Literary Hub

On the Very Scary Rise of the First Literary Vampire

On 17 June 1816, John William Polidori recorded in his diary that “The ghost stories are begun by all but me.” Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician and had accompanied the poet and hypochondriac to Switzerland, where Byron rented the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva. They had been joined there by the poet Percy Shelley, his lover Mary Godwin (whom Percy married later that year) and her half-sister Claire Clairmont. The weather in Switzerland—indeed across the globe—was atrocious. The year 1816 was “The Year Without A Summer”: due to a gigantic volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Tambora the previous year, volcanic ash had been hurled into the stratosphere and remained there for years, blotting out sunlight and drastically altering weather patterns. Daytrips were out of the question for much of their stay, and so the previous evening, while watching storms thundering across the lake, Byron had suggested to the assembled company that they should each write a ghost story.

The next day, Polidori recorded “Began my ghost story after tea.” Mary Shelley later recalled:

Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to dispatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted.

This story—if it ever existed—has not survived, but Polidori may well have been distracted by what happened later that evening. At midnight, he noted, as Mary breastfed her four-month-old baby child, the group

really began to talk ghostly. L[ord] B[yron] repeated some verses of Coleridge’s “Christabel”, of the witch’s breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face and gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. S[helley], and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.

The following day he again noted “began my ghost-story”—presumably a different story, and perhaps influenced by the Christabel fiasco the previous night. The new story became his unregarded novel Ernestus Berchtold; or, the Modern Oedipus, published in 1819.

“Daytrips were out of the question for much of their stay, and so the previous evening, while watching storms thundering across the lake, Byron had suggested to the assembled company that they should each write a ghost story.”

Byron had abandoned his own story after a few pages, although nevertheless it was published (without his permission) in 1819 as “A Fragment.” “A Fragment” returns to the Turkish vampire figure of The Giaour, describing the mysterious Augustus Darvell, who is in the grip of some curious and undiagnosed wasting disease. Darvell and the unnamed narrator travel to Turkey, intending to visit the Greek ruins at Ephesus, and their journey takes them through a desolate landscape of Greek, Christian and Islamic ruins to a remote cemetery. Darvell disconcertingly murmurs, “I have also been here before” and states that he will soon die. He demands that the narrator conceal the news of his death, throw an Arabic ring he has into certain springs on the ninth day of the month at noon, and the following day wait at a ruined temple. A stork with a live snake writhing in its beak contemplates Darvell as he makes these plans, and Darvell asks to be buried where the bird is perched. The moment it flies away he dies and begins to turn black and decompose with unnatural rapidity; the narrator buries him as instructed, and there the text ends.

“A Fragment” is a curtailed vampire narrative. The metamorphosis of the flesh, the burial ground and the abnormal post-mortem state link it to the earlier 18th-century history of vampires, and doubtless Darvell would have risen from the dead. But Byron also introduces calculatedly exotic elements, notably the spell with the ring, and the stork and snake—a familiar enough pairing, but here suggesting a disturbing inversion of the ancient lore that storks deliver new babies. Although “A Fragment” hardly has a prominent place in the Byron canon, its mood was transfused into Polidori’s next story.

Polidori had studied medicine at Edinburgh and had written a treatise on somnambulism, and his professional interest was clearly piqued by the serious scientific interest afforded to vampires in the previous century. A shadow of vampirism lies upon his aborted story about the “skull-headed lady” who ends up, like Juliet, in the tomb of the Capulets—Juliet of course rises vampire-like from this tomb, before discovering that Romeo, believing her to be dead, has already killed himself. Polidori would have been familiar with the notes to Southey’s Thalaba and to Byron’s own Giaour (if only through Byron’s recollection of them) and Christabel presumably provoked talk of the seductive powers of the undead. So it was that Polidori discussed Byron’s aborted vampire narrative at the villa with the countess of Breuss, who urged him to write his own version. The results—Polidori’s third story undertaken at the villa—were to be far from forgettable.

Polidori commenced work, but then his situation changed rapidly. As the Swiss trip drew to a close in early September, an exasperated Byron fired his cantankerous physician; Polidori consequently used his tale to revenge himself on his former employer. He aimed to expose the haughty lordling as a cruel seducer—Mary Shelley’s half-sister Claire Clairmont being pregnant at the time with Byron’s child, and hardly the first victim to fall for his diabolical charms. His portrait of Lord Ruthven was therefore of a sexual delinquent and predator, powerfully attracted to the virtuous and the virginal. He drew on anti-heroes such as the rapist Robert Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1747–48), the malevolent monk Schedoni of Ann Radcliffe’s novel of terror The Italian (1797), and the repugnant libertines who inhabit the Marquis de Sade’s repellent novel Juliette (1797–1801), such as the cannibal giant Minski (who has furniture made of human bones) and the obsessive necrophiliac and criminally depraved Cordelli. He also drew on Lady Caroline Lamb’s scandalous novel Glenarvon (1816). Byron had deserted Lamb in the midst of their passionate affair, and Lamb exacted her revenge by basing the novel’s pitiless anti-hero on her former lover; Lord Glenarvon’s name is Clarence de Ruthven.

“As the Swiss trip drew to a close in early September, an exasperated Byron fired his cantankerous physician; Polidori consequently used his tale to revenge himself on his former employer.”

Polidori’s portrait is not conventionally erotic: Ruthven has a “dead grey eye” that seems not to perceive character or humanity; he is cadaverous and the “deadly hue” of his face is never lit with vivacity; and he all but ignores women as an inferior species. Yet he has strong features and a compelling voice, and his apparent indifference to women carries a masochistic allure. He is also wealthy and perversely generous, sharing his wealth in the most decadent ways possible: by financing the dissolute in their pursuit of vice and leading them into disgrace—or to the gallows. He is a lone wolf, subverting morals. And then his dead eyes fall upon women, his tender prey.

Ruthven dies in Greece after being shot by robbers. He has already started rotting before his death, but has time to swear his companion, the protagonist Mr Aubrey, to keep silent about him for a year and a day. His body is placed on a summit to catch the first rays of the moon, whereupon it disappears. Aubrey then discovers through forensic deduction that Ruthven must have killed his Greek paramour Ianthe, who was found with blood on her neck and breast, “and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.” As Aubrey sinks into delirium, Ruthven rises from the dead and seduces Aubrey’s innocent young sister, who is likewise found to have glutted his thirst for fresh blood. As if in ironic sympathy to the plight of both his lover and his sister, Aubrey dies from a hemorrhage. Lord Ruthven, meanwhile, escapes; he is, as is clear from the title of the story, “The Vampyre.”

Inspired by Gothic poetries, then, Polidori literally romanticizes the vampire into an enthralling outrage of sexual bloodlust. But that was not the end of it. Polidori’s tale was delivered to the countess of Breuss and nothing was heard of it for two-and-a-half years. Then, on 1 April 1819, it was published in the New Monthly Magazine as “A Tale by Lord Byron.” It had been sent to the publisher Henry Colburn with a note that certain tales had been written by Byron, Polidori and Mary Shelley; Colburn inferred that the story in question was by Byron and, in order to capitalize on his notorious reputation, published it as such.

“Polidori’s portrait is not conventionally erotic: Ruthven has a “dead grey eye” that seems not to perceive character or humanity; he is cadaverous and the “deadly hue” of his face is never lit with vivacity; and he all but ignores women as an inferior species.”

Polidori was livid: Byron had apparently stolen his story. He immediately wrote to Colburn, insisting it is “not Lord Byron’s, but was written entirely by me at the request of a lady.” Polidori admitted that Byron’s “Fragment” had provided particular incidents—”his Lordship had said that it was his intention of writing a ghost story, depending for interest upon the circumstances of two friends leaving England, and one dying in Greece, the other finding him alive, upon his return, and making love to his sister”—although, of course, Byron’s “Fragment” never reached the point of the dead man rising and seducing the sister. Polidori accordingly requested a correction, proper attribution and compensation, and insisted that any further publication be suppressed. He himself supplied a statement correcting the claims made about the tale. Notwithstanding this, “The Vampyre” continued to be attributed to Byron throughout the century—and was celebrated across the continent as further proof of his wayward genius.

“The Vampyre” was not only attributed to Byron, though; it was also supplemented in the New Monthly Magazine and subsequent reprintings by prefatory material about Byron and the Villa Diodati retreat (including the episode regarding the effect of Christabel on Percy Shelley), together with an account of vampirism. This description of vampires locates them in Arabia and Greece (following Southey and Byron), as well as in Hungary, Poland, Austria and Lorraine (following Ossenfelder and Bürger). It gives details of blood-engorged corpses taken from the earlier medical reports, and the account of Paole given in Britain in The Craftsman (1732). The sexual content of the tales is underlined—they rise from their graves to “feed upon the blood of the young and beautiful”—and instructions for slaying vampires are provided: staking, decapitation and cremation. This self-proclaimed “monstrous rodomontade” concludes with a long quotation from The Giaour, and references to Thalaba, “the veracious Tournefort” and Calmet—again. It has to be said that the concise details given in this note concerning “this singularly horrible superstition” were to prove at least as influential as Polidori’s narrative.

Polidori, in presenting the vampire as a depraved and amoral English aristocrat, triggered a cultural sensation. Rather than being at the borders of Europe, the vampire was at the debauched edges of society, a Byronic anti-hero. But although he was careful not to over-stress the medical aspects of vampirism, Polidori’s vampire nevertheless helped to reignite interest in the scientific phenomenon of vampirism from a new perspective. In 1819, the Imperial Magazine published a feature on vampires that discussed Polidori’s tale, reprinted Polidori’s letter and the account of vampirism given by the New Monthly, and considered whether vampires were fictitious or not. The anonymous author argues that the leading idea of the literary vampire is that the vampire is a supernatural fiction, but a thread of fey doubt runs through the language:

The Vampyre is represented as a mere creature of the imagination; to which have been ascribed fictitious powers, corresponding, in their application, with those which we attribute to sylphs, fairies, elves and genii . . . Under its imposing aspect, the mind of the reader is insensibly transported into a region of enchantment . . . Awakened from this poetic delirium, when we reach the conclusion of the tale, reason once more regains its dominion over fancy; but, unfortunately, instead of following that steady light, which is necessary to all just discrimination, we suddenly fall into an opposite snare, and hastily conclude that the Vampyre has no kind of existence, except in the dreams of poets, and the fables of romance.

The writer is aware that literature inoculates readers against vampires, but recognizes that despite this they maintain some sort of presence, a state of unbeing that carries a trace of reality. They are more than mere fictions.


From The Vampire: A New HistoryCourtesy of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Groom.

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