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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Bram Stoker's Savage Thrillers and White-Knuckle, Survivalist Horror Stories

Bram Stoker’s name has become synonymous with horror and the macabre, and with good reason. Frequently associated with nothing more than Count Dracula, Stoker wrote some half a dozen masterpieces of short horror fiction, and another dozen-and-a-half which contribute respectably to the genre. The Bram Stoker Award was created in honor of his short fiction as much as for “Dracula.” Stephen King admired him so profoundly that – when describing Stoker’s contributions to English horror in his nonfiction summary of horror, Danse Macabre,” he raved that “Stoker wrote some absolutely champion short stories – ‘The Squaw’ and ‘The Judge’s House’ may be the best known. Those who enjoy macabre short fiction could not do better than… Dracula’s Guest, which is stupidly out of print.” In his 2011 preface to “Dracula,” King shed further light on his deep respect for Stoker, admitting that “Of all the monsters in my closet, this is the one that scares me most, and probably always will.”

Unquestionably the most influential and best recognized horror novel in the English language, Dracula’s success is in some ways baffling: it is rife with plot holes, agonizingly sappy sentimentalism, a slew of socioeconomic stereotypes, a plutocratic ethos (that clashes horribly with both American and English political sensibilities), flat and obnoxious characters (e.g., Quincey Morris and Professor Van Helsing respectively), unnecessary plot points, and a collection of staggering inconsistencies in characterization, vampiric lore, plot points, dates, timelines, and basic geographic descriptions. And yet it persists, and builds, and swells with new life, challenged only by Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper as the definitive cultural icon of the late Victorian age in the minds of most readers and moviegoers. Dracula’s proliferation is due to its deep psychological resonance with the collective consciousness of Western (and indeed, global) civilization.

Pregnant with a slew of powerful archetypes (the sinister invader from without; the naïve but valiant man of honor; the fallen but alluring seductress; the wise, grandfatherly shaman or guide; the virginal maiden in danger; the madman who imparts wisdom) worthy of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, it presents a timeless parable that is so deftly and vaguely portrayed that it manages to resonate with the psyches of anyone who encounters it: it may be a bald metaphor for the pitfalls of reckless sexuality, for female anxieties of sexual abuse or predation, for the abuses of class, for the insecurities of manhood, for the paradoxical anxieties of colonial empires, for the construction and preservation of national identity, for the combustible potential of strict gender roles, for the biblical narrative of Satan’s war waged against God, or for the internal struggle between antisocial selfishness and altruistic virtue – between the will and the conscience. Despite Stoker’s artless moments, he wrought a masterwork which speaks to human anxieties, impulses, and struggles just as capably as Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, or Great Expectations.

Stoker himself, born to a middle-classed Dublin family in 1847, was infused into his greatest work, and the psychic fingerprints of the author are left in great smears across its pages. Sickly as a child, he overcompensated for his early sedentariness with an active, athletic youth and an ambitions college career wherein he excelled at and graduated with a degree mathematics; he served as the College Historical Society’s auditor, was president of the University Philosophical Society, and became a respected critic of literature and the stage. His work in this capacity caused him to become introduced to Sir Henry Irving – largely considered the prototype for Dracula – a stupendous stage actor renowned for his Shakespearean villains.

After reading a favorable review of his portrayal of Hamlet, Irving – analogous to the 20th century’s Olivier, Welles, and Day-Lewis – invited the young Irishman over for dinner, initiating a lifelong friendship. Stoker married the Florence Balcombe, a renowned beauty and coquette, in 1878, barely snatching her away from another Draculean prototype, the suave, sexually adventurous Oscar Wilde. Wilde, like Irving, teemed with charisma and eroticism, and initially resented the Florence’s decision. While Stoker resumed a polite friendship with his countryman, the latter’s eventual disgrace and moral defamation helped to fuel the supposition that he had saved his wife from a scandalous seduction.

Irving rescued Stoker from a life of writing tedious manuals and clerical purgatory by hiring him as the business manager of his tremendously popular Lyceum Theatre in London, where he continued to work for three decades, rubbing shoulders with English high society, and developing a public profile as the practical-minded, bean-counting brains behind Britain’s most renowned actor. It was through this medium that he cultivated relationships with some of the world’s greatest living writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Walt Whitman, heads of state, such as presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and artists like James McNeill Whistler (of Whistler’s Mother). These encounters, along with his oldest brother’s baronetcy (making him Sir Thornley Stoker, 1st Brt.), caused the ambitious accountant to become deeply conscious of his simple, middle classed background, which – despite his public profile – caused him some embarrassment.

Stoker retained a guilty passion for melodramatic romances and sentimental adventures (his first paper submitted to the University Philosophical Society was titled “Sensationalism in Fiction and Society”), and when his management of Irving’s international tours permitted him the leisure to write, he began producing a stream of fantasies, melodramas, and Gothic tales. Beginning with children’s fairy tales, an embarrassingly preachy temperance novel, and will-they-won’t-they romances, Stoker’s literary career outside of Dracula (and perhaps a dozen tales, most included in his posthumous 1914 anthology) was cringe-worthy. He was adept at prose, fair at dialogue, and had a fine hand at weaving dramatic irony, atmosphere, and setting, but he suffered horrendously from a flair for melodrama, hammy writing, and bloated morals. Consider this excerpt from his ludicrously gory, misanthropic parable “The Death Doom of the Double Born,” a scene struggling to describe the birth of twins to an elderly couple: “In the glow of thy transport all doubts are forgotten; and when the doctor cometh forth as the harbinger of joy he findeth thee radiant with new found delight.” But Dracula required a great deal of focus and effort, and while it is compromised by a horde of flaws, it shines out amongst his otherwise miserable canon of work.

Stoker began work on The Un-Dead (as he first called it) in 1890, spending seven years consuming books on Slavic folklore, vampire and werewolf myths, Eastern European history, and the great vampires (half a dozen or so) extant in English literature. Particularly inspired by his countryman, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (whose Carmilla revolutionized the literary vampire and continues to outperform even Dracula in grace and nuance), and by the aristocratic bloodsuckers Varney the Vampire, Lord Ruthven, and (Coleridge’s) Geraldine, Stoker cobbled together a compilation of these charismatic figures. He wrapped the vampiric essence in the decidedly foreign and barbaric mantle of the historic Vlad III “the Impaler” Dracula, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who waged awe-inspiring psychological warfare with invading Ottomans during a period marked by great political and civic instability in southeast Europe.

Never having visited Romania, Stoker made good use of the British Museum and the Whitby library to color his plot and settings, but rapidly switched the action to London and Whitby, where he lived and vacationed respectively. Published in 1897, the book was predictably received negatively, with critics perturbed by Stoker’s shoddy writing, sensational plot, and sexual subtest. But as a dramatized version took the English stage by storm, the book began to sell in shockingly high volumes internationally. Although Irving declined to depict his tribute, the play was astonishingly successful, and (like William Gillette’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes) set the tone for the Count for the next century, in some aspects diverting from the source material. Nationally renowned as a business manager, Stoker ironically mismanaged his copyright, and earned very little from the book. By the time he died fifteen years later, it had, nonetheless, made his name a household word, and elevated it into the macabre canon of Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe.

There were two distinct stages in Stoker’s writing career: an early stage heavily influenced by Poe’s “Arabesques” which lasted from 1872 to 1891, and one more directly influenced by Poe’s “Grotesques” and the ghost stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The first phase began with his first published horror story, “The Crystal Cup,” a ghostly fantasy – essentially a pastiche of Poe – that smacks of equal parts “Hop Frog,” “Annabel Lee,” “Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Shadow.” Among the stories printed in this book, it was followed by “The Castle of the King” (another macabre Poe piece influenced by “Ulalume,” “Eldorado,” “Lenore,” and the Greek myth of Orpheus), “The Dualitists” (Stoker’s grisliest, most misanthropic tale – one which concerns two psychopathic boys’ sadistic rampage), and “The Star Trap” (a revenge narrative – not unlike Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hop Frog” – set in the British theatre, where a love triangle in an acting company proves fatal). While Stoker continued to be influenced by Poe, 1891 saw a shift in his writing style and a sense of gravitas and psychological complexity entered his fiction. The works of his fellow Anglo-Irishman, Le Fanu, seemed to provide a new range of literary colors with which to paint his horror stories, and the 1890s would be remembered in Stoker’s life as the Era of Masterpieces.

Beginning in 1891, he wrote what continues to be seen as his short fiction masterpiece, “The Judge’s House.” It must be admitted that the story is almost a plagiaristic retooling of two of Le Fanu’s best stories: “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” and “Mr Justice Harbottle.” Both stories (the second is a kind of prequel to the first) revolve around a house which is haunted by the malevolent spirit of a Georgian hanging judge. The first story is the more precise model of “The Judge’s House”: it includes overworked students renting a cheap house, horrible nightmares, a giant anthropomorphic rat (the familiar of the dead judge), a haunted portrait of the previous owner, and the figure of the judge casually coming towards one of the students with a noose in hand. Le Fanu’s story was written in 1853, nearly forty years prior, and Stoker – to his credit – breathes new life into it by changing the tense from first person to third, by reducing the protagonists from two skeptical students to one, by changing the setting from the heart of Dublin to a country village, and by ending the story with a tragedy.

Le Fanu’s fiction typically viewed humanity with cynicism, but also somber pity: the mass of men are like so many flies finding themselves trapped in webs woven by a disinterested creator – a punishing, merciless, vindictive God who has little interest in rewarding acts of righteousness, but focusing all of his energies on reprimanding the slightest misstep, bringing the full force of karmic punishment to bear against the merest accident of a sin. Throughout the 1890s, Stoker committed himself to creating a similar literary perspective. “The Judge’s House” was followed by a chilly ghost story in the pattern of Le Fanu called “The Growing of the Gold,” which witnesses the comeuppance of a murderous lover who is haunted by the hair of his victim. This was in turn followed by another masterpiece, “The Squaw,” which combined themes from Poe (“The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”) and Le Fanu (“The White Cat of Drumgunniol,” “The Secret of the Two Plaster Casts”) to form a story about a cat’s gruesome vengeance on the bumbling tourist who killed its kitten, and “Crooken Sands,” a strange tale about an Englishman who adopts a Highland costume while touring Scotland – there he is imperiled by a prophetic old man, visions of his Doppelgänger, and hazardous quicksand.

Stoker began “Dracula” in the early part of the decade, working out its plot for several years before it was published in 1897. Also heavily influenced by several Le Fanu stories – primarily the infamous “Carmilla” (Le Fanu’s erotic masterpiece about a lesbian vampire who attaches herself to the only daughter of a widower, a lonely girl whose first friendship is also her first sexual experience), but also “Ultor de Lacy” (an Irish rebel leaves his two daughters in a tower where they wait for his return; one of the two (the Lucy prototype), a romantic sleepwalker, is seduced by the vampiric ghost of a family enemy from a previous century). The first four chapters of Stoker’s chef d’oeuvre are included here with notes and illustrations from our “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Also included is “Dracula’s Guest,” the rejected first chapter of “Dracula,” a masterwork in its own right: Jonathan Harker stops in Germany while en route to Castle Dracula, and finds himself lost in a graveyard during a blizzard where he encounters a ghostly female vampire and the Count himself (in werewolf form).

After the success of “Dracula,” a commercial hit, Stoker turned increasingly towards the novel as a means of income: he wrote a series of Gothic novels during the 20th century, including “The Lair of the White Worm,” “The Lady of the Shroud,” and “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” (about the reincarnated spirit of an Egyptian princess; a predecessor of Universal Pictures’ “Mummy” films). But he did not wholly give up on short fiction during this time. Having died in 1912, Stoker’s second-most popular published work wasn’t printed until 1914. “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories” was edited by his wife, Fanny, who included several posthumous pieces along with masterpieces like “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw,” and “Dracula’s Guest.”

Among the previously unpublished stories – presumably written in the 1900s – were three stories with a common theme: fate. “The Gipsy Prophecy” dealt with the dire warning of a Romani fortune teller to a skeptic, “The Coming of Abel Behenna” follows a love triangle that ends in murder and the killer’s exposure with the help of the corpse, and “A Dream of Red Hands” involves a man whose past sins haunt him in a recurring dream of damnation. A fourth posthumous story – now considered a masterpiece of suspense in the tradition of “Three Skeleton Key,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – called “The Burial of the Rats” is a Hitchcockian chase narrative wherewith an English tourist (always a fair victim for Stoker) finds himself lost in one of Paris’ junkyards where mounds of dusty debris form the treacherous landscape, where its cutthroat beggars mercilessly hunt him down to rob and kill, and where dead bodies don’t last an hour before they are stripped clean of flesh by the ravenous rats.

Stoker’s fiction – in all its phases – has a common Hitchcockian theme found in “The Castle of the King,” “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw,” “Dracula’s Guest,” “The Burial of the Rats,” among others. The idea that mankind is vulnerable, alone, helpless, and surrounded by predators permeates his fiction. No matter how secure we imagine ourselves to be: no matter how rich, how good, how middle-class, how respectable, how wise, how loving, how strong, how clever, or how educated – no matter how prepared we are to face challenges – we are always on the defense, always at the disadvantage, always moments away from destruction. It only takes a second for the fake comforts of status, education, or morality to become useless, and then we are left to fend for ourselves with only our animal instincts as a defense.

As in many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock (e.g., North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew too Much), Stoker’s stories feature beleaguered everymen ensnared in the machinations of insidious forces which are not impressed by their morals or intimidated by their manly dignity. In “The Castle of the King,” the poet hopes that love will save both him and his beloved – it does not. In “The Judge’s House,” Malcolmson relies on his education and skepticism to protect him from evil – it does not. In “The Squaw,” Hutcheson depends on his tested skills as a hunter, fighter, cowboy, and frontiersman to guard him from slaughter – it does not. In “Dracula’s Guest” and “The Burial of the Rats,” the middleclass, English tourists who stumble into trouble are not saved by their breeding, money, morality, or intelligence: both are saved by the deus ex machina intervention of a detachment of foreign policemen (German and French, respectively) who arrive at the nick of time to preserve them from destruction.

Stoker’s world – like Poe’s and Le Fanu’s – is cold and Darwinian, unforgiving and unsympathetic. To survive in it we must band together, cling to our communities, and respect alternative views of the universe (being a materialist didn’t save Malcolmson from the noose nor did being a stoic save Hutcheson from the iron maiden). Travel may be undergone at our own risk as long as we have an understanding that by stepping on foreign soil, we waive our rights to be correct: we must trust local traditions and anxieties and eschew the arrogance of nationalism. Ultimately, Stoker’s vision of humanity and his impression of the world is deeply pessimistic and harshly misanthropic: mankind is deluded into feeling superior to Nature – prince of a domain that seems to have been conquered. But whether the enemy be starving beggars, aristocratic vampires, vengeful cats, ghostly psychopaths, or wolves in the snow, Stoker has one message for us: don’t get cocky, don’t feel too safe; wherever you are you are vulnerable, so – for God’s sake, for your mother’s sake – be careful, watch your steps, and don’t forget to look behind you.

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