The Vampyre by John Polidori, 1819

The summer of 1816 is sometimes known as “The Year Without a Summer.”  John Polidori was physician to Lord Byron, staying at a villa near Lake Geneva.  The pair were visited by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont.  The seemingly unending rain kept them indoors, and fueled by ghost stories and laudanum, the quintet set themselves to the task of telling fantastic tales over three days in June.  That was the famous time when Shelley created Frankenstein’s monster.  It also produced what is considered to be the first modern vampire story.

Falsely attributed to Lord Byron, the penny dreadful was first published in New Monthly Magazine on April 1, 1819.  The vampire Lord Ruthven is a malignant caricature of Byron, borrowing the character’s name from another novel from the same publisher, Glenarvon by Lady Caroline Lamb.  That novel’s Lord Ruthven is also a thinly-veiled take on Byron.

Both Byron and Polidori repeatedly disputed ownership of The Vampyre.  Eventually Byron’s name was taken off the print editions, replaced by Polidori’s after some assumed clarification of the facts.  Partly due to being printed with Byron’s name, and partly due to the idea of the traditional folklore vampire stalking the upper echelons of real society, the novella found popularity enough to spark a vampire craze in literati circles.  It would go on to influence J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to say nothing of the entire vampire subgenre as we understand it today.

As one might expect in 84 pages, the plot is simple enough.  A young English gentleman, Aubrey, meets the mysterious Lord Ruthven, who has entered London society.  Aubrey follows Ruthven to Rome, attracted by the idea of the man, but when Ruthven seduces the daughter of a mutual acquaintance, Aubrey leaves his side and heads to Greece.  There he becomes enamored with Ianthe, the daughter of an innkeeper.  From her Aubrey learns of the vampire legends.  As if to spell it out any clearer, Ruthven arrives, and Ianthe is killed by a vampire.  Of course, Aubrey doesn’t make the connection and starts traveling with him again.  They’re attacked by bandits, and Ruthven is wounded.  Before he dies, Ruthven forces Aubrey to swear an oath on pain of all manner of nastiness not to mention his death or anything else about Ruthven for a year and a day.  Aubrey then makes the connection in a bit of expository foreshadowing that everyone Ruthven met has suffered.

Aubrey returns to London, and Ruthven appears in short order, very much alive.  Reminding Aubrey of his oath in now stereotypically creepy fashion (remembering it wasn’t stereotypical at the time), Ruthven takes the guise of the Earl of Marsden and seduces Aubrey’s sister, called herein “Miss Aubrey.”  Aubrey is helpless to protect her, despite attempts to do so, and suffers a psychotic break.  Ruthven and Aubrey’s sister are engaged to be married, ironically enough the day the oath ends, and just before he dies, Aubrey reveals Ruthven’s history to his sister in a letter.  It doesn’t arrive in time before the marriage.  She is found dead on her wedding night, drained of blood.  Ruthven is gone.

Between the circle of Romantic writers and poets that formed Polidori’s circle, the fact that Polidori himself is believed to have committed suicide only a couple of years after the publication of this story due to depression and gambling debts, and the ever-revolving popularity of the vampire in popular culture, it’s little wonder that this story still comes to the surface every so often.  As a fan of Carmilla and Dracula, this story had come to my attention in my early teens, some thirty years ago.  I tracked it down then, and at the time I wasn’t really impressed with it.  All these years later and armed with a far better understanding of the Romantic era and its dramatis personae, I felt it was finally time to revisit The Vampyre.  Mostly I was looking for a  quick read before I dive back into a history tome of sufficient size to bludgeon a small mammal.

It’s easy to see the influence this story has on pop culture.  If it weren’t the first, I would write this off as merely “just another vampire story.”  That it got there first, so to speak, it certainly elevates above the rest of the pile of similar tales.  I think for me, however, what really makes it work is a combination of factors.  First is the Romantic era writing style, which I’ve grown to appreciate in recent years.  Second, and probably more importantly, is the story behind the story.  Having grown up on Universal Monsters and first hearing of this story of Byron and his circle via the opening sequence of Bride of Frankenstein, I eventually started making connections that eventually earned me an appreciation for the Romantic era poets.  Without any of this backstory, this is an average, 2-star story.  But when you start piling on the literary and geek factors, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.  It’s still a quick read, and not unenjoyable on its own merits.  It’s just that I find the idea better than the execution.  That happens sometimes.  Even so, the extra factors kick it up a notch for me.

3 stars

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