11 Enlightening Facts About Bram Stoker
By Brigit Katz
Bram Stoker, author of the Gothic masterpiece Dracula, created one of literature’s most iconic characters: a blood-slurping, shape-shifting, garlic-hating vampire, who dwells in a spooky Transylvanian castle and infuses his victims with the curse of the undead. Since the novel’s publication in 1897, an exuberant vampire subculture has swooped around the world, with Stoker’s creepy count inspiring everything from movies to ballets to breakfast cereals.
It is quite possible that Stoker would have been surprised by Dracula’s tremendous popularity. He played many roles over the course of his lifetime—athlete, journalist, civil servant, fiction writer—but was best known in his day as the business manager of a famous stage actor. Here are 11 enlightening facts about the man behind the modern vampire legend.
1. Bram Stoker was a sickly child.
Abraham (“Bram”) Stoker was born in 1847 in Clontarf, a coastal suburb of Dublin, Ireland. He was the third of seven children and his family was comfortably middle-class. But Stoker had a challenging start to life. Stricken by a severe, yet unexplained, illness, he was confined to bed during the early years of his childhood. “[T]ill I was about 7 years old,” the author later wrote, “I never knew what it was to stand upright.”
2. Bram Stoker became a star college athlete.
Despite his mysterious childhood malady, Stoker grew to become a tall and robust young adult. He enrolled in Trinity College Dublin in 1864, and while he was just an average student, he excelled at a busy roster of extracurricular activities—particularly athletic ones. Stoker joined the college’s rugby team and participated in high and long jumping, gymnastics, trapeze, and rowing, among other pursuits. He won prizes for weight lifting and endurance walking, and was crowned “Dublin University Athletic Sports Champion” in 1867. Looking back on his university days, Stoker recalled being “physically immensely strong.”
3. While at university, Bram Stoker worked in Dublin Castle.
Stoker entered the civil service while he was still a student at Trinity College. He landed a job at Dublin Castle, following in the footsteps of his father, who worked in the historic building as a clerk in the British administration. Stoker was eventually promoted to become Inspector of Petty Sessions, giving him oversight of magistrates’ courts. His first published book was in fact a manual for civil servants titled The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland. By Stoker’s own admission, the book was as “dry as dust.”
4. Bram Stoker was a manager for a famous actor.
During his civil servant years, Stoker began moonlighting as an unpaid theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail. A fan of the theater, Stoker had been dismayed with the drama coverage in Dublin newspapers, which often assigned reviews to staff reporters with no theater expertise. He offered his services to the owner of the Mail, and when he was told that there was no money for new critics, he volunteered to write his reviews for free. It was through this role that Stoker met his thespian idol, the formidable Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving, marking the start of one of the most important relationships in the author’s life. “Soul had looked into soul!” Stoker wrote of their first encounter. “From that hour began a friendship as profound, as close, as lasting as can be between two men.”
Impressed by Stoker’s business sense—and flattered by his admiration—Irving invited Stoker to work as his manager. It was an all-consuming job: Stoker organized Irving’s tours abroad, co-hosted his dinner parties, and answered his letters—more than half a million of them, by Stoker’s estimation. He also oversaw the operations of Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum. Though Stoker enjoyed modest success as an author during his lifetime, he was primarily known as Irving’s right-hand man. Upon Stoker’s death in 1912, The New York Times attributed “much of Irving’s success” to him.
5. It took Bram Stoker seven years to write Dracula.
Stoker reportedly liked to say that the vision for his iconic bloodsucker came to him in a nightmare, following “a too-generous helping of dressed crab at supper.” While the author’s notes suggest that some elements of the plot may have indeed originated from a dream, he also consulted a wide range of sources while preparing to write Dracula—from books on legends and superstitions, to natural history texts, to travelogues. A holiday in the seaside resort of Whitby provided color for his character’s backstory. (He never visited Transylvania, the historic Romanian region where Dracula famously resides.)
Stoker ultimately spent seven years researching and writing his novel, struggling through “the overload of his own imaginative clutter” and crises of confidence in the narrative, according to biographer David J. Skal. “He had second, even third thoughts about almost everything,” Skal writes. “In the end, he wondered if the book would even be remembered.”
6. Dracula was almost named “Count Wampyr.”
Stoker’s notes for Dracula reveal that he originally planned to give his dastardly vampire a rather on-the-nose name: “Count Wampyr.” But he seems to have changed his mind after reading An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, a survey of two Romanian provinces. Stoker borrowed the book from a public library in the summer of 1890 and copied a telling footnote into his papers, adding his own capitalizations for emphasis: "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL." At some point, Stoker went back to his notes and, in various places, crossed out “Wampyr” and wrote in “Dracula.” The new name appears to have made an impression on Stoker’s editor, too; the author titled his novel The Un-dead, but an editor changed it to Dracula before the book’s publication.
7. Bram Stoker staged a theatrical adaptation of Dracula before the novel was released.
On May 18, 1897—eight days before Dracula was published—an adaptation of the novel was staged at the Lyceum Theater. It was a slapdash affair. All plays intended for public performance had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for licensing, so Stoker had quickly put together a script in order to retain the dramatic rights to Dracula. Advertisements for the performance, which was more of a dramatic reading than a play, were put up just half an hour before the show was due to begin. Only two paying customers were in the audience—perhaps for the best, since the adaptation comprised “over 40 scenes in total, and would probably have taken a numbing six hours to read,” according to the British Library.
The Count did not appear on stage again until 1924, when the Irish actor Hamilton Deane premiered his dramatic version of Dracula, adapted with the permission of Stoker’s widow. The show was a smash hit, and became even more popular when it made its debut in America, featuring a script revision by John L. Balderston and starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Stoker’s Gothic tale, which had sold moderately after its release as a novel, had become a cultural sensation.
8. Bram Stoker sent fan mail to Walt Whitman.
Stoker first encountered Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s poetic opus, as a student at Trinity College. The work was controversial—for its overt sensuality and experimental style, among other things—but it deeply moved Stoker. In 1872, he wrote Whitman an effusive letter that ran nearly 2000 words, thanking the poet for his work and expressing the hope that the two could become friends. “If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you,” Stoker confessed, “for I feel that I would like you.” It took him four years to muster the courage to send the letter to Whitman—and several weeks later, he received a letter in return. “You did well to write me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and so affectionately, too,” the poet assured Stoker. “I too hope (though it is not probable) that we shall one day meet each other.”
But Stoker and Whitman did meet—three times, in fact, thanks to Stoker’s travels to the United States with Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theater. Their conversations meandered over a range of subjects, from poetry to the theater to Abraham Lincoln, whom both men admired. “I found [Whitman] all that I had ever dreamed of,” Stoker recalled. And when Whitman died in 1892, he left Stoker a gift: the original notes to a lecture on Lincoln that the poet delivered in Philadelphia in 1886.
9. Bram Stoker also wrote a novel about a malevolent worm.
Though he is best remembered as the author of Dracula, Stoker wrote numerous short stories and 12 novels over the course of his literary career. His fiction ranges in genre from adventure, to romance, to horror—but only one of his works, a novel called The Lair of the White Worm, claims the distinction of being, in the words of one critic, “one of the barmiest books ever written.”
The narrative features a monstrous creepy-crawly, a kite-obsessed mesmerist, and numerous mongooses, among other oddities. Modern readers have criticized The Lair of the White Worm for being flagrantly racist, sexist, and just generally very bad. Published in 1911, it was Stoker’s last novel, written at a time when he was in poor health. Some have questioned whether the novel’s “unhinged nature” was a product of mental decline caused by syphilis—but despite much speculation on the matter, there is no definitive evidence that Stoker ever contracted the sexually transmitted disease.
10. Bram Stoker faced financial difficulties at the end of his life.
Stoker’s later years were marked by illness and financial hardship. He suffered from kidney disease, and in 1906, he had a paralytic stroke that left him with lingering vision problems. Henry Irving had died the previous year, and with his long-time employer gone, Stoker turned to various other sources of income; he managed a West End musical production, worked as a journalist, and continued to write fiction. But these ventures did not bring in much money, and his health continued to decline. In 1911, he appealed to the Royal Literary Fund for financial help, explaining that he had suffered a recent “breakdown from overwork” and did not know if he would be able to “do much, or any, literary work” in the future. But the author did not live much longer; he died on April 20, 1912, at the age of 64.
11. Bram Stoker’s obituaries scarcely mentioned Dracula.
Now one of the most famous novels in the English language, Dracula barely warranted a mention in Stoker’s obituaries, which focused instead on his professional relationship with Henry Irving. The New York Times opined that Stoker’s “stories, though they were queer, were not of a memorable quality,” while The Times in London predicted that his biography of Irving would be his “chief literary memorial”—only briefly noting that Stoker was also a “master of a particularly lurid and creepy kind of fiction.”