When I was a kid, I’d pick up books about the history of vampires in legend, print, and screen, and invariably I’d see this graphic somewhere near the beginning:
Ever since those early days as a budding monster kid, I’d hear whispers of Varney the Vampyre and his influence. But I’d go to the library or the bookstore, and… nothing. No one ever had a copy of this book, nor could it be ordered. Decades later, I ran across it completely by accident for $5, and you can find it for free on the internet thanks to public domain. Months later, I’ve finally chewed my way through this rodent killer of a tome. According to sources, the original print of this ran less than 800 double-column pages. My copy clocks in at 1166 pages in small print paperback with no frills or extra material. It started fun, but by the time I passed 400 pages or so, I started feeling every last one of them.
To fully appreciate what this book is, it’s necessary to understand the term “penny dreadful.” For those not familiar, the Victorian Era gave rise to some seriously cheap entertainment options when it came to literature. In the latter part of the era, magazines would print short stories or serialized chapters of books that, when completed, they’d be repackaged as a collection or a novel. Typically the original version was an early draft, if not a blatant first draft. Earlier in the era, before this became a standard practice, there was the penny dreadful. These were pamphlets, usually published weekly, and costing one penny. The subject matter was usually fantastic and/or lurid, sometimes dealing with high romance (in the traditional sense of heroes and villains), other times dealing with the supernatural. It was not uncommon for different authors to step in from time to time, and since most of these tales were written on the fly without any kind of advance preparation, many of them stretched the bounds of storytelling in all the wrong ways as whole plots or characters were dropped or changed at a moment’s notice. Penny dreadfuls paved the road for what would later become pulp novels. By any other name, the concept became associated with the idea of inconsistent, sensationalist “trash,” though some stories would go on to become famous — or infamous — works of literature.
Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood, is one of those tales that lives in infamy. While there have been earlier vampire stories than this, this is the first one to note a vampire’s most telling attribute: “With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth.” Varney also tends to enter through windows to attack his female victims, has superhuman strength, and utilizes hypnotic abilities. These ideas would go on to inform Bram Stoker’s Dracula half a century later, and a great many others besides. Like Count Dracula, Varney was a daywalker, though Varney is also mysteriously restored by the power of moonbeams at one point. No… really. That’s in here. Where Dracula famously said he “never drinks… wine,” Varney could eat and drink in normal human fashion to keep up pretenses, though it never agreed with him. Many of the other points in Dracula were created specifically for that character, so, for example Varney has no issues with crucifixes or garlic. What he did have a problem with was consistency of plot and a lack of Hollywood marketing. Dracula was so successful at the movies it kept the novel consistently in print, whereas Varney got (mostly) buried in the public eye for over a century after Stoker’s novel first got translated for the stage.
The idea of Varney the Vampyre and everything the story contributes to the larger western vampire lore is far greater than the work itself, which is why it persisted in the form of rumor and innuendo to inspire later works. I wish it were available as an audiobook because I feel like an over-the-top narrator would do right by this. But some things have to seen to be believed, and having a print copy on hand really served to drive the point home as to just how much quality was not put into it. Anything resembling editing is completely out the window. My understanding is that if you have a facsimile edition of an early printing, pagination is way off, and some pages are just repeated. Notice that vampyre is spelled with a “y” in the title, but on the original cover it has an “i.” As it is, even in my modern paperback edition, characters go missing with no explanation, some change names and become new characters, chapter numbering is inconsistent at best, and the narration shifts between past and present tense at random. You could tell the chapters were written of a luxurious style that allowed the author(s) to pad out the story to fill out each installment’s space requirement. And yet, grammar and vocabulary… top marks. Too bad the ability to construct beautiful sentences doesn’t translate to storytelling. That’s a completely different skill set. Who knew?
Which reminds me, I should attempt to discuss the story. Let me put it this way. Have you ever tried to describe the plot of a soap opera? It’s a lot like that. And somehow that’s fitting, considering this novel is the primary influence for the cult daytime serial Dark Shadows. Once you know that connection, it’s pretty difficult not to see it every now and again. It’s about as convoluted too, given that it’s 232 chapters (which makes me wonder how it was published in two years at a chapter per week… that math doesn’t add up, much like anything else in this book).
Ok, let me make an attempt. I’ll see how far I can go. The story is set sometime in the early 1700s, with references to the Napoleonic Wars and other markers of the time contemporary to its writing a century later. The story takes place in London… and Naples, and Venice, and Winchester, and a handful of other places. Sir Francis Varney is laying siege to his prey, the Bannerworths, a once-prosperous family driven to ruin by their now-deceased father. Mrs. Bannerworth and her adult children — Henry, George, and Flora — live at the estate. George disappears from the story before chapter 40. Mr. Marchdale, a family friend, also resides there in the early chapters. More characters are added later, just like a soap opera.
Varney’s actions seem to be family oriented, and much like Barnabas Collins later on, there’s a strong resemblance to a portrait in Bannerworth Hall of one Marmaduke Bannerworth. Or is that Sir Runnagate Bannerworth? They never outright make the connection in any case. Later on, the family issues seem less important, and it seems like money is the motivating factor. Varney himself may or may not be a vampire. Pay no attention to the fact that he actually turns one character, Clara Crofton, into a vampire, making her the prototype for J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. But because she is the prototype for the lesbian vampire, she’s also killed quickly because that might be too racy for the time. Oh, sorry… spoiler alert. Varney himself is the prototype for the sympathetic vampire (such as the aforementioned Barnabas Collins, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Countess Zaleska, or a number of others you can point to in this category), often hating what he’s become. At multiple points in the tale, we’re given new stories of how he’s brought back to life, including one where he’s brought back to life via galvanism a la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The medical student who achieved this is named Dr. Chillingworth. I can’t make that up.
As to the details of Varney’s original curse and ultimate demise… I’ll just keep that a secret. You can look it up, or if you dare, you can slog through this mess. If you claim to be a vampire fan, I’d recommend it once just to say you did simply due to how much lore is sprouted from this. Good news: the chapters are short, giving you the option of tearing through it fast or letting it languish ever so slowly. It is the epitome of wasted potential, and most definitely a product of its time. When modern readers ask what marks the great horror classics such as Dracula or Frankenstein great or classics… just point those people over here for the counterpoint. This book is a masterclass in how not to do it.