[written by writer, editor and publisher, Tom English]
Part Two: Birth of the Modern Vampire
Prior to 1819, the literary vampire made its initial appearances in several poems. The earliest of these were penned by the German Romanticists, Heinrich August Ossenfelder (“Der Vampir,” 1748), Gottfried August Bürger (“Lenore,” 1774), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Bride of Corinth,” 1797). England’s Romantic poets quickly followed suit, with “Christabel” by Coleridge (written during the period 1797 to 1801 but not published until 1816); “Thalaba the Destroyer” by Robert Southey (1801); “The Vampyre” by John Stagg (1810); and “The Giaour” by Lord Byron (1813); among others. These works of Romantic poetry present the vampire tale in its most primitive form: the brief, often unexplained encounter with a seductive, controlling, and usually bloodthirsty spirit. There were at this juncture no set rules of behavior, no established conventions. The vampire tale had not yet evolved into the genre recognized today. All this changed with the 1819 publication of Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre.
In The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, Reverend Montague Summers wrote, “In the Gothic romance we have … mouldering abbeys, haunted castles, banditti, illuminati, sorcerers, conspirators, murderous monks and phantom friars, apparitions without number until the despairing reviewers cried aloud: “Surely the misses themselves must be tired of so many stories of ghosts and murders.” …but until we come to Polidori’s novel … nowhere, so far as I am aware, do we meet with the Vampire in the realm of Gothic fancy.”
The gifted Polidori received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in August of 1815. He was only 19 at that time. That same year he became personal physician to the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The impressionable Polidori was instantly star-struck. Byron was an impressive and imposing figure, handsome and charismatic, bold and unconventional; a worldly-wise Adonis out to enjoy life to its fullest. He was everything Polidori longed to be. Byron was also a successful writer with an adoring, almost worshipful public, something else the young doctor someday hoped to become.
Polidori’s new role of personal attending physician forged a relationship that for a time allowed the young man to be inseparable from his idol — though clearly on unequal footing: Byron was a royal celebrity, poor Polidori his servant, something Byron and his friends never let the good doctor forget. Still, the relationship allowed Polidori to shadow Byron during the poet’s travels across Europe. So, in the summer of 1816, when Byron vacationed at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Polidori was with him as usual, albeit in the background. Joining the two men were the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his young wife-to-be, nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Byron’s lover, Claire Clairmont.
Unseasonable rains kept the group indoors where they whiled away the hours reading ghost stories. Afterwards, Byron suggested they should each attempt to write a truly convincing horror story. His challenge was essentially intended as a friendly competition between the writers present, himself and Shelley, and Byron must have been surprised (perhaps even perturbed) that out of it the only substantial and lasting works of horror produced were by a teenage girl and his own doctor.
Shelley and Lord Byron both started and abandoned their stories, but Mary began developing the idea that culminated in the 1818 publication of Frankenstein. The initial medical and scientific information for her story about a patched together and reanimated corpse certainly must have come from Mary’s conversations that summer with Dr. Polidori, but in her 1831 Introduction, she played down the role of “poor Polidori.”
Ah, yes, poor Polidori. A vampire tale related to the group by Byron inspired the young physician to compose his own story, one with an ingenious spin. Polidori had caught the writing bug in 1815 while working on his doctoral thesis on nightmares. He had a profound understanding of the workings of the human mind and must have realized the stark terror in the idea of an evil creature operating undetected among the upper classes, preying on an enlightened society. When he started to pen The Vampyre, Polidori jettisoned the crude Nosferatu of folklore, the uneducated, uncouth peasant who, through a curse, becomes a filthy, loathsome brute mindlessly killing his own family for the blood he needs. He then created Lord Ruthven, a nobleman, charming and erudite, rich and handsome, who circulates in the highest stratum of society with cunning and malevolence. Ruthven is motivated by the same passions and aspirations common to us all, but he is compelled by an evil hunger to destroy the innocent, with impunity and brilliant calculation.
If Polidori was in need of a model for his physically attractive yet ultimately destructive aristocrat, he needed to look no further than to Lord Byron, whose romantic escapades had enthralled the poet’s public. “Lord Ruthven,” by the way, is the name used by Lady Caroline Lamb, in her 1816 novel Glenarvon, for her thinly disguised characterization of Lord Byron. An inside joke pulled off by Polidori!
The Vampyre appeared in the April 1819 issue of New Monthly Magazine and was an instant and overwhelming success. The story went through several editions and translations, and inspired a number of plays and operas, many freely borrowing the character Lord Ruthven (a clear case of vam-piracy). These stage productions fueled a vampire craze which swept across England, France, and Germany, and which lasted for decades. Writing in Hollywood Gothic, Montague Summers proclaimed that “… Vampire plays of every kind from the most luridly sensational to the most farcically ridiculous pressed onto the boards. A contemporary critic cries: ‘There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire!’”
Part of the reason for the success of Polidori’s original story is that readers immediately made the connection between Lord Ruthven and Lord Byron, then the favorite subject of gossip. But the primary reason was that Polidori had succeeded in capturing the imaginations and sensibilities of a reading public obsessed with Gothic literature. Unfortunately Polidori’s triumph was stolen away; much to the doctor’s horror and Byron’s chagrin, The Vampyre was credited as a new work by Lord Byron — a “mistake” perpetrated by the publisher, who understood the selling power of Byron’s name. After all, who wanted to read a story written by Byron’s servant! (Okay, folks, everybody say “Vampire!”)
The Vampyre isn’t the best read you can pick up today, but it ain’t that bad, either. And it established the major conventions for the fictional vampire as we know it today: dangerously attractive, hypnotically controlling, descended from satanic nobility, and deathless. Similarities between the plots of Polidori’s novel (actually a short novella) and Dracula include the nervous collapse of the protagonists (Aubrey in The Vampyre, Harker in the Stoker novel) from the mental strain of their experiences with the supernatural; the calculated attacks upon Aubrey’s sister and Harker’s wife, each of these women being close to, and emotionally-connected with, the protagonist; not to mention the sexual appeal of both vampire characters, sufficiently undercover in Stoker’s Victorian novel but blatant in Polidori’s story.
In the character of Lord Ruthven, Polidori created the prototypical vampire and set the stage for a long succession of bloody counts. Many writers throughout the remainder of the 1800’s would elaborate on the conventions established in the The Vampyre. One of these writers was James Malcolm Rymer.
Rymer’s 868-page penny-dreadful, Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood, began serialization in 1847. The novel held a new generation of readers enthralled, and made the vampire a pop-culture icon. As with Polidori’s tale, several elements of Varney’s comic-book adventures found their way into Dracula. I’ll confess here and now, I haven’t read the whole thing. Maybe I’ll get to it when I return from the dead.
Before I depart, though, allow me to hit one more high point: Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla. LeFanu updated the femme fatale and gave us the female Dracula — a couple decades before Stoker gave us the Transylvanian Count himself! The character Carmilla, aka the Countess Millarca Karnstein, is charming, beautiful and dead. Her creator picked up several strands of folklore (remember those lamias?) and tied them together with several of Polidori’s conventions. Le Fanu may have been influenced, also, by tales of Elisabeth Bathory, a sixteenth-century Hungarian countess who reputedly tortured and murdered 650 virgins, and then bathed in their blood. (And does anyone know for sure if we get the word bath from Bathory?)
Carmilla is an intensely erotic novella that anticipates many of the defining traits of Dracula. Carmilla is essentially a nocturnal being, but she is not totally confined to darkness. She has an aversion to Christianity. She’s a shape-shifter, taking the forms of a cat and a snake. She can move through walls, defying locked doors. She has supernatural strength. She gets a foothold in the lives of her victims through false pretenses. She has fangs! She sleeps in her coffin and is confined, like the vampire of folklore, to the geographic area near her grave. Dracula was similarly confined to his native soil, at least until he hit upon the idea of travelling with boxes of Transylvanian dirt.
Le Fanu also anticipated the Dr. Van Helsing-type vampire hunter, as well, in the off-stage presence of Dr. Hesselius. He depicted the futile attempts to explain supernatural events in scientific terms, introduced the folk remedies for exterminating vampires, and used dream sequences to distort reality and cloud the victim’s judgment. There’s more, but the sun will be rising soon, and I must make an end.
The time has now come to give Bram Stoker his due. In his sensational Victorian novel Dracula, the Dublin writer drew on several hundreds of years of folklore and pulled together all the various forms of the literary vampire previously discussed here. He took inspiration from Carmilla as well as from the history of Vlad Dracul. He included all the major motifs, such as mind control, the absence of a vampire’s reflection, and the talismans used to ward off a vampiric attack (crucifixes and garlic). No, he wasn’t the first to tap into the rich vein of vampire lore, but he was the most thorough. Nor was he the first writer to stir up the smoldering embers of vampire literature to create a sexual inferno, but Stoker gave us a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. In so doing, he codified an entire subgenre of horror fiction, and guaranteed the literary vampire an enduring resting place in the hearts and nightmares of generations to come.