John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.
But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.
The two main protagonists are “a young gentleman of the name of Aubrey” and the mysterious Lord Ruthven; the first is comfortably wealthy from a fortune left by his deceased parents to him and his 17 year old sister, while the latter is a magnet to society women despite the fact that few knew whether “he ever addressed himself to women.” Aubrey’s fascination with Lord Ruthven leads him to embark on a cultural tour of Europe in his company, a trip which leads to the violent death of a young Greek girl, Ianthe, Aubrey’s debilitating illness and the unwelcome reappearances of Lord Ruthven after an estrangement between the two men.
When, back in England, the convalescing Aubrey discovers his sister is to marry the suspected vampire, he finds he is powerless to stop the union due to an ill-advised promise, and the novella reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Quite frankly, as a horror story The Vampyre is tame by modern standards but our interest lies chiefly in its being the prototype, as well as in our knowing the circumstances of its origins. Byron’s personal physician John Polidori (who was present during that momentous ghost story session in Switzerland in 1816 which led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein) composed this vampire tale based — as publicists might say — on an idea by Byron. It proved hugely influential in the 19th-century, spawning a prodigious number of translations, plays and adaptations, no doubt partly down to the publisher’s claim that the author was Byron himself, despite Polidori’s and Byron’s angry rebuttals. The inclusion here of Byron’s own fragmentary outline shows clearly the themes that were original to Byron and the changes that Polidori made in narrative and details to differentiate the two versions.
What’s not in question is how much Polidori personalised The Vampyre before publication. First, the Greek girl is called Ianthe; originally this would have been the name of a nymph from Greek myth, but it also happens to be the name of the daughter (Ianthe Elizabeth, born 1813) of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Harriet, the wife he’d abandoned in England to elope with Mary Godwin.
Secondly, the name of the vampire Lord Ruthven was taken directly from a figure in Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon (1816): Lady Caroline had had an affair with Byron in 1812 and her portrait of the fictional Lord Ruthven was commonly known to be based on her former lover. By borrowing Ruthven’s name for his vampire the volatile Polidori (who by now had fallen out with Byron) was quite obviously referring to his former ‘patient’ as a serial adulterer who left ruined women in his wake and who betrayed his friends’ trust.
Lady Caroline famously characterised Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and the same could be said of the vampires who partook of the legacy of Polidori’s Lord Ruthven. It’s a shame that we are disproportionately indebted to Bram Stoker’s late 19th-century novel Dracula for our vampire memes, because the Byron-Polidori model has much to recommend it. But neither man was the originator of course; as Polidori’s introduction emphasises, “The superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East,” concluding that the term vampyre is not the only one and that
“there are several others synonymous with it, made use of it in several parts of the world: as Vroucolocha, Vardoulacha, Goul, Broucoloka, &c.”
Polidori took these details from Byron’s notes in the poet’s The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale which had already appeared in print, in 1813, and from which he quotes a passage in verse in his introduction. The Vroucolocha or vourdoulakas is an old Balkan term for a werewolf, but it appears that over time vampires and werewolves had become almost assimilated in this corner of Europe.
The curse of the vampire is unfortunately still very much with us, and I don’t mean merely the psychic kind: we are all too aware of those modern Bluebeards who prey on women, thereby condemning them to a form of living death. As with Ruthven we have to persist in calling them out whatever their rank, whether or not they use that pernicious modern equivalent of an gentleman’s oath, the Non-Disclosure Agreement.
Byron’s fragment is not without interest: along with the points of similarity come differences — the action concludes not in Greece or London but on the Mediterranean coast of present Turkey, near Izmir; the narrative is told in the first person rather than Polidori’s third person telling; and the vampire’s name, Augustus Darvell, is a none too subtle hint at something devilish.