From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
An Old Scottish Prayer.
Happy All Hallow's Eve. And by Hallow we mean a Saint, because tomorrow is All Saint's Day. Halloween as a feast is derived from the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.
And so perhaps it's not so surprising that it’s an Irishman who wrote one of the definitive horror stories of all time.
In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, and so gave life to the Romanian Count who will not die. Oh he is fully dispatched in Stoker’s tale, but his story haunts each generation of artists who bring him back to life in updated forms. The august Masterpiece Theatre did a version a few years ago that is quite excellent, although version is the operative word. There is something about this story that begs the new tellers to play with the actual story points to suit their new retellings. That’s why no two filmed versions seem to tell exactly the same tale, except in the broad strokes.
I first read the tale in an Irish Lit. class, right after Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), which is considered the first historical novel. The book is not the easiest read, because the epistolary/journal form can be tedious. But the story now lives so entirely in collective DNA, there’s almost no need to return to the original pages.
Stoker was born near Clontarf, outside of Dublin, to Protestant parents. In Dublin, they would have been in the minority, going to the Church of Ireland. The academics started finding meaning here in the 1990s:
"Once considered as almost beneath serious critical notice, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, when psychoanalytical and feminist critics began to see it as a veritable circus of fin-de-siecle sexual fears and longings.
“At the same time [1990s], the question of the novel's origins came to the fore, and critics began to locate it as a Victorian Irish rather than Victorian British text . . . ."
Not to be too reductionist, but it doesn’t take a team of academics to suss out that blood matters to the Irish, very deeply, as does soil/land. The fear of women’s sexuality, on the other hand, knows no geographical boundaries.
But what’s even more interesting is to look at our Irishman. He toils as a civil servant in Dublin for some eight years, and writes a nonfiction book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions. Clearly he is more Wallace Stevens than Edgar Allen Poe.
He meets the rock star actor Henry Irving, moves to London, marries an Oscar Wilde-cast off beauty named Florence Balcombe, and becomes the business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre.
Thus his day job is filled with the creativity and talent of the likes of Ellen Terry, George Bernard Shaw, later Walt Whitman, and Irving himself. His biographer, Barbara Belford, believes that Irving is the “monster with manners,” that Stoker models the Count on. Stoker was overwhelmed and dazzled in many ways by his egocentric boss. He wrote a monograh on Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving.
Still, it begs the question: how did this civil servant cum business manager create the lasting story that is Dracula?
Kirkus did the same head-scratching:
“As for Dracula itself, it remains a conundrum of violation, rapacious desire, and death under the cloak of Victorian civility. It mirrors the fundamental conundrum of Stoker's life, as posed by a journalist of his time: How could this ""great shambling, good-natured overgrown boy"" have been the author of Dracula?”
I like to think it all goes back to the essence of Irishness: it’s deeper, darker, more complex than ever meets the eye. Nothing surprises me about those tantalizing people.
I hear they invented the Jack O’Lantern when a lazy farmer named Jack tried to trick the Devil. . . .
(post first published in 2007.)