Bram Stoker, a Primer

It’s Bram Stoker’s birthday! He was born in 1847 in Dublin Ireland. Did you know he was Irish? Let’s talk some about Bram Stoker. This Victorian Gothic literature degree should come in handy once in a while, right?

I’ve got his wikipedia page open here. I learned about Stoker during my Ph.D., but he was only in my dissertation a little, OK? I need a refresher. Here’s the most interesting thing I spotted on the entire page, honestly: in college he was the president of the University Philosophical Society, and his first paper was “Sensationalism in Fiction and Society.” Seriously? So he was studying sensational literature in school, and actually managed to turn that expertise into a blockbuster novel? Bastard.

Have you read Lair of the White Worm? Jeebus Creebus, it’s insane. I wrote about it long ago. Damn, reading my summary of it just makes me want to read it again. Here’s what you need to know about Lair of the White Worm. It’s got a hot lady who’s a servant of a giant gross worm thing that may or may not be the devil, I guess. The main character is a cowboy. Stoker is scared to death of sexy women. And this was seriously I mean it an illustration of the book when it was originally published:


Have you read Jewel of the Seven Stars? It’s got it all, I tell you. It’s got a hot Victorian lady who’s quiet and nice. It’s got a hot dead woman who possesses that hot Victorian lady. It’s got a lot of men fussing about how to save the first hot woman, despite the obvious improvements. And it’s got one of those BUT WAIT endings, where the dead Egyptian woman maybe probably who knows survived the final ritual and is just pretending to be nice until QUESTION MARKS? It’s the Undertale pacifist ending if you’ve done the genocide run before, basically.

Have you read… OK, sorry, yeah, yeah, I know. You’re here for Dracula. Yes, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. He wrote a bunch of other stuff too, dammit!

Well, OK. Did you know Dracula was supposed to be a play? He wrote it for his totally-not-a-mancrush guy friend, who was an actor. That’s why Dracula swoops in all the time, gets the good lines, and generally licks women all over the place. His friend thought the play was awful. Apparently Stoker was not super well regarded among his play troupe.

What does Dracula have? Train time tables! Descriptions of new technology! Typewriters! Shorthand!


What does Dracula have? Vampires! Evil dogs! Vampires living in abbeys because they have hipster-level senses of irony!

The novel also has blood transfusion scenes that doctors could have already told Stoker would not have worked; old man Van Helsing explaining, very carefully, how to kill a vampire only for no one to do anything he said; and kind of a weird vibe where we don’t really know if Mina’s kid is Jonathan’s or Dracula’s.

Remember how I pointed out that Stoker studied sensationalism in college? That’s important now. Right now, despite the attempts of some scholars, the primary mode of literary criticism in Victorian studies is called anxiety influence. I feel like it comes from Kelly Hurley, but maybe other scholars were doing it first. Here’s how it goes: literature, like all art, deals with social issues of all kinds. Anxieties are social issues. So literature deals with anxiety.

Specifically, while auteur literature may deal with anxieties, personal or social, popular literature is guaranteed to offer the intrepid scholar a big picture view of the anxieties of a culture. The idea is that popular literature, good or not, is popular, which means it’s hitting a nerve with a ton of people. If it’s doing that, it must be addressing something important. And if you notice a pattern… paydirt!

This approach isn’t weird. Hell, I’ve done it. You can read me tackling Stanislaw Lem’s Cold War anxiety, coupled with his cool alien religious fixation, here. My Blackwood article is straight up anxiety literature, as was my entire dissertation. However, I do wish other stuff made it out there. It’s happening of course, so I’m just whining, really.

Why am I telling you about this, though. We can be pretty certain Stoker was doing it on purpose. Like, H. P. Lovecraft may have written so much about fish because he hated fish, but Stoker was trying to cast his net into his own culture and come up with the stuff that scared everyone silly. He’d written about literature that did exactly that.

So Stoker’s books are not just about anxiety. They’re a picture of what someone inside a society thought his own society’s anxieties were. Imagine trying to sit down, tomorrow, and come up with books that will make everyone alive right now, at least in your country, sit up and shit themselves. Whether you would be successful or not, imagining it puts you in the shoes of Stoker, who had to sit down and come up with this stuff. And, you know, we would probably all agree he did a pretty good job. But what’s with the giant worm? Where the hell did that come from? So, sure, phallic imagery, yeah, I got it, but, um, usually it’s the yonic imagery that scares the yonks out of everyone in the 1800s.

You just have to wonder, sometimes.

Happy birthday, Abraham! Good job.


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