It is undoubtedly a very fascinating theme, since it touches both on mystery and fact. In the Middle Ages the terror of the vampire depopulated whole villages.
When Irish author Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel about a mysterious debonair Count was first published in 1897, he couldn’t have possibly known that he’d penned a masterpiece as immortal as the Count himself.
Yes, it is unquestionably Mary Shelley’s disturbing horror story of “Frankenstein” which is credited with birthing the genre of literary horror. But it was Stoker’s distinguished and dauntless Count Dracula who truly refined that genre into the tantalizing, forbidden fantasy world we, in the year two thousand and twenty, have come to know and love.
“Dracula” was published on May 26, 1897. Little more than a month later, an article appeared in the July 1, 1897 issue of The British Weekly: A Journal of Social and Christian Progress: “Mr. Bram Stoker. A Chat with the Author of Dracula”. Stoker was interviewed for the article by Miss Jane Thompson Stoddart, known affectionately to readers of The British Weekly by the name “Lorna”. At the publication, Stoddart was chief assistant to Dr. William Robertson Nicholl, proprietor, editor and contributor to British Weekly. He also helped found the paper in 1886.
I read a lovely quote in The Puritan: An Illustrated Magazine for Free Churchmen Volumes 1 & 2 from Nicholl about Miss Stoddart: “Her help has been invaluable, and her hand has been in every part of the journal. Her accomplishments are well known by her admirable translations of Rothe and Maeterlinck; but there is no branch of journalism in which she is not an adept, and almost no subject on which she cannot write with skill and knowledge. She has been the most helpful and loyal of coadjutors, and no contributor is more appreciated by our readers.”
The actual interview portion of her article is shorter than I would have liked, but Nicholl wasn’t exaggerating when he said that there was almost no subject on which “Lorna” couldn’t write with skill and knowledge, and this proves it. I’m sure that vampire folklore was a bit of a departure from her usual weekly musings!
Her teasing overview of what is today still one of the most popular novels ever written, is perhaps the best I have read.
Below is a scan of the full July 1, 1897 British Weekly page which published, among other unrelated material, the article “A Chat With the Author of Dracula”. If you click on the image, you’ll find that the text is large and sharp, and very suitable for reading.
But if you prefer to read it in computer text form, I also have the article transcription below it.
My favourite clip from Lorna’s article was a particularly important sentiment about “Dracula”: “The strange thing is that, although in some respects this is a gruesome book, it leaves on the mind an entirely wholesome impression. The events which happen are so far removed from ordinary experience that they do not haunt the imagination unpleasantly. It is certain that no other writer of our day could have produced so marvellous a book.”
And that is a skill that writers today — both of books and of cinema — desperately need to brush up on.
… † …
Mr. Bram Stoker: A Chat With the Author of Dracula
written by Miss Jane Thompson “Lorna” Stoddart
July 1st, 1897
One of the most interesting and exciting of recent novels is Mr. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” It deals with the ancient mediaeval vampire legend, and in no English work of fiction has this legend been so brilliantly treated. The scene is laid partly in Transylvania and partly in England. The first fifty-four pages, which give the Journal of Jonathan Harker after leaving Vienna until he makes up his mind to escape from Castle Dracula, are in their weird power altogether unrivalled in recent fiction. The only book which to my knowledge at all compares with them is “The Waters of Hercules,” by E.D. Gerard, which also treats of a wild and little known portion of Eastern Europe. Without revealing the plot of the story, I may say that Jonathan Harker, whose diary first introduces the vampire Count, is a young solicitor sent by his employer to Castle Dracula to arrange for the purchase of a house and estate in England.
From the first day of his starting, signs and wonders follow him. At the “Golden Krone” at Bistritz the landlady warns him not to go to Castle Dracula, and, finding that his purpose is unalterable, places a rosary with a crucifix round his neck. For this gift he has good cause to be grateful afterwards. Harker’s fellow-passengers on the stage-coach grow more and more alarmed about his safety as they come nearer to the dominions of the Count. Kindly gifts are pressed upon him: wild rose, garlic, and mountain ash. These are meant to be a protection against the evil eye. The author seems to know every corner of Transylvania and all its superstitions. Presently in the Borgo Pass a carriage with four horses drives up beside the coach. “The horses were driven by a tall man with a long brown beard, and a great black hat which seemed to hide his face from us. I could only see the gleam of a pair of very bright eyes, which seemed red in the lamplight as he turned to us. . . . As he spoke he smiled, and the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: ‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell’ (‘For the dead travel fast’).”
This is the famous king vampire, Count Dracula, in ancient times a warlike Transylvanian noble. Jonathan Harker is conscious from the first that he is among ghostly and terrible surroundings. Even on the night journey to the Castle, wolves which have gathered round the carriage disappear when the terrible driver lifts his hand. On his arrival the guest is left waiting, and presently a tall old man, whom he suspects from the beginning to be none other than the driver himself, bids him welcome to his house. The Count never eats with his guest. During the day he is absent, but during the night he converses, the dawn breaking up the interview. There are no mirrors to be seen in any part of the ancient building, and the young solicitor’s fears are confirmed by the fact that one morning, when the Count comes unexpectedly to his bedroom and stands looking over his shoulder, there is no reflection of him in the small shaving glass Harker has brought from London, and which covers the whole room behind. The adventures of Jonathan Harker will be read again and again; the most powerful part of the book after this is the description of the voyage of the Demeter from Varna to Whitby. A supernatural terror haunts the crew from the moment that they leave the Dardanelles, and as time goes on one man after another disappears. It is whispered that at night a man, tall, thin, and ghastly pale, is seen moving about the ship. The mate, a Roumanian, who probably knows the vampire legend, searches during the day in a number of old boxes, and in one he finds Count Dracula asleep. His own suicide and the death of the captain follow, and when the ship arrives at Whitby, the vampire escapes in the form of a huge dog. The strange thing is that, although in some respects this is a gruesome book, it leaves on the mind an entirely wholesome impression. The events which happen are so far removed from ordinary experience that they do not haunt the imagination unpleasantly. It is certain that no other writer of our day could have produced so marvellous a book.
On Monday morning I had the pleasure of a short conversation with Mr. Bram Stoker, who, as most people know, is Sir Henry Irving’s manager at the Lyceum Theatre. He told me, in reply to a question, that the plot of the story had been a long time in his mind, and that he spent about three years in writing it. He had always been interested in the vampire legend. “It is undoubtedly,” he remarked, “a very fascinating theme, since it touches both on mystery and fact. In the Middle Ages the terror of the vampire depopulated whole villages.”
Is there any historical basis for the legend?
“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about. The more hysterical, through excess of fear, might themselves fall into trances in the same way; and so the story grew that one vampire might enslave many others and make them like himself. Even in the single villages it was believed that there might be many such creatures. When once the panic seized the population, their only thought was to escape.”
In what parts of Europe has this belief been most prevalent?
“In certain parts of Styria it has survived longest and with most intensity, but the legend is common to many countries, to China, Iceland, Germany, Saxony, Turkey, the Chersonese, Russia, Poland, Italy, France, and England, besides all the Tartar communities.”
In order to understand the legend, I suppose it would be necessary to consult many authorities?
Mr. Stoker told me that the knowledge of vampire superstitions shown in “Dracula” was gathered from a great deal of miscellaneous reading.
“No one book that I know of will give you all the facts. I learned a good deal from E. Gerard’s ‘Essays on Roumanian Superstitions,’ which first appeared in the Nineteenth Century, and were afterwards published in a couple of volumes. I also learned something from Mr. Baring-Gould’s ‘Were-Wolves.’ Mr. Gould has promised a book on vampires, but I do not know whether he has made any progress with it.”
Readers of “Dracula” will remember that the most famous character in it is Dr. van Helsing, the Dutch physician, who, by extraordinary skill, self-devotion, and labour, finally outwits and destroys the vampire. Mr. Stoker told me that van Helsing is founded on a real character. In a recent leader on “Dracula”, published in a provincial newspaper, it is suggested that high moral lessons might be gathered from the book. I asked Mr. Stoker whether he had written with a purpose, but on this point he would give no definite answer, “I suppose that every book of the kind must contain some lesson,” he remarked; “but I prefer that readers should find it out for themselves.”
In reply to further questions, Mr. Stoker said that he was born in Dublin, and that his work had laid for thirteen years in the Civil Service. He is an M.A. of Trinity College, Dublin. His brother-in-law is Mr. Frankfort Moore, one of the most popular young writers of the day. He began his literary work early. The first thing he published was a book on “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions.” Next came a series of children’s stories, “Under the Sunset,” published by Sampson Low. Then followed the book by which he has hitherto been best known, “The Snake’s Pass.” Messrs. Constable have published in their “Acme” library a fascinating little volume called “The Watter’s Mou,” and this, with “The Shoulder of Shasta,” completes Mr. Stoker’s list of novels. He has been in London for some nineteen years, and believes that London is the best possible place for a literary man. “A writer will find a chance here if he is good for anything; and recognition is only a matter of time.” Mr. Stoker speaks of the generosity shown by literary men to one another in a tone which shows that he, at least, is not disposed to quarrel with the critics.
Mr. Stoker does not find it necessary to publish through a literary agent. It always seems to him, he says, that an author with an ordinary business capacity can do better for himself than through any agent. “Some men now-a-days are making ten thousand a year by their novels, and it seems hardly fair that they should pay ten or five per cent. of this great sum to a middleman. By a dozen letters or so in the course of the year they could settle all their literary business on their own account.” Though Mr. Stoker did not say so, I am inclined to think that the literary agent is to him a nineteenth century vampire.
No interview during this week would be complete without a reference to the Jubilee, so I asked Mr. Stoker, as a Londoner of nearly twenty years’ standing, what he thought of the celebrations. “Everyone,” he said, “has been proud that the great day went off so successfully. We have had a magnificent survey of the Empire, and last week’s procession brought home, as nothing else could have done, the sense of the immense variety of the Queen’s dominions.”
Regarding Stoker’s novel, Jane Stoddart said, “It deals with the ancient mediaeval vampire legend, and in no English work of fiction has this legend been so brilliantly treated.” Now remember, this article was written at a time when “Dracula” was still considered a new release! There weren’t nearly as many works of fiction available to compare it to as there are now. But the truth is, 123 years later, I think Miss Stoddart, and I, for that matter, would stand by her original statement. No other work of vampire legend fiction, English or otherwise, has ever surpassed Stoker’s original imagined Count Dracula, full of cunning and grace, with a lust and hunger for life — albeit an undead one.