By Michael Dirda
Always pay attention to subtitles. “Something in the Blood” isn’t a biography of the Dublin-born Bram Stoker, author of a dozen novels and several works of nonfiction. It’s a biography of “the man who wrote ‘Dracula.’ ”
Horror scholar David J. Skal interprets virtually every aspect of Stoker’s life as an influence on, or source for, his celebrated vampire classic. In effect, the first half of this book tracks what Skal calls “the growing storehouse of images that would fuel the nascent dream ultimately given form as ‘Dracula.’ ” In the second and better half, he then describes the writing of that novel and deepens its links to fin-de-siècle anxieties about syphilis, moral corruption and homosexuality — all of them neatly tied together in the downfall of Stoker’s secret sharer, Oscar Wilde. Skal then concludes with an excellent overview of the Count’s afterlife in literature, art and film.
Though clearly aiming to be a major work, “Something in the Blood” nonetheless comes across as part psychosexual case study and part loose and baggy monster. Its text interpolates entire short biographies of Wilde and actor Sir Henry Irving, for whom Stoker worked as manager of the Lyceum Theatre. It discusses the curious Icelandic version of “Dracula” that Valdimar Ásmundsson titled “Powers of Darkness” (and which Overlook will publish in English in December) and spends pages on the great book artist Harry Clarke’s vain dream of illustrating “Dracula.”
Striking factoids abound. That Stoker married Florence Balcombe, who had previously been engaged to Wilde, is widely known, but were you aware that Owen Wister — author of the cowboy classic “The Virginian”— wanted to write an American epic of the undead as early as 1902? (He never did.) Skal particularly shines in his treatment of “Hollywood Gothic” — to borrow the title of one of his own earlier books — and he produces insightful pages about the silent film masterpiece “Nosferatu,” and the differing interpretations of Dracula in productions starring Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman and others.
Certainly, no one could object to such scholarly largesse or to the book’s scores of magnificent illustrations. Nonetheless, in his core narrative, Skal does seem to use Stoker’s vampire classic to determine what biographical and historical material he emphasizes and how it is interpreted. In fact, he can be quite shameless with winks and nudges, poking us to notice how this or that detail prefigures some aspect of “Dracula.”
The suggestive cultural elements Skal stresses include the practice of bloodletting with leeches, the skeletal appearance of potato famine victims, coffin ships taking the Irish to America, the telltale marks of cholera infection, Gaelic legends about changelings, the demon kings of Christmas pantomimes, the 19th-century vogue for mesmerism, Stoker’s youthful fascination with theatrical stagecraft and for plays like the eerie “Macbeth” and ghost-haunted “Hamlet,” and, not least, the manly love of comrades celebrated by Walt Whitman. Skal later adds the notorious night when the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhumed his dead wife and, crowning them all, the Whitechapel murders of the night-monster Jack the Ripper. He points out, too, that the once-popular novelist Hall Caine — Stoker’s best friend and the dedicatee of “Dracula” — was virtually the disciple of an American quack doctor named Francis Tumblety, who was widely suspected of being the Ripper.
While all this information is clearly welcome, there’s still the matter of the book’s overall character. Look again at Skal’s subtitle and note the phrase “Untold Story.” These words suggest that the biography draws on new material, but they also act as code for scandalous, probably sexually scandalous, revelations. In fact, “Something in the Blood” consistently represents Stoker as essentially a masochistic homosexual and “Dracula” as a book packed with homosexual frissons. The evidence for both claims is certainly there, most notably in Stoker’s Renfield-like submission to his charismatic boss, Irving, and in the Count’s declaration, when shooing the vampire brides away from Jonathan Harker, that “this man belongs to me.” But Skal truly belabors the psychosexual: “Henry Irving was the master he had been searching for all his life . . . Was there a way to achieve middle-class marriage and domesticity while fulfilling his deep yearning for an ecstatic connection to another man?” A little of this goes a long way………………….
www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/something-in-the-blood-the-untold-story-of-the-man-who-wrote-dracula/2016/10/26/d91b4914-96e8-11e6-9b7c-57290af48a49_story.html?utm_term=.9a9ea92bdfaeeen: ‘The Shining’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’]