Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Book Review: Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker's Trail of Blood by Jim Steinmeyer


Pros: well researched, details Stoker's connection with numerous people despite the focus on Dracula

Cons: fairly repetitious

This non-fiction look at Bram Stoker and the men who influenced the character of Dracula is part biography, part fan letter.  It's obvious that the author is a huge fan of Stoker's life and work and has written this well researched book in order to share that love with others.

The book starts out by pointing out the fact that what most people think of when they picture Dracula isn't how the Count was written and that most of the movie features modern audiences are familiar with are not in the novel.  If you haven't read Dracula, there's a fairly thorough synopsis of the novel in chapter five so you can follow along.

The book is written in many ways like a novel, with dialogue and set scenes as though the reader was present during the important moments of Stoker's life.  This decision helps pull the reader into the story as well as make the book feel less scholastic than the twelve pages of notes at the back reveal it is.

While little is detailed about Stoker's childhood (including his illness when his mother told him fairy tales and about the influenza epidemic of her own youth), there is a lot of detail from his university time onward.  In fact, there's a lot of information included on several people, including Henry Irving, Oscar Wilde, the Jack the Ripper murders, other actors, playwrights, poets, etc.  But the focus is on Stoker's time as Irving's stage manager and the goings on in and around the Lyceum Theatre.

It's quite a fascinating story, and Steinmeyer mentions how scholars have changed their ideas about Dracula and where Stoker's inspiration came from, over the years.

My only real complaint - and I use that word loosely - is the amount of repetition in the book.  The author will mention something in a decent amount of depth in an early chapter and then revisit it later in the book, giving the matter even more depth.  On the one hand this means rereading the same information several times, on the other hand, the repetition makes it hard to forget the people/places/events mentioned in the book.  

I was a little surprised that the final chapter, which focuses on Dracula's success in the modern age neglected to mention the Francis Ford Coppola film, which greatly emphasized the erotic aspects and meaning of blood in the story to an extent that previous movies had not.  Especially since the author seemed so surprised by Stoker's apparent lack of awareness of the erotic overtones of his own story (I have to admit I'm more on Stoker's side on this issue than Steinmeyer's.  I probably have to read it again, but I don't remember Dracula being particularly erotic in any sense.  The Lucy scenes I'll give you could have been seduction, but Mina's attack was anything but.  And I found Dracula's brides more scary than sexy).  Similarly, the Stoker estate's acknowledged sequel to Dracula, Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, wasn't mentioned.

Those are minor quibbles and on the whole I found this a highly enjoyable and very educational read.

Out April 9th.

1 comment:

Daniel Klayton said...

Thanks for a great review! I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for this one at the library - I must admit to enjoying this sort of understanding-the-author exercise (particularly with 19th century lit, for some reason), and it sounds like this is an entertaining entry!

I agree that Francis Ford Coppola's film deserves treatment in any consideration of modern Dracula interpretations. I simply adore that movie.

I'd be curious what you thought of a sexual subtext on another read-through. Personally, I think the erotic vein runs pretty pronouncedly throughout the text - then again, I believe I first read Dracula when I was an 18-year-old college freshman, so maybe I was gazing through somewhat tinted glasses!

I recently wrote a piece exploring the Oscar Wilde angle, which also looks a bit at Dracula's sexual subtext, for those interested:

http://waistcoatandwatch.com/2012/11/17/art-life-and-vampires/

Keep the literary insight and bookish fun coming Jessica :)