With the film Renfield staring Nicolas Cage as Dracula and Nicholas Hoult as Renfield having recently made the rounds in theatres worldwide, I figured what better time to into the truth of who Renfield really was. Renfield has always been such an enigmatic character portraying a once good man, a brilliant man, gone insane under the weight of an all-consuming manipulative force of evil personified. But what of his roots? What did Renfield stand for? What did Bram Stoker intend to convey through this most fascinating character within the most iconic gothic tale of horror ever told? These are the questions I posed to none other than Bram’s great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, a best selling author himself who works tirelessly to bring to life historical pieces of the puzzle within the Stokerverse. As the pieces Dacre has gather click together, so to does our understanding of Bram Stoker, his work, and what Bram was really trying to tell us through his words and life.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Thanks again for joining me today, Dacre. I think it’s fantastic you’re allowing me to access the entire vault of all things Bram Stoker and Dracula that you keep hard-wired into your hard-drive upstairs, so much appreciated for that access.
DACRE STOKER: There is a lot there, Rick, and I appreciate sharing it with you with you and your readers.
As everybody likely knows by now, a film starring Nicholas Cage came out this past March; a horror comedy all about Renfield aptly called Renfield. To start at the beginning of our exploration of the real Renfield, Dacre, when you consider Bram’s background as a solicitor and his love for science, do you think Renfield was maybe a fun way for Bram to exercise two of his passions while writing Dracula, or did Renfield’s origin come about in some other way before making it on the pages of Dracula?
There’s been much debate about where Renfield came from over the years, and movies have done different things with him. What I need to focus on here with you and your readers is what I know about the Stoker family, Bram Stoker’s interest, his brother’s interest, and his mother’s interest and others in the plight of people who had mental illness when Bram was growing up and in the Victorian era. It was a huge issue how to deal with people with mental problems. And the Stoker family were altogether very interested in things around them, in society. The mother was a bit of an activist. She was a social worker as well. Bram worked as a clerk in a Petty Sessions Legal Department and as an inspector all over Ireland of legalities. They were very aware of things going on around them.
The three brothers were doctors, my great grandfather being one of them. Thornley Stoker, Bram’s eldest brother who helped him write Dracula — all the medical parts anyway — was very involved, and we’ll learn as this interview goes on how I believe Renfield and sort of the plight of the mentally ill were molded by Thornley. So, here we go and look at this in a sort of general picture first, but I believe Renfield was of a manifestation of Bram Stoker’s social consciousness as well as that of his mother and his brother. The culture and climate in the Stoker family was to watch out for and try to help people.
His mother, a very strong-willed lady, as I said earlier, was an activist. She actually read papers in the all male Social and Statistical Enquiry Society in Dublin. For a female to be allowed to read a paper in an all male society was a big enough deal in itself, but to be able to read these papers, and one of them was about the education of the deaf and the mute, how we have to do a better job. The other one that we know of — there may have been more — was all about how to judge if somebody was criminally insane.
These two topics were essentially focused on people with mental health problems, because your readers need to know at this time in society in places like Dublin and London and I’m sure many other sophisticated and advanced countries around the world, people with mental problems were simply put into prisons. They had no real medical way to deal with these folks. Again, big issue with Mrs. Stoker. Thornley Stoker, the doctor, actually worked not only dealing with physical problems with people but psychological as well. He was sort of cutting edge trying to figure out how we can better serve these people.
Funny enough, the Dublin-based author Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels and others, had mental problems in his life. At one point, apparently, he didn’t speak for a whole year, but he was with it, and when he passed away, he left in his will a large endowment to build Swiss Hospital, which later became Saint Patrick’s Hospital for the mentally insane. That’s a place where Thornley worked.
This creation of Renfield was not done willy-nilly. It was a statement. In the novel Dracula, which Dracula had a lot of statements, this one was: “What are we doing with people who have mental problems? How are we treating them?” And Dr. Seward’s asylum was supposedly somewhat advanced because asylums instead of prisons were places where people could be cared for and potentially diagnosed and dealt with better. The problem is, which was good for the plot, Count Dracula got his hooks into Renfield, and Renfield began functioning as a messenger of Count Dracula, and as we’ll learn more later, Rick, he’s going to become experimented upon by Dracula.
That’s where this comes from is the social consciousness of the family and sort of an offshoot of what Bram Stoker felt was, you know, needing to spread the word about how we need to treat these people better.
Fantastic. And I understand Renfield’s name itself has a bit of an interesting origin story.
There’s so many of these little interesting origin stories, and this is one of them for sure, Rick. Thank you for asking about it. And to track this has been a challenge. One must look at these documents to figure out and track how and where Bram Stoker originated many of the names of his characters in the novel. The Dracula Notes that live in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia are a good place to start, and in those notes, he is referred to as Fly Man, obviously because he’s eating flies.
I went back into The Lost Journal that Dr. Elizabeth Miller and myself actually edited and published. This journal, found in the Isle of White, owned by Bram’s great grandsons, had a short sentence that Bram wrote when he was still in university working as a clerk in Petty Sessions Department. It said, “I once knew a little boy who kept so many flies in a bottle that they had no room but to die.” And we figured that was some foreshadowing twenty years later when he wrote Dracula. A little weird stuff about flies, so we think that’s why Bram called him Fly Man at the beginning. And throughout the notes, it was always Fly Man.
The next thing is, what did Bram actually write by hand? The manuscript of Dracula. We don’t know where the manuscript of Dracula is, but we do know he handed the manuscript to a typing service who typed it; therefore, now it’s known as a typescript that was sold at auction for just under a million dollars to the Paul Allen Estate. Actually, it was an after-auction sale. In that typescript, we see where the name, by hand, was filled in: Renfield. So that gives us somewhat confidence, Rick, to think that Bram came up with the name late in the whole writing process of this five, six, seven-year writing process. We know his notes started around 1890. We know the book was published 1897. So, when exactly was the manuscript finished and the typescript finished and how long did it take to publish? We’re not exactly sure, but we do know the book came out in 1897. So somewhere in 1895 or ’96 when the typescript was typed, Bram inserted Renfield, the name.
And I have been looking at other places where Bram Stoker visited in his life, and these visits were because he was the manager of the Lyceum Theatre. He came to America, had lots of opportunities to meet people. One of the people he met was Buffalo Bill Cody and that helped him learn about America and that’s where we get the character Quincy Morris from. But getting back to your name, it’s ironic but I think it’s the case, Rick. I think when Bram Stoker and Henry Irving and the other people from the Lyceum Theater walked out of the Glasgow Scotland train station to go to their hotel, which is just around the corner, the name Renfield Street was right there.
And as I’ve looked back at old records, the train station was there when Stoker and Irving and others went there to the Lyceum Theater. I looked for the times when they went there with the theater. The street was named Renfield Street at the time. I’ve gone there, and I’ve taken a picture with me pointing up at the sign, Renfield Street, thinking this is a very good chance this is the origin.
That’s incredible. I always love a good origin story, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised about that, assuming they haven’t read your Stoker on Stoker book and realize what a meticulous, purposeful writer Bram truly was. And speaking of those purposeful words as well, Dacre, you know I think certainly “blood is the life” is probably our Fly Man’s most recognizable quote from the novel. Assuming he is referencing physical nourishment in reference to his consumption of the bugs and the spiders, what do you think is the deeper meaning of this repeated expression?
Well, we do know at the time, medical science was not very advanced, and people were dealing with the four parts of the blood in the body, and if there was a body that didn’t have any blood in it, there was no life, and therefore, when there was blood in something, there was life. What would make sense then, blood equals life. Live people with blood; dead people, no blood.
But it goes a step farther than that because obviously Renfield is experimenting, right? He’s eating insects. He’s taking the life from other creatures to see what that does to his life. And here’s where it gets a little stretchy-er or a little iffy, but this is where his brother gets involved. Because what I believe, and when I wrote the Annotated Dracula with Robert Eighteen-Bisang, what he believes, when we dug into Thornley’s medical past, there was a big issue that he was front and center on, and that is experimental surgery. Experiments with animals. This was a time when people like Thornley Stoker were learning about brain function, and the way they learned about brain function was not the grave diggers and the cadavers ‘cause the bodies were already dead. It’s dealing with live creatures.
And there was a lot of this going on, experimental surgery of monkeys, dogs, and that type of surgery was being viewed by forty, fifty medical students at a time with one teaching doctor, teaching surgeon, opening up the skull, reaching in with different medical instruments, touching different parts and seeing what happens to different parts of the body. This vivisection was a tool to learn an awful lot about the body, but it was going a little too far, and what was happening is those animals were then being kept alive for days or weeks to see how long they could live. A lot of them succumbed to infection.
This was cruel and unusual punishment for these creatures. So, Thornley Stoker became an inspector of vivisection in the medical community, and in the legal community, so people that wanted a permit to do such type of surgery had to apply to a medical board. Thornley would go out and find out: Is this really necessary? Are we really learning something from this or are you only doing it as entertainment purposes? Because that’s what some of it was becoming. “Oh, Dr. Stoker, you gotta come watch this surgery. This is really cool. He makes the monkey’s hand jump around.”
What was happening before there was an SPCA or PITA, there were these medical communities who were saying, “Wait a sec! We gotta make sure this is right.” And if you look closely at the wording and the depiction of Renfield and Seward at a certain part where he says, “I’d love to do some experimentation with Renfield, but only if it’s absolutely necessary.” And then they figure out that Count Dracula is experimenting with Renfield by giving him this interest in the animals, in the bugs, and higher up the chain to the birds.
Thornley is influencing his brother Bram about the medical issues at the time, not just about blood, but all medical issues that were edgy. And Dracula was being portrayed as an evil scientist, and when you think about Dracula with his fifty boxes of dirt, when he filled out the customs forms for legalities to get these boxes of dirt to come into England, he wrote down fifty boxes of dirt for experimentation. This is these little subtle words that Bram was sliding in because his brother, I’m sure, was knocking on the door and saying, “C’mon, this needs to be a portrayal of Count Dracula as this evil scientist.” And they reference some of the names of these brain surgeons that did go on trial and Bram had to stand up against them.
I know you asked about the “blood in the life,” but it goes much deeper into medical science at the time, and how it is all touched upon in the novel, Dracula, and how Dracula is more than just the blood sucking count. He’s the evil scientist who is the count coming to London.
Super fascinating. Although Renfield does end up essentially being another castaway who’s sucked dry by Count Dracula and his self-centered needs, he also becomes an unsung member among our band of heroes as well. Despite his wretched life of service to the Count, Renfield also manages to somewhat redeem himself through the final stand he takes against Dracula. Dacre, what do you think that reveals about the way your great-great uncle looked upon the world that he lived in over a hundred and twenty-six years ago?
For your readers in case they aren’t totally familiar with the book, what happens is Renfield is beat up by Count Dracula. He has a brain hemorrhage, and because he’s upset, Renfield is essentially spilling the beans on what’s going on and letting the band of heroes know. He’s telling a little bit too much about Count Dracula, so he gets beat up, and the band of heroes do their best to try save to him with a surgery that ironically Thornley Stoker was well versed in doing. He’s done it three times up until this point. This is how he describes to his brother, Bram, how to do brain trephination surgery.
So, here are the band of heroes showing compassion and pity and medical science at its best, cutting edge, to try to keep this guy alive. While he’s alive, he’s also conscious during surgery. He’s developing a rapport with the band of heroes during the surgery, which is not bizarre, Rick, when you think about it because the research I did, I found that Bram’s brother, Thornley, did surgery and he mentioned the patient requested the drinks of water during the surgery and was talking and conscious during their surgery. This was very real. What’s happening is they’re developing a… “Oh, yes, I knew your father. I seconded him at the Windham Club.” “Oh, Quincy Morris. America is great.” And this and this. In between surgery and him dying, Renfield gives these guys information about the Count. He basically turns to the good side. He says, “You better watch out for Mina. She’s in danger.” There’s a redemption, as you said, and in a way, he’s kind of seen the light with modern science and the goodness of faith of the good people.
Now what does that reveal to me? There’s a record of him going to prisons and interviewing criminals, interviewing people with mental problems to get a better idea of how they talk, what they’re verbal patterns were, what they’re makeup was. Bram had some compassion to understand and be able to depict these people better. I think what the message is, that if you take good care of people with mental health problems, if you show them compassion, then they might surprise you. There’s more than meets the eye. Let’s not just shove them away and forget about them in these horrible institutions. I think that’s the message Bram was trying to give.
Wow, that’s a powerful message especially in today’s day and age.
Dacre, as we’ve talked about previously, since 1922’s Nosferatu, Dracula as well as Renfield have been portrayed many times by a variety of accomplished actors leading up to one of the most recent incarnations with the film simply titled, Renfield. In this particular case, Renfield, played by Nicholas Hoult, takes center stage with Dracula, played by Nicholas Cage. This rendition takes the role in a far more comical direction than what I think most of us are used to seeing. Considering everything you’ve learned about your great-grand uncle Bram how do you think he would react if he were to sit down and watch Renfield with us today?
Well, I can sort of hypothesize what Bram what may think. Obviously, he didn’t see any movies. He didn’t see any stage adaptations. He died in 1912, before Dracula hit the stage in the early ‘20s, and then ’31 with the first Lugosi film, and he never even saw Nosferatu. So, it’s hard to say, but I will say this. With over 700 film adaptations of Dracula, you gotta think, Bram being a theatre manager would’ve thought, “Well, that’s a heck of a run. I’ve inspired a lot of different adaptations.” He’s gotta feel pretty good.
But when you go a step farther, Rick, and Dracula gets adapted into the subgenre of horror comedy, then you really have made it. And the ones in the past that have done well, these sort of spoofs, Dracula Dead and Loving It, a Mel Brooks production with Leslie Neilson. You know, for a comedy it was pretty good. Old Dracula with David Niven didn’t get great reviews; still, somewhat funny though. And then of course in contemporary times, the one that comes to mind that I’ve enjoyed is What We Do in the Shadows, not only a film but a series, and there’s probably many in between that I’m not aware of. To me when something that is horror transcends into comedy, it’s a mark that you’ve really made it. And to have a Renfield character who looks like a fairly serious guy but in a comedy movie, as opposed to making fun of somebody’s handicap, it’s more of a funny movie with reactions to Dracula in modern day and how Renfield is rushing about to sort of take care of the Count and all his needs.
I think Bram would’ve thought this pretty cool. I mean he was a typical Irishman with a dry wit. I think he would’ve got a good chuckle out of it, and I think he would really appreciate that it’s come so far, a hundred and twenty-six years now since he wrote it that it’s getting big stars like Nicholas Cage and Nicholas Hoult and others to entertain us with adaptations of these characters in his stories.
I would imagine, too, he’d probably get a kick out of a movie that empowers Renfield, where all of a sudden he’s not that caged insane animal where he eventually lashes back at Dracula by ratting him out. This time he doesn’t take anything that’s happening all that seriously. I think the movie does well to hammer home the bizarreness of his relationship with Dracula.
Yeah, how do you tell people that your boss is supernatural without coming out and saying it? I’m really interested to see how they’re going to wrestle with that’s. Obviously that’s got to be the underlying tension. You know, Renfield covering for him, setting him up lunch appointments or whatever it is, dinner appointments. How does he get around in the daytime, nighttime? We’ll see. I’m looking forward to it.
And then to have him constantly apologize for his boss’s strange ways and odd customs. What a hoot.
As I tend to say at the end of all of our conversations, Dacre, I got so much more than I expected from our conversation. It’s much appreciated, and I thank you for your time.
Well, Rick, thank you for your interest, and to your readers. We all need a good dose of Renfield and a little more Dracula.
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.