Most famous for his monumental vampire novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker was hardly a one hit wonder: he was responsible for two other supernatural novels and around two dozen short stories and poems. Largely inspired by the gothic aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, his stories are at times melancholy, mystical, gory, and gruesome, but always strange and haunting. In our annotated and illustrated edition of Stoker's short fiction we have collected the very best of his short stories (eliminating some of his more maudlin, sentimental tales and sticking to the weird and disturbing episodes worthy of the author of Dracula). You'll find torture chambers, murderous ghosts, female vampires, grisly murders, revenge fantasies, gypsy curses, and Gothic tales of doom, terror, and gore. If you enjoyed feasting on Dracula, sit down for the appetizers. The following list describes the seven best.
7. THE CASTLE OF THE KING
One of Stoker’s earliest stories – like most of his early stories – is essentially a Poe pastiche. Combining elements from many of Poe’s eeriest tales and poems (Masque of Red Death, The Raven, Lenore, Ulalume, The Shadow, Silence, Eldorado, etc.), along with the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Stoker describes a plucky poet’s journey to the Land of the Shadow of Death. Defying the recent death of his beloved, the heartbroken lover shakes off the warnings of superstitious peasants as he descends into a Gothic landscape of crags, fog, and mandrakes until he finally comes to the looming estate of King Death.
6. THE STAR TRAP
Also inspired by Poe – this time by his revenge fantasies: The Cask of Amontillado and Hop-Frog in particular – “The Star Trap” gives Stoker an opportunity to show off his theatre background, by describing a fatal love triangle in a theatre troupe, and a grisly murder done with stage trickery. An ugly theatrical carpenter is cuckolded by the handsome new actor who has all the women swooning, but seems unthreatened by the affair. In typical Poe-style, however, still waters run deep, and our bumbling carpenter has a few tricks up his sleeve involving the star-shaped trapdoor which opens when the gymnastic actor is catapulted onto the stage.
5. THE SECRET OF THE GROWING GOLD
This story has typically confused readers because of its title, so let me clarify right of the bat: the “gold” in question is a dead woman’s hair growing out of her grave. Creepy right? Yeah, this is a ghost story, not a Faustian tale of alchemy, and it’s a pretty spooky one, too. As in the previous tale, Stoker pits an unfaithful lover against their spurned partner – but here he flips the genders: the villain is a cad who has arranged the death of his wealthy wife whose carriage plummets into a gorge. When she reappears years later – half insane and thirsty for revenge – he is married to a beautiful Italian and not eager to deal with her dramatics. Tidily enough he disposes of her, but his mind isn’t long at rest before he notices something growing out of the hearthstone that covers her corpse – and it keeps growing, and growing… and growing.
4. THE BURIAL OF THE RATS
Bram Stoker meets Hitchcock in this action-packed thriller about a lovelorn gentleman who takes a midnight stroll through a Parisian junkyard (where rubbish, trash, and dust are piled into mountains) and finds himself hunted by murderous hobos. He quickly realizes that he has no hope of survival unless he can get to the nearby mental asylum, and that if he dies the rats will quickly clean his bones of flesh and give him an anonymous, inglorious death. Dodging axes, evading murderous crones, and avoiding the ravenous rodents of Paris, our Cary Grant-figure finds himself playing the “Most Dangerous Game” with a hint of “Three Skeleton Key.”
3. DRACULA’S GUEST
Extremely controversial, “Dracula’s Guest” has been variously catalogued as a prequel to Dracula; a deleted first chapter to Dracula; a story with Dracula in it but has nothing to do with the plot of the novel; or an early, rejected draft of the novel. Regardless of how you interpret it, it is definitely fun to read another Dracula story by Bram Stoker that may or may not have Jonathan Harker as protagonist. Whoever he is, this English snob is on his way to meet the Count when he stops in Munich during Halloween’s spring counterpart: Wulpurgis Night. Spurning peasant warnings, he walks alone and stumbles into a cemetery where he seeks shelter from a blizzard in the tomb of a countess who committed suicide. Bad plan. Werewolves, a vision of sheeted ghosts, screaming corpses, lightning, snow, and a possible sighting of Dracula (stalking him from a distance) are just some of the perils that await him.
2. THE SQUAW
One of Stoker’s unquestionable masterpieces, “The Squaw” teaches its readers that cruelty to animals can have gruesome consequences. Combining elements of various Poe stories (Pit and the Pendulum, The Black Cat, Hop-Frog, Cask of Amontillado) and presaging Lovecraft’s “The Cats of Ulthar,” “The Squaw” follows a trio of tourists – an English couple and a coarse American cowboy – as they explore the torture museum of Nuremberg. Earlier the American had killed a kitten in a careless act, and they are unsettled by the way the mother cat follows them with blazing eyes, but she seems to get lost as they enter the room with the iron maiden in it. In a wildly sexualized scene, the cowboy betrays a masochistic taste for bondage, demanding that he be firmly bound and secured inside the iron maiden – to his orgasmic delight. This is too much for the young Englishwoman, but her husband lingers to watch the custodian carefully lower the spiked lid to give the cowboy the sensation of death. Enter the cat…
1. THE JUDGE’S HOUSE
One of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, this work would have ensured Stoker’s memory as a master of horror even without Dracula. Largely based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street,” Stoker heightens the tension on Le Fanu’s already chilling horror tale and gives it a brilliant ending. Prefiguring M. R. James (especially “Oh Whistle…” and “A Warning to the Curious”), Stoker follows a skeptical young scholar who rents a disreputable house and demands privacy, spurns company, and rejects the help of friendly locals. He learns that his house was once owned by an impulsive hanging judge (his emotional foil), and that it is believed to be haunted. Disturbed only by the many rats (one of which is strangely anthropomorphic), he is gradually exposed to a world of supernatural horror that defies all of his logic, reason, and skepticism – one where anarchy, impulse, lust, and emotion dominate, where science is neutered, rationalism declawed, and the combined judge, jury, and executioner is the personification of chaos.