EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 14, 2013

Vampire lovers, bite into this

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

---- — It’s only a movie: That’s what you kept trying to remind yourself the first time you saw a classic vampire flick. Vampires aren’t real, you told yourself. Transylvania is miles away. All this self-talk reduced the creepiness factor, but you still kept your turtleneck sweater handy, fang you very much.

Surely, it took a lot of imagination to invent a blood-chilling character that sleeps in a coffin and bites necks, right? Well, in the new book, “Who Was Dracula?” by Jim Steinmeyer, you’ll see that imagination only half-Counts.

It would be easy to think that actor Henry Irving was somewhat of a Victorian diva. From start to finish, Irving created lavishly dramatic spectacles to delight London theatregoers, paying strict attention to detail both on-stage and off. Cast and crew called him “The Governor,” and nobody contradicted him – except Bram Stoker.

As Irving’s “acting manager,” Stoker kept tight budgets for all presentations and made happen that which Irving dreamed. Though Irving was technically Stoker’s boss, Stoker was Irving’s equal in attention to detail and the two became close friends.

It was a shocking surprise to Stoker, then, when literary sycophants gained cheeky access to Irving’s inner circle. Stoker grew angry: He’d had an idea for a novel and Irving’s new friends were less-than-complimentary. It gnawed at him, too, that Oscar Wilde, the son of personal pals, had enjoyed writing success.

Still resolute, Stoker collected information and made notes, tweaking and creating his masterpiece. Vampire lore had been around for centuries by then, and he was careful to craft details for bits of mythology. Dracula was a well-rounded, thrilling monster. So on whom did Stoker base his vampire?

Steinmeyer says that the answer is complicated. Surely, there’s a bit of Irving in the Count. Stoker may have personally known an infamous murderer, and his research gave the vampire a name and loose historical basis. Add a bit of autobiography, influence from a randy American poet, and a scandalous playwright, and Stoker had a hit.

Think of all the vampires you’ve known and loved: cartoons, romances, toys, movies, (good and bad), even breakfast cereal. Now consider this: Stoker’s creature appears in a mere 62 pages of the original novel. So how did Dracula seize our imaginations so strongly?

Among other things, author Jim Steinmeyer answers that question. Along the way, he busts myths and gives readers menace, jealousy and mystery.

While I very much liked the foreboding, I sometimes struggled with Steinmeyer’s flights off-topic. They were more information than I wanted, but I do have to admit that those parts are relevant, if not entertaining; they do help us understand why we’re repelled and fascinated by this culturally changing, bad-accent-using bloodsucker.

If you’re looking for gruesomeness, there’s little of that here. Mostly, this book is literature about literature. If you’re a garlic-fearing vampire fan, however, it’s clearly a don’t-miss.

“Who Was Dracula? Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood,” by Jim Steinmeyer

c.2013, Tarcher, $26.95, 336 pages