It's not all about 'Dracula': Stoker's 17 other books
THE WRITER:BRAM STOKER is rightly acclaimed as the author of a masterpiece of Gothic fiction that deals with the “undead” and the power of the past to throw a shadow over the present. It is not so well known that Stoker also had his eye on the future and was a pioneer of science fiction, taking a leaf from the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells.
Stoker was fascinated with technology. For all the medieval trappings of Dracula – aristocratic counts, gloomy castles, wolves – the novel is also a showcase for what were then the new media of the day: the telephone, typewriter, phonograph and Kodak camera (mentioned by name). Interestingly, it is not electric lamps that vanquish the prince of darkness but the spiritual light of the Crucifix and Christianity.
Stoker’s interest in the future was bound up with his admiration for the United States, prompted by his early adulation of Walt Whitman, the Allen Ginsberg of the 19th century.
As manager of Henry Irving’s world-famous Lyceum Theatre, Stoker arranged several tours of the United States and published his views on the new world as A Glimpse of America (1886). He added Buffalo Bill Cody and Abraham Lincoln to his pantheon of American heroes, delivering a series of public lectures on Lincoln and the abolition of slavery that were believed lost until Stoker’s own manuscript copy was recently discovered in the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame.
While working on Dracula, Stoker took time out to write a romance based on Buffalo Bill, The Shoulder of Shasta (1895), set in the mountains of the Californian wilderness.
The closing of the Wild West in the 1890s and the opening of a new frontier in the Spanish- American-Cuban war (1898-1901) provided the global political backdrop for The Mystery of the Sea (1902), set on the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland. In this novel, references to reconcentrados, the concentration camps that the Spanish introduced to Cuba, and technological advances in warships provide dystopian glimpses of the mechanised ferocity of 20th-century warfare.
At the turn of the 20th century, the frontier for European powers was not in the West but in the East, the contested borders of the Balkans and the perceived threat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. It is often forgotten that Count Dracula is a frontier hero of sorts, and “won his name”, as the vampire hunter Van Helsing relates, defending Transylvania against the Turks.
Stoker’s uncanny premonition of a world war precipitated by events in the Balkans is the subject of his strange foray into science fiction, The Lady of the Shroud (1909). Set in the “Land of the Blue Mountains” (resembling Montenegro), it deals with the attempts of an Anglo-Irish hero, Rupert St Leger, to act as a Lawrence of the Adriatic, defending a “gallant little nation” against Turkish expansion.
The nation is distinctively premodern, with “neither roads nor railways nor telegraphs”, but to make up for lost time the intrepid hero brings the most striking advances in armaments to bear on the conflict, not least submarines and air travel.
The submarine and the torpedo had already made their presence felt in military warfare, notably through the efforts of the Irish inventor John Philip Holland. Even at that, the warship procured by St Leger is state of the art, equipped with “electric guns and the latest Massillon water-guns, and Reinhardt electro-pneumatic ‘deliverers’ for pyroxiline shells. She is even equipped with war-balloons easy of expansion, and with compressible Kitson aeroplanes.” Air travel was still a thing of the future, as Louis Blériot’s epochal crossing of the English Channel took place only in the month of the novel’s publication. It may have been HG Wells’s The War in the Air, published a year earlier in 1908, that provided the inspiration for Stoker’s vision of the future, rather than events in the real world.
In one chapter, The Empire of the Air, the aircraft takes off in The Lady of the Shroud. It allows St Leger and his wife, Princess Teuta (the eponymous lady), to rescue the captured king from a seemingly impregnable tower high in the mountains. (St Leger’s plane had the advantage of being noiseless, an innovation that would be welcome for people living near airports today.) When the crew eventually arrives in England, Stoker writes, perhaps tongue in cheek, that a new plane “twice as big” awaits delivery from Whitby (where Dracula first sets foot on British soil).
Aviation sets the pace for the rapid modernisation of the Land of the Blue Mountains, driven by hydraulic power and the boring of tunnels through the mountains to facilitate roads and railways.
This regeneration culminates in a grand scheme for a federation of the Balkans to bring peace to the region, but this is secured by an arms race: “We can have, in chosen spots amongst the clouds, depots of war aeroplanes, with which we can descend and smite our enemies quickly on land or sea. We shall hope to live for Peace; but woe to those who drive us to War!” Ominously, even nuclear weapons are envisaged: “The factories for explosives are, of course, far away in bare valleys, where accidental effects are minimised. So, too, are the radium works, wherein unknown dangers may lurk.”
The novel ends with an air display celebrating the federation of the Balkans, attended by the king and queen of “the greatest nation of the earth” (Britain). When an aircraft drops letters that flutter down on a battleship containing the dignitaries, the “Western” king remarks to the admiral: “It must need some skill to drop a letter with such accuracy.”
With an imperturbable face the admiral replies: “It is easier to drop bombs, your majesty.” The moral of the story is clear: “The flight of aeroplanes was a memorable sight. It helped to make history. Henceforth no nation with an eye for either defence or attack can hope for success without the mastery of the air.”
The first aerial bombing did not take place until November 1911, when an Italian aircraft dropped bombs on a north African oasis near Tripoli. In this case, life sadly imitated art. Notwithstanding the terrors of the past unleashed by Dracula, Stoker was among the few who sensed that the real sources of horror lay in the future, often presenting themselves in the name of peace and liberty.
Luke Gibbons is professor of Irish cultural and literary studies at NUI Maynooth. He gave a keynote address at the Bram Stoker Centenary Conference in Hull last week