As I have previously posted, I am something of a Bram Stoker completist. I am not interested in the author of Dracula or even in the novel itself for its vampire subject matter, but instead as a simply blindingly effective use of the English language to tell a story. What makes it even more incredible is that Bram Stoker was the least likely person to write something as effective as parts of Dracula are. Hence I am always interested in any additional insights on Stoker's literary work, especially since research in recent decades has provided a great deal of additional information on his sources and influences in writing Dracula.
Most prominent of all of these discoveries has been the definitive discovery that Stoker knew almost nothing of the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes, beyond a reference in the book he consulted at a library in Whitby during a vacation that mentioned that there had been a prominent nobleman named Dracula in the region, which also noted that the word meant "devil" or "dragon." But it had nothing about his tactic of impaling enemies or any connection with vampirism or even "bloodthirsty" behavior. It just had the name and what it meant. Immediately recognizing that this was a far better name for his vampire count than "Count Wampyr" (no, seriously, that was the working title until he ran across this reference late in the process), Stoker replaced it with "Dracula" and the rest is history, although Skal raises the substantial likelihood that Stoker didn't intend for it to be the title of the book – he proposed The Dead Un-dead and the publisher seems to have made the change.
I was already familiar with Skal as the author of Hollywood Gothic, which in the early 1990s told the story of the various screen adaptations of Stoker's vampire novel, and was interested to see what he could add to the corpus of work on Bram Stoker's life. The book did not start out auspiciously, with agonizing attempts to relate every scrap of material that might have passed before the eyes of the infant and child Bram Stoker to the novel decades later. That was, predictably, followed by outrageously unsupported speculation as to Stoker's influences and sexual predilections. To his credit, the author didn't state these as fact, but simply as possibilities, but even mentioning some of the influences or possibilities was more than the facts warranted. It was Freud run amok.
Surprisingly, however, as Stoker becomes an adult, Skal almost completely dispenses with this sort of speculation in favor of solid factual reporting, during which he repeatedly declines to engage in the more obvious rabbit trails for Stoker biographers, i.e. his fascination with the American poet Walt Whitman, his relationship with his wife Florence, and with his fellow writer Hall Caine, to whom he later dedicated Dracula. Perhaps there was something salacious there, but in the absence of any concrete indications, Skal does not imply that there was. And points out – usefully – that at time people weren't sorted into straight/gay/bisexual categories, nor did they identify as such, so knowing what people "were" or even what they thought of themselves (a particularly fascinating thought when it comes to Stoker) is a much more complex question than it would be today. Ambiguity abounded, and most of Stoker's bounded into Dracula, and how much he knew that it had is the greatest question of all.
Where Skal's biography goes that no prior account of Stoker or of the writing of Dracula has gone, is into the effect of his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde's effect on the book. Wilde is, of course, far better documented than Stoker, and his courtship of Florence Balcombe before she became Mrs. Bram Stoker is well documented as well. What Skal does that I've never seen previously is track down what was apparently a dramatically different initial draft of Dracula which only exists theoretically as a potential source for an Icelandic ripoff. A "translation" of Dracula that was published in Iceland but which has never been completely translated into English has always been assumed to be simply a poor translation, but Skal theorizes based on the characters and limited portions that have been translated, that the Icelandic version was actually taken from an early draft of the book, which bore little resemblance to what was eventually published.
The significance of this in relation to Oscar Wilde is this – at the time Stoker was working on the book, Wilde's trial for homosexual behavior was making association with him toxic in London society, and a number of the sub themes of the book, as well as the setting of the climax bore not-so-subtle indications of association with an Oscar Wilde –-ish character, or at least conduct.
The differences between the earlier draft in the final draft indicate that it is at least possible and probably likely that Stoker intentionally eliminated much of the activity that might have evoked echoes of Wilde, giving us the novel that we know today. This is something I've never seen before, and I am looking forward to further analysis of the Icelandic version of the novel to find out if in fact as Skal suspects, it was based on an earlier version of the novel which had been sent to an acquaintance of Stoker's friend Caine for substantial reworking. The reworking didn't happen, but the draft could have become the basis for a knockoff when the book became a hit.
So in the end this was a very useful additional work on Stoker's life, and I enjoyed it a great deal.