Jim Steinmeyer is one of today’s most renowned historians of stage magic. He is the author of The Glorious Deception and Hiding the Elephant, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His latest work is called WHO WAS DRACULA: Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood. In it, he seeks the answer to the question: was there a real-life inspiration for literature’s most infamous monster? Check out our interview with him below.
What compelled you to investigate the origins of Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
I’d been fascinated with the story for many years, and had read much of the critical commentary. I found myself drawn to the story of Stoker’s life and his professional associations. In discussing the subject with my agent, I realized that the crux of the story is the identity of Dracula. It’s really possible to dissect that character and see his inspirations from Stoker’s professional friends.
How did you go about doing the research for the book? What were some of the major resources you relied upon?
There’s been so much good, important research into the subject, and I was able to benefit from a great deal of this. I started with Stoker’s novel, and his other novels, of course. And a very important key to the story is his biography of Henry Irving, which includes autobiographical information. I was very fortunate to see the actual Stoker notes, his handwritten notes he made in preparation for the novel, which are at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia.
How has Bram Stoker’s Dracula influenced the vampire in pop culture today?
Dracula IS the vampire in pop culture today. His story has been translated into different characters, but even when different vampire stories are told, like Anne Rice’s vampires, they are deliberately pivoted off of Stoker’s most famous elements. In other words, Bram Stoker wrote the book, and made all the rules. Incidentally, he really did make the rules. The way that a vampire has to live, the manner in which he’s destroyed, et cetera, were all formalized by Stoker for his novel.
Why do you think so many authors and filmmakers have been compelled to reinvent the famous bloodsucker over the years? What’s the draw of Count Dracula?
The amazing thing about Dracula is that he is almost not present in the book. He appears in very few scenes, and has very little to say. Whatever Stoker’s intention was, this has allowed the character to exist in our imagination, and to be reinvented with every new generation. So, he was something of a 20s heartthrob, a sort of zombie version of Rudolph Valentino, when Lugosi first portrayed him in 1927. And he can be easily reinvented again and again with every new fashion.
In what ways did the Victorian era inspire Bram Stoker to write his most popular work?
Stoker was in the middle of a number of fascinating characters and situations. I believe that his associates, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and Henry Irving, England’s leading actor, formed the composite elements of his character Dracula. Part of this were personal characteristics was well as influences and events. For example, Irving’s tastes for the dramatic, and his fondness for haunted, dark characters, was an inspiration to Stoker. In addition, Stoker wrote that the story was influenced by Jack the Ripper, the mysterious murderer that terrorized the East End of London. Stoker may have had some curious and surprising connections to this case.
What were a few of the major influences – literary, historical and in Stoker’s own life – that helped shape his infamous Dracula?
One of the things we can see, from Stoker’s notes, is that the story was meticulously researched. He researched the area, the customs, history, and folklore. But the name, “Dracula,” was virtually all that he knew about the old Middle European count. The real Dracula provided very little inspiration for Stoker’s character. Instead, I think he drew from vampire literature of the early Victorians, like Polidori’s vampire, or the vampire seen in the play of Dion Boucicault.
What are the most common misconceptions about Stoker’s novel?
The “Dracula” that most of us imagine is the result of a West End play, that was then transferred to Broadway. It’s the Dracula of the 1920s, when there was a fad for mysterious, supernatural plays, almost detective plays. In fact, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a very different character, and the events of the novel are much stranger and more intense.
In WHO WAS DRACULA?, you quote Gabriel Ronay as saying Dracula is a “weathervane indicating the direction of the prevalent social winds.” With that in mind, what do you think our current obsession with vampires says about our cultural climate?
The vampire story is a surrogate for sex. It’s the way that readers, who are forbidden this subject, are allowed to think about it. It’s not surprising that today our vampires are disenfranchised teenagers. It’s a way of providing a dark, tragic, important story to the usual teen-age angst. Dracula’s proven to be an incredibly resilient character. No doubt Bram Stoker would have been surprised by the success of the old vampire, and shocked by his various incarnations.
Read an excerpt HERE.