It's a crime that libraries consider the most heinous of all. The unhinged playwright Joe Orton even went to jail for it. There is no excuse for defacing books. Except that the London Library in Mayfair is now rather pleased that one of its former members appears to have done just that. His name? Bram Stoker. The book he was researching? Dracula.
Research at the library — headed by Development Director Philip Spedding — has discovered 28 books on its shelves that were likely used by Stoker to research his seminal gothic horror novel, published in 1897.
An Irish businessman living in Chelsea, Stoker joined the London Library in 1890. He was proposed by Hall Caine, the man Dracula is dedicated to.
While Stoker's name may be revered in the literary world, in fact he wasn't a natural talent when it came to pen and paper. "Stoker was a dreadful writer. His other stuff is dreadful," says Spedding. Dracula was to become the exception to the rule.
Among the books that Stoker is thought to have borrowed while researching Dracula, is The Book of Werewolves, an egregious tome by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. The library's copy is littered with pencil marks closely correlating with a transcription of Stoker's Dracula notes, published by Robert Eighteen-Bisang.
The more Spedding explored the library's book stacks, the more he discovered crosses, lines and page turn-downs, consistent with Eighteen-Bisang's book.
Elsewhere, Stoker appears to have noted lines describing death and the paranormal. In one book, which mentions the human instinct to "extinguish life", there is a note which possibly reads: "bosh". It's then been scribbled out. The research would have been easier, Spedding admits, had Stoker's handwriting not been so appalling.
Stoker never actually visited Transylvania, instead using contemporary travel guides to form the opening backdrop of Dracula's mountain castle. On page 17 of another of the library's books — An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia — the corner has been turned over. On the same page, the word 'Dracula' appears. Spooky coincidence? Probably not; copies of books known to have belonged to Stoker have been treated with equal disregard by the writer. Not all his books may have been page-turners — but he was guilty of being a page-turner himself.
So what does Spedding make of Dracula as a novel? "It's a perfectly acceptable book," he says dryly, adding that Stoker's real genius was to tie in mythology with reality, to create something believable. It's easy to forget that Stoker used cutting edge technology — such as the phonograph — in Dracula, to heighten the realism.
Dracula is indisputably his best novel; in the time it took him to write it — between 1890 and 1897 — Stoker rattled off another three (bad) novels. Something in the writer urged him to put in the heavy duty research and keep plugging away.
Vampires, werewolves and the like were a common subject in Stoker's day — but for whatever reason, it was Dracula which channeled all this into the quintessential book. So what is it about Dracula that's so endearing to us, almost 130 years after its publication? For Spedding, it's that Stoker's blood-sucking character is infinitely reinterpret-able from generation to generation. "Hotel Transylvania 3 came out this year. It did $500m business," says Spedding.
Indeed, from Christopher Lee's 1950s Dracula, to the 1972 blaxploitation film Blacula, to recent kids' movies, Stoker's creation continues to stalk us all.
We can't be 100% sure that these are Stoker's notes — the library has never kept borrowing records — but the coincidences are uncanny. In 1897, Stoker wrote a letter to his bankers, Coutts, ordering them to stop paying the London Library, as he was leaving. This coincides with the date he published Dracula. His work here was done.
A play of Dracula will be performed at the London Library in February 2019. It will likely play out in the very spaces in which one of the great figures of literature was born.