There are some books that are more important than their author. Or, rather, the importance of their author consists simply of being in the right place at the right time and subject to the right influences, obsessions and neuroses, so that a book that the culture needs gets produced. There is a sense in which Bram Stoker will always be in the shadow of Dracula, because, without Dracula, what possible reason would we have to be interested in him?
Paul Murray's useful new biography sets out the facts squarely. Stoker came from an Anglo-Irish family of shaky prosperity and was a sportsman in his youth. His wife, Florence, was an object of devotion for both Wilde and WS Gilbert. Stoker was secretary and fixer for the actor Henry Irving, and a man whom writers and artists of the late 19th century found it convenient to know. Paul Murray has read all Stoker's novels, which means we don't have to, and tries to make a case for them - harder than any except Dracula deserves.
What he does make clear is that no simple explanation for Stoker's one important book (in 1897) can hold water by itself. To say that it is about Stoker's unrequited quasi- sexual crush on Irving won't do - equally, it will not serve to dismiss such a reading out of hand. Stoker was torn between conventional ideas of masculinity and his vast admiration for the manly, homoerotic poetry of Whitman. He was a conventional man obsessed with preserving order against degenerate symptoms like women's suffrage, yet rabbit-in-the-headlights fascinated by the very things he wanted to fight.
Part of the power of Dracula is that his mesmerism does not discriminate: he violates the will of both the passive Harker and his wilful wife, Mina. Stoker knew more than most of us how it feels to have charm and will turned on you on a daily basis. At the same time, he knew Irving well enough to be demystified - the man drank too much and had to learn ghostwritten speeches to pass as cleverer than he was. Dracula is not Irving, because part of being a monster is to lack human weakness, but he has monstrous versions of Irving's extraordinary powers.
Murray documents all the folklore sources from which Stoker synthesised his monster. Dracula's back-story is located in the heart of Eastern Europe, where Stoker's brother served with the Red Cross. Yet the Count's capacity to dissolve into fogs and flocks is more Celtic than Slavic. Stoker used the Irish folklore he grew up on, as well as material he looked up later. Vampires were already the subject of cartoons and opera: the power of the novel comes partly from the jackdaw way that Stoker stitched together its elements. Dracula is a multicultural myth with the commercial vigour and vulgarity of the hybrid.
In Stoker's book, of course, Dracula is defeated; the modern world proves too much for him and he is cut to ribbons by an alliance of imperial Europe and go-getting America. The red-eyed, over-sexual embodiment of everything Stoker fears is defeated by the things he values: by outdoorsmen, and a smart woman who knows her place.
In real life, it was otherwise. The cult of the outdoors helped Europe to commit suicide, and women like Mina did not stay where Stoker put them. Stoker died slow and hard from syphilis, and his widow prospered by controlling the use of his one important legacy. And Dracula continued, and continues, to rise from his grave.
Roz Kaveney edited 'Reading the Vampire Slayer' (I B Tauris)Reuse content