Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: 'Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood'

The primary purpose of Jim Steinmeyer’s Who Was Dracula?: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood is to settle the source of fiction’s most sinister count. While agreeing that Voivoide and serial-impaler Vlad Dracula didn't inspire anything more than the vampire’s name, Steinmeyer focuses on four figures he believes impelled Bram Stoker to conjure his most enduring story: decadent writer Oscar Wilde, enthralling yet overbearing actor Henry Irving, passionate poet Walt Whitman, and misogynistic murderer Jack the Ripper.

Steinmeyer only manages to make a convincing case for Irving, who after Vlad, is most often cited as the inspiration for Dracula. The writer’s other arguments are pretty thin, especially when making straw-grasping notes about how, like Dracula, Whitman had a moustache (let’s not fixate on his great, big beard) or how the alleged Ripper, Francis Tumblety, may have attended a social club at which Stoker regularly held court. There’s a lot of “may have” in Who Was Dracula?

So Steinmeyer isn’t wholly successful in accomplishing his central goal, and Criticism 101 teaches us that this should be the main deciding factor in whether a work is good or bad. The thing is, Who Was Dracula? is pretty impossible to call bad. In fact, it’s pretty fantastic. Steinmeyer’s recreations of historical scenes are beautifully written and utterly transporting. Whether or not Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde really had significant influences on Count Dracula, they are fascinating artists, and Stoker did, indeed, know them, apparently harboring a sexual attraction to the former and hypocritically shunning the latter amidst Wildes “indecency” trial. Steinmeyer recounts these relationships with the same vividness he brings to all aspects of his book, including his riveting study of the Ripper murders. As a portrait of a few years in the life of Bram Stoker, and a few years in London’s rich theater and art scene, Who Was Dracula? is grand. So what if the title question is never satisfactorily answered?
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