since Svengali is a Jew and Dracula is often seen as a symbol of the Jewish or at least Eastern European immigrants into England. Belford notes that Shaw’s Pygmalion, which later became the musical My Fair Lady, may also have been inspired by Trilby. Belford goes a bit far, though, in suggesting that Irving himself was able to use hypnotic powers on his audiences and that Stoker was subject to this power, which made him subject to Irving. However, here Belford gives a source, saying that Gordon Craig actually believed this. Craig was the son of Ellen Terry, who was Irving’s leading lady (74). It is possible Irving studied and tried to use hypnotism on audiences to keep them mesmerized by his performance, but whether he deliberately used it on Stoker we can’t know.

The great threat of Dracula to other men, and the idea that he controls them, supposedly influenced by Irving and Stoker’s relationship, is definitely a powerful theme in Dracula, particularly when Dracula warns the female vampires “This man belongs to me.” Belford notes that this line is a constant throughout Stoker’s notes and various revisions of Dracula—and there were many. (Stoker typically wrote a book a year; The Lair of the White Worm he wrote in three months, and it shows. He was typically a wordy, second-rate writer, but to Dracula, he devoted seven years and it went through many revisions, a dedication that made it far superior to his other works.) However, Dracula does not sexually desire Harker like he does Mina and Lucy. Rather, he wants to keep Harker alive so he can accomplish his goal of invading England where he can find fresh blood. Dracula is not interested in Harker for sexual reasons or to dominate him in a sexual way but simply as a tool to get him to England.

A painting of Irving performing the role of Mephistopheles in Faust, a play about a man selling his soul to the devil, a theme that would influence the Gothic and reflects the very close fatal deal Mina finds herself in with Dracula.

Other sources for Dracula include Macbeth, which Irving often performed. Dr. Seward of Dracula may be based in Lord Siward, Earl of Northumberland, from the play. Belford notes that Macbeth and Dracula both end up trapped in their castles. (Dracula actually is trapped in his coffin just before reaching his castle.) And both contain the cathartic ancient Celtic ritual of severing a head to release evil. (Dracula doesn’t lose his head but Lucy does.) Tarot cards also had an influence—Van Helsing is equal to the Magician card, and the 1901 Constable edition had a tarot-inspired drawing on the cover that shows readers saw a tarot influence on the novel. Interestingly, there was also a Joseph Harker who worked for Irving’s company—he is the only person Stoker knew whose name got borrowed for the novel in the character of Jonathan Harker.

Stoker’s first encounter with the name Dracula happened as a result of visiting the Whitby library (where Dracula comes ashore and where Mina is visiting Lucy). At the library, he read William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Once Dracula was published, Stoker wanted to create a play version for Irving to star in, but Belford says Irving likely never read the novel nor expressed interest in a play version. What Irving actually said or didn’t say about the novel we don’t know, but Belford sees this as further reason to show Irving degraded Stoker, perhaps thinking he could not act in a play by someone who was his inferior as Bram, as his manager, apparently was.

I have sought elsewhere for sources for the name of the character Mina, which is a strange name not common in England. I have found the name in Paul Feval’s vampire novel Knightshade (1860), but as Belford notes, Stoker was also influenced by Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, primarily for the novel’s use of numerous voices. (The result of the characters collecting documentation of the chain of events in both novels, although I wonder whether Collins’ character Marian Halcombe may not have inspired Mina Harker since the characters’ initials are the same. Belford, however, notes that Stoker was fond of creating female names that started with M, perhaps as a tribute to his mother and his sisters Margaret and Matilda. That said, there’s no reason why he might not have chosen names for multiple reasons and layered them with meaning.)

Dracula’s publication coincided with the display of the painting The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones painted it because he fell in love with a well-known actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She rejected him in favor of another; in revenge, he painted her as a vampire! People recognized her in the painting.

Beyond the Dracula origins information, Belford’s book is interesting for the insights it gives us about Stoker’s relationships with many other literary people of his time, including Wilde, Shaw, W.S. Gilbert, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. Anyone interested in late Victorian literature and Victorian theatre would find this book fascinating, whether or not they are convinced by Belford’s arguments about Stoker and Irving’s relationships.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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New Book on Spring-Heeled Jack Explores Jack’s History, including Gothic Connections

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero by John Matthews is a fascinating look at a sometimes overlooked character who has had a significant impact on sensational and Gothic literature as well as the public’s imaginations and fears for nearly two centuries now. Matthews, who is perhaps best-known for his many books on the Arthurian legend, has compiled nearly every known reference and possibility related to Spring-Heeled Jack into this book.

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

Those not familiar with Spring-Heeled Jack will wonder why they have never heard of him. He first appeared in London and its surrounding areas in 1838 and continues to be sighted every few years, it seems, both in England and now the United States and perhaps even in a few other places around the globe. His origins lie in several startling attacks he made upon unsuspecting women in the early Victorian period. He is frequently described as dressed in black, wearing a cape, having long fingers, pointy ears, and eyes that glow red or blue. His most famous feature, however, is his amazing ability to spring or leap enormous distances, sometimes twenty feet from the ground to a roof or even thirty feet from one rooftop to the next.

In this encyclopedic book about all things Spring-Heeled Jack, Matthews begins by going back to the original sources. He quotes in detail the numerous newspaper reports of Jack and his attacks upon his victims. Most of his attacks were relatively mild, just appearing and frightening women, or mildly assaulting them, although in some cases, he attacks with knives, especially the men who pursue him.

Jack was likely some sort of criminal who developed a spring mechanism for his shoes, but just who he was has never been fully revealed. He quickly became a legend and soon many copycat crimes were occurring; some of these criminals were caught but others not. Jack also often acted like the typical highwayman who was a popular literary figure in the Newgate novels of the 1830s, and later, Jack the Ripper at least left behind one note where he signed himself as Spring-Heeled Jack, though as Matthews notes, Jack the Ripper was a serial murderer while Spring-Heeled Jack’s crimes are far less severe and seem mostly intended just to shock and frighten people. Nevertheless, the Ripper’s crimes took place in the 1890s, showing that Spring-Heeled Jack retained a hold on the Victorian imagination.

While the historical newspaper accounts are interesting, for me, what is more fascinating is Jack’s appearances in literature. Matthews details how Jack soon became part of popular culture. By 1840, there was a stageplay produced about him. In 1867, there was a penny dreadful published titled Spring-Heeled Jack—The Terror of London, and in 1878, another serial was published with the same name. The difference between these two works is significant. In the first, Jack is depicted as a demon figure. In the latter, he is a young nobleman deprived of his inheritance whose actions are based on his desire to get revenge on those who have cheated him; others copy his crimes, but this second penny dreadful makes it clear that Jack is a clever trickster type of hero. I find this transition in Jack’s character fascinating since I am a firm believer that the Gothic Wanderer figure in nineteenth century literature was eventually transformed into our modern-day superhero figure. In this version, Jack has the qualities of the Gothic Wanderer in being disinherited, although he is lacking guilt and commits no true crimes.

Equally fascinating is the possibility that Jack is an early version of Batman. Matthews notes that there is no evidence that Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, knew anything of Spring-Heeled Jack, but he provides plenty of evidence that bat-man figures were in the popular imagination well before Batman arrived on the scene. (More on that below.)

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

Matthews devotes a great deal of time trying to determine the origins of Spring-Heeled Jack as a fictional or popular culture figure beyond whether or not he was a true historical criminal. He digs back into mythology looking at Jack’s origin in devil figures (one of Captain Marryat’s novels, Mr. Midshipman Easy, from 1835 is cited as a source here also; in it a character wears a devil’s costume and springs into a house frightening people), Jack the Giant Killer (with a nod to King Arthur here), the popular Jack-in-a-Box toy, and Robin Hood, since Jack is often depicted as a hero fighting against the rich. That said, Jack is also depicted as aristocratic and possibly preying upon the poor—one of the possibilities for his identity is the historical Marquis of Waterford.

This aristocratic side to Jack fascinates me and brings me to the one omission in the book, for which perhaps there is no evidence, but which seems to me very likely—that Jack influenced the creation of Dracula and the vampire legend. Of course, the vampire figure had already been popularized in England with John Polidori’s The Vampire in 1819. But the depiction of vampires still had a long way to go before Dracula set the standard for vampire characteristics. One of the possible sources for Spring-Heeled Jack that Matthews cites is the “Moon Hoax of 1835” in which it was claimed that a civilization had been discovered on the moon and that it was inhabited by winged men which were called “man-bats.” This may well be the first suggestion of men connected to bats. Of course, Dracula has the ability to change into a bat in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, and as I’ve pointed out in my previous blogs about French novelist Paul Féval, vampires were also associated with bats in his novel Vampire City (1875). Could Spring-Heeled Jack, whose cape is often depicted as looking like wings tied to his arm, have also influenced the depiction of Dracula? I have not been able to find any link between Stoker and Spring-Heeled Jack, but the Jack was in the popular imagination so doubtless Stoker knew of him. Note that Dracula is also a count and Stoker’s novel has been read as being a story about how the nobility preyed upon the lower classes. Dracula’s victims, like Jack’s, are also predominantly female.

Another interesting connection between Spring-Heeled Jack and Dracula can be found in another possible version of Jack that Matthews mentions—The Mothman, who was first sighted in 1966 in West Virginia and whom the film The Mothman Prophecies was made about. The Mothman is also winged and can fly. Interestingly, it is claimed he was spotted just before the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001—this suggests he might play a role in political events. Similarly, the Wandering Jew has often been said to appear during historical events, including the French Revolution and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Wandering Jew is often cited as an influence upon Stoker, particularly because Stoker was manager for the actor Henry Irving and he encouraged Irving to consider playing the Wandering Jew. Stoker also wrote about the Wandering Jew in his book Famous Impostors. Jack the Ripper’s murders were also associated with the Jews as instigators of the crimes. Could Spring-Heeled Jack have had some connections to the Wandering Jew in the popular imagination?

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

In any case, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true historical and literary mystery that continues to fascinate. Matthews concludes the book by looking at Jack’s appearances in film, television series, and comic books in more recent years. He omits mention that Jack also was featured in an episode of the short-lived 2016 television series Houdini and Doyle, likely because the book was already being prepared for printing when the series aired, but it shows that Matthews’ prediction at the end of the book that Spring-Heeled Jack will likely be around for many years to come is true without a doubt.

The book also contains numerous illustrations, including several colored plates, and the appendices contain the full text of the 1878 penny dreadful version of Jack’s story.

Overall, The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true treasure trove for anyone interested in Jack himself, or popular culture, Victorian crime, the Gothic, comic books, or superheroes. It’s published by Destiny Books and is available worldwide including all the major online booksellers.

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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. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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New Fairytale-Type Story Blends Vampire Lore with Arthurian Legend

Picus the Thief, translated by Robin Bennett, is an original book that takes several traditional storytelling motifs and gives them new life through multiple reimaginings of legends and traditions.

Think of it as fairyland meets Camelot meets Dracula. It’s a little of all of those, and yet not strictly tied to any of them.

PicustheThiefThe title character, Picus, is a vampire, but he’s not your typical vampire—although there is a reference to Dracula as a sort of vampire ancestor—but that’s rather anachronistic—in fact a lot of things about this book are anachronistic. In any case, Picus is not only a vampire but he has fairy-like or, more properly, dragonfly-like wings. He is about the size of your forefinger, and as one of the human characters says when he meets Picus, to Picus’ displeasure, he’s kind of like a mosquito—he can fly and he sucks blood.

Picus is far from a scary vampire. One of his bites probably doesn’t hurt much more than that of a mosquito, so he’s not a bad guy. That said, vampires do think well of themselves; there’s plenty of vampire superiority in this book—a tone that vampires are better than humans—although I’m not sure that that isn’t all vampire propaganda.

To understand why it might be termed propaganda, we have to look at the book’s authorship. It is actually the first book in the Small Vampires series, which will provide a history of the vampires. The book was allegedly discovered in manuscript form in a curious way by Robin Bennett, who explains in the introduction how the strange book in an unfamiliar language eventually came into his hands. After some difficulty he managed to translate it. In short, he learned it was written by vampires, so obviously they will portray themselves in the best light. He also learned that there were people in the world who might be willing to harm him to get their hands on the book, and so he decided to publish it so there would be no one copy that could be stolen from him. All of this is explained in a very engaging way that made me realize that here was the typical eighteenth century Gothic novel technique of the mysterious discovered manuscript, but at the same time, it was written in a fun way that made me feel more like I was entering a playful and mysterious world akin to Narnia or Neverland.

And then the story starts and we are introduced to Picus. It is the year 266 A.D. we are told, which is rather odd and why I say the book is anachronistic since Dracula (if he was first the historical Vlad Tepes) lived in the fifteenth century, and eventually, Picus goes to Angleland at the time soon after the Romans have left—they wouldn’t leave in reality until about 410 A.D. and there were certainly no Angles in England at that time (but this is Angleland not really England). In short, Bennett, whom I suspect is the author despite his claims to being the translator, is writing pseudo-history and consequently everything in this book is “pseudo”—pseudo-vampires and pseudo-Arthurian legend especially.

Despite the vampires’ belief that they are superior to their cousins the Faies (fairies) and to the humans (who may have some distant relationship to both of these more supernatural beings, though the humans are magic-less), the vampires have some issues of their own. At least Picus does. He grew up in a dysfunctional home in which he was asked to murder his Sanguine—a wingless being the vampires have bred as servants and to feed upon. Picus’ refusal to kill his Sanguine led to his flight from home and his mother’s anger. Talk about dysfunction. Before the book ends, this mixed up family turns out to be more like Hamlet’s family than that from any happy fairy tale—come to think of it, most fairy tales do feature dysfunctional families—think of all those evil stepmothers.

Anyway, Picus makes his living as a thief, and we follow him from one theft to another until he finds himself being commissioned to enter the human world and steal the sword Exkylipr, which was forged in the belly of the Chalice and is one of the seven treasures. (Think Excalibur and Merlin collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.) The humans were given the sword many years before, but now the vampires want it back, so Picus is sent to retrieve it. He ends up going to Camelon Castle, but he doesn’t meet any Arthur there. (There is an Art in the book, but he’s a vampire and runs a pawn shop—nothing kingly about him.) Instead, Picus meets an Ambrosias (no uncle to King Arthur but an old lady and the court physician). She is wise enough to know his purpose and eventually befriends him.

I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but don’t look for an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle in this book, and don’t look for your typical vampires, even though these vampires do have roots in Transylvania and the Carpathians.

Rather, expect a highly original take on old legends that is playful yet not lacking in adventure or even violence. There’s a feel of almost Irish leprechaun trickery here, a dash of Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and some beautiful prose worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. There’s plenty of whimsical creatures, complete with a glossary of them, an essay explaining magic in the vampires’ world, and even plenty of humor. For example, one of the funniest passages for me was “Gargoyles were also generally accepted to be the most nosey, pernickety, prissy and prying species on the planet after cleaning ladies….”

This is not a book for the die-hard Arthurian fan who likes depictions of the historical King Arthur. It’s more for fans who enjoyed the BBC’s Merlin. It’s also not for lovers of dark Gothic lore with all its angst or even the Twilight crowd—I think you’d be more likely a fan of The Addams Family or Young Frankenstein if you like this book—or maybe The Princess Bride. If you love fairies, I also think you’ll love these vampires, but perhaps not the fairies in the book—Queen Mab is about as awful as they come with her necklace made out of male vampire teeth, which has led to her nickname “The Tooth Fairy.” Actually, I loved hating her.

So it’s a little of everything—a little grotesque, a little funny, a little magical, and a little traditional. Plus, it’s a beautifully-designed book—the cover looks like a true lost manuscript or the kinds of books produced at the turn of the last century, and there are illustrations for each chapter, not of the characters, but of flowers and dragonflies that give it the feel of Victorian fairy tale books. I imagine many young adult readers will enjoy it, but adults may also feel here is some of the magic of childhood they knew that hasn’t been lost but only needs to be found again.

You can find out more about the “translator” Robin Bennett and the future books in this series at www.SmallVampires.com

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, and the upcoming Lilith’s Love and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

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