Two hundred years ago, a genre was born.
It was in 1819 that readers of supernatural fiction were first gripped by Dr. John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre”. That year, the figure of the vampire – which had been previously glimpsed in macabre poetry and writings on folklore – became a viable subject for prose fiction. The sundry vampire protagonists and antagonists who followed, from Carmilla Karnstein and Count Dracula to Lestat de Lioncourt and Edward Cullen, can trace their lineage to this work of early nineteenth-century literature.
For the full story behind Polidori’s tale, we must head back still further to one of the most significant dates in the history of horror: the sixteenth of June 1816. On this night, a group of Romantic writers gathered at the Villa Diodati in Geneva – Percy Shelley, his wife-to-be Mary, Lord Byron and John Polidori – decided to each write a ghost story. Most famously, this was the genesis of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. But Frankenstein is not the only foundational horror text to have had its genesis on that night: the Villa Diodati can also be claimed as the point of conception for vampire fiction.
It was Lord Byron who decided upon vampirism as the theme of his story. He had already explored this motif in his narrative poem The Giaour, published in 1813, which confronts its protagonist with the prospect of being sent to the Islamic hell and raised as a vampire (“But first, on earth as Vampire sent/Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent/Then ghastly haunt thy native place/And suck the blood of all thy race”). Now, he attempted a prose treatment of this theme.
The narrator of Byron’s story speaks of travelling through Europe with an older companion named Augustus Darvell. This strangely inscrutable fellow shows signs of physical deterioration during the journey and eventually expires amongst the picturesque ruins of Smyrna. With his dying words, he makes some strange requests of his companion:
“This is the end of my journey, and of my life – I came here to die: but I have a request to make, a command – for such my last words must be – You will observe it?”
“Most certainly; but have better hopes.”
“I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this – conceal my death from every human being.”
“I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and — “
“Peace! – it must be so: promise this.”
“Swear it, by all that” – He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.
“There is no occasion for this – I will observe your request; and to doubt me is – “
“It cannot be helped, – you must swear.”
I took the oath: it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He proceeded –
“On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis: the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.”
“You will see.”
Once Darvell has passed away, the story’s protagonist buries his corpse. Darvell would, presumably, have returned from the grave as a vampire and be reunited with his companion at Ceres, but exactly what Byron had in mind for the remainder of the novel will never be known: he never completed it, leaving only an unfinished fragment that ends with Darvell’s burial.
1819: The Year of “The Vampyre”
With Byron losing interest in his narrative, the task of completing the story was instead taken up by John Polidori. According to Mary Shelley, Polidori’s own contribution to the creative session at the Villa Diodati was “some terrible story about a skull-headed lady who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole” which he had trouble finishing. The territory staked out by Lord Byron, it transpired, offered more fertile ground.
And so Polidori took Byron’s idea and expanded it into a complete short story, entitled “The Vampyre”. This narrative opens with a mysterious nobleman named Lord Ruthven arriving in London, provoking fascination from those around him:
Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, facing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house…
Ruthven is described as having a face with a “deadly hue… though its form and outline were beautiful”. Despite his peculiar appearance, London’s “female hunters after notoriety” make efforts to attract his attention. None succeed, however, and the singular aristocrat remains aloof.
Aubrey, an affluent and naive young dreamer who lives with his sister, is captivated by the romantic glamour of the strange visitor. Ruthven and Aubrey go on a tour of Europe together, a plot element lifted directly from Byron’s fragment. As they travel Aubrey notices a destructive quality to Ruthven:
There was one circumstance about the charity of his Lordship, which was still more impressed upon his mind: all those upon whom it was bestowed, inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all ether led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery.
In particular, Ruthven shows an apparent fondness for degrading innocence: he ignores the advances of adulteresses but is quick to seduce virgins, only to swiftly cast them away. Talk of his behaviour spreads back in London, and the guardians of the orphaned Aubrey send letters imploring their ward to return home.
Aubrey abandons the cold-hearted nobleman in Italy and heads alone to Greece. There, he falls in love with a young woman named Ianthe; this girl tells him “the tale of the living vampyre, who had passed years amidst his friends, and dearest ties, forced every year, by feeding upon the life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months”. Other members of the local community affirm the truth of this legend, and refuse to visit a certain stretch of wood said to serve as “the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies”. Aubrey is deeply unnerved by these tales, particularly when Ianthe offers a physical description of these infernal creatures – a description that matches Lord Ruthven.
Despite such warnings, Aubrey heads out after dark one night and is attacked by a mysterious assailant. He escaped back to Ianthe’s home, but finds her dead: “upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein”. Aubrey is devastated and descends into fever, after which Lord Ruthven – ostensibly because he heard tell of Aubrey’s state – arrives to take his side. The two resume their travels together only to run into bandits, Ruthven is fatally injured by a bullet.
At this point, Polidori again borrows his plot directly from the Byron fragment. Like Byron’s Augustus Darvell, Ruthven asks Aubrey to avoid speaking of his death:
“Assist me! you may save me — you may do more than that — I mean not my life, I heed the death of my existence as little as that of the passing day; but you may save my honour, your friend’s honour.” — “How? tell me how? I would do any thing,” replied Aubrey. — “I need but little — my life ebbs apace — I cannot explain the whole — but if you would conceal all you know of me, my honour were free from stain in the world’s mouth — and if my death were unknown for some time in England — I — I — but life.” — “It shall not be known.” — “Swear!” cried the dying man, raising himself with exultant violence, “Swear by all your soul reveres, by all your nature fears, swear that, for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way, whatever may happen, or whatever you may see.” — His eyes seemed bursting from their sockets: “I swear!” said Aubrey; he sunk laughing upon his pillow, and breathed no more.
It later transpires that Ruthven also ordered an accomplice to leave his body atop a nearby mountain so that it can be “exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that arose after his death.” Aubrey later returns to the summit to give Ruthven a full burial – only to find that the body has vanished.
Aubrey returns to England where he catches sight of Ruthven, confirming his suspicion of the nobleman’s supernatural nature. He becomes obsessed with keeping his sister from falling into Ruthven’s grasp – but as per his oath, he is unable to explain to her why he mistrusts Ruthven.
Aubrey’s sister ends up marrying the vampire, who is now masquerading as the Earl of Marsden, and Aubrey himself is driven to death by despair. The story concludes with an unambiguous final line: “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”
The debt that “The Vampyre” owes to Byron is hard to overstate. Polidori had not merely taken Byron’s unfinished story as a basis; he had cast the author of that story as the antagonist. Lord Ruthven is a clear caricature of Lord Byron – with Aubrey, the naïve young Romantic, perhaps a self-deprecating portrayal of Polidori himself, parodying his own strained relationship with Byron. Even Ruthven’s name has a Byronic connection: Lady Caroline Lamb, a former lover of Byron, had caricatured him under the same monicker in her 1816 novel Glenarvon.
In turning Lord Byron into a vampire, Polidori established a literary connection between vampirism and nobility. This association has no particular basis in folklore (excepting, perhaps, Countess Bathory’s legendary baths of blood) but became part and parcel of later vampire fiction, as the ranks of the undead would come to include sundry counts, countesses and other aristocrats.
Polidori departed from Byron’s model in terms of geographic location, the two writers each associating vampires with the Mediterranean but picking different parts of that region. Byron, reflecting the Romantic movement’s fascination with Orientalism, used a Turkish backdrop for both his prose fragment and “The Giaour”. The latter work places vampires within a specifically Islamic cosmology alongside ghouls, afrits and Eblis; in a footnote to his poem, Byron states that “the Vampyre superstition is still general in the Levant”.
Polidori, meanwhile, associates vampires with Greece. Although Ruthven’s nationality is never confirmed, and he is at least presenting himself as British, it is in Greece that Aubrey learns of the vampire legend. This contrasts with both Byron’s Turkey and the middle-to-eastern European settings favoured by later vampire authors, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Styria and Bram Stoker’s Transylvania. Polidori was likely drawing upon Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s 1717 book Relation d’un Voyage au Levant, which includes an account of an alleged vampire – or vrykolakas, to use the Greek term – being cremated on Mykonos.
Polidori gives de Tournefort due mention in the introduction to his story, where he talks about the wider background to the theme of vampirism.
“The superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East”, says Polidori. His introduction goes on to note that “Among the Arabians it appears to be common” but “did not, however, extend itself to the Greeks until after the establishment of Christianity”. He next offers an outline of the vampire legend:
In the West it spread, with some slight variation, all over Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Lorraine, where the belief existed, that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.
During the course of his introduction, Polidori discusses poetic treatments of the vampire theme, namely Byron’s The Giaour and Robert Southey’s 1801 epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer (both poets, incidentally, had also cited de Tournefort). He writes about allegedly true incidents of vampirism; de Tournefort turns up, as does monastic author Antoin Augustin Calmet, but the most in-depth account quoted by Polidori comes from the London Journal:
In the London Journal, of March, 1732, is a curious, and, of course, credible account of a particular case of vampyrism, which is stated to have occurred at Madreyga, in Hungary. It appears, that upon an examination of the commander-in-chief and magistrates of the place, they positively and unanimously affirmed, that, about five years before, a certain Heyduke, named Arnold Paul, had been heard to say, that, at Cassovia, on the frontiers of the Turkish Servia, he had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave, and rubbing himself with his blood.
This precaution, however, did not prevent him from becoming a vampyre himself; for, about twenty or thirty days after his death and burial, many persons complained of having been tormented by him, and a deposition was made, that four persons had been deprived of life by his attacks. To prevent further mischief, the inhabitants having consulted their Hadagni, took up the body, and found it (as is supposed to be usual in cases of vampyrism) fresh, and entirely free from corruption, and emitting at the mouth, nose, and ears, pure and florid blood.
Proof having been thus obtained, they resorted to the accustomed remedy. A stake was driven entirely through the heart and body of Arnold Paul, at which he is reported to have cried out as dreadfully as if he had been alive. This done, they cut off his head, burned his body, and threw the ashes into his grave. The same measures were adopted with the corses of those persons who had previously died from vampyrism, lest they should, in their turn, become agents upon others who survived them.
Later authors of vampire fiction would commonly include a character – such as Stoker’s Van Helsing – to act as a repository of vampire lore; in the introduction to his story, Polidori takes on this role himself. He covers certain aspects of the vampire legend absent from his actual story; most significantly, the ability of a vampire to turn its victims into fellow vampires, and the precise means of killing a vampire. Both concepts would subsequently become conventions of the vampire genre.
Between the story itself and its introduction, Polidori’s “The Vampyre” laid out all the material an author could need to write a vampire story of their own. And sure enough, the story inspired more than its share of imitators.
1820: The Travels of Lord Ruthven
In creating Lord Ruthven, Polidori worked the vampire motif into a literary character. What was once an intangible concept of folklore now had a name and, via prose descriptions, a face. Ruthven carved out a niche in the popular imagination, one that would be filled in the following century by Count Dracula: the vampire as a stock character, ready to be adapted, translated, re-imagined and parodied by subsequent writers.
Henri Faber penned a French translation of “The Vampyre” which was published in 1819. This inspired Charles Nodier author a stage adaptation, Le Vampire, first performed in 1820 at Paris’ Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin. Amongst other alterations, Nodier’s play changed the name of the vampire to Lord Ruthwen, a moniker that turns up in subsequent French derivations.
Two days after Nodier’s Le Vampire was first performed, the Théâtre du Vaudeville debuted a one-act comedy of the same name. Written by Eugène Scribe and Mélesville, this play told the story of a hapless fellow named Adolphe de Valberg, who ends up mistaken for a vampire after adopting the unwise pseudonym of Lord Ruthwen. It was one of multiple comedic plays inspired by the sudden popularity of vampires – a genre that spread from Paris to Belgium with Martin Joseph Mengals’ comedic operetta, again entitled Le Vampire. Lord Ruthven’s stage career took him back to his native Britain when James Planché’s The Vampire; or, The Bride of the Isles premiered at the English Opera House in 1820; this was derived from the French play rather than the original Polidori tale.
But the theatre was not the only place where Ruthven’s exploits continued: 1820 also saw the publication of a sequel novel by another French writer, Cyprien Bérard. Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires would eventually reach the English-speaking world in 2011 as The Vampire Lord Ruthwen, translated by Brian Stableford.
The book opens with the tale of two young Venetian lovers named Bettina and Léonti. Bettina meets a fortune teller who predicts her death at the hands of a vampire and is comforted by both Léonti and a mysterious man, who goes on to accompany the two lovers. The stranger talks at length about the nature and practices of vampires, and describes encountering a vampire himself in Poland. As the story unfolds, the man begins manipulating the relationship between the two lovers, convincing them that they must elope to escape the disapproval of Bettina’s father. But the stranger is the vampire Lord Ruthwen; his schemes leave Bettina dead and Léonti vowing vengeance.
Meanwhile, the reader learns that Aubrey – protagonist of “The Vampyre” – is not dead, as Polidori described, but merely so ill as to inspire rumours of his death. Once he has recovered, he sets off in pursuit of Ruthwen to avenge his sister; along the way he encounters Léonti, and the two become travelling companions. While passing through a village they find the locals gripped by fear: they believe that one of their number, Roberti, has become a vampire. This episode ends on a comedic note, as the apparent resurrection turns out to be the work of a harmless madman named Antonio who had been hiding in the coffin as a prank.
In a twist, Léonti is reunited with Bettina; she turns out to have been revived by divine intervention, an angel appearing to her in a vision and giving her the task of protecting her lover. Bettina reveals that Lord Ruthwen is now serving as prime minister to the Duke of Modena under the name of Lord Seymour, and so Aubrey, Léonti and their companion Nadoor Ali travel to the Duke’s palace.
As per the fashion of the era, the novel makes heavy use of nested stories which are told by various characters during the heroes’ journey to confront Ruthwen. One is the story of Mancini, son of a disgraced lord, who falls in love with a woman named Maria. Mancini’s father disapproves and forcefully separates the two; Mancini then forgets Maria, who dies of grief and subsequently haunts Mancini as a ghost. Nadoor Ali tells the story of his lover Cymodora being kidnapped by pirates and ending up as a harem girl in India; this story has no supernatural element, although later in the book Nadoor Ali claims that Cymodora was killed by Ruthwen in Arabia.
Aubrey contributes a tale of a female vampire – a concept that his companions find a great novelty, the contrast between chaste womanhood and unholy vampirism being a shocking one to their sensibilities. The convoluted tale involves a Moravian maiden named Thelemy who falls in love with Oscar, son of a princess. But it turns out that they are siblings, Thelemy being the secret daughter of the same princess, who responds to the scandal by banishing both Thelemy and the girl’s adoptive mother Athalise. The ordeal leaves Athalise dead and Thelemy insane. The years pass and Oscar marries, but Thelemy reappears during the wedding. She has presumably died and become a vampire, although the story itself gives no indication of this – the reader is left to infer her fate from the conversation between Aubrey and the other characters of the main narrative.
Another nested story returns vampires to the Islamic backdrop favoured by Byron, although once again, the vampiric element seems tacked-on. In old Baghdad, soldier Khaled falls in love with fisherman’s daughter Phaloa. When Khaled is called to war, Phaloa and her father decide to make an appeal to Caliph Harun al-Rashid that the lovers not be separated. They receive an offer of help from a stranger who claims to be an officer in the caliph’s army; Khaled insists that this man is actually a vampire. In an abrupt twist, he turns out to be neither an officer nor a vampire: he is, in fact, the caliph, who forgives Khaled’s suspicions and allows him to be with Phaloa.
Cyprien Bérard’s loose attempts to turn these tales of frustrated romance into vampire stories are never convincing; they merely underline the impression that the book was written hastily to cash in on the popularity of “The Vampyre”, and may have been assembled from unfinished scraps. This impression is furthered by multiple sequences where major plot points are skimmed over with brief descriptions, as in a rough draft.
Such instances pile up in the hectic climax: Lord Ruthwen marries and kills Princess Eleanora; Bettina to expose Ruthwen, so he kills her as well; Léonti stabs Ruthwen with a knife, before committing suicide; and the dying Eleanora affirms her affection for her heroic lover Albini. More women of the court die over the following days; the Duke’s men dig up Ruthwen’s body and find it bloody-mouthed, prompting the duke to order red-hot irons to be driven through the heart (and, unusually, the eyes) of the former prime minister. Albini becomes the new prime minister, and rewards Aubrey and Nandoor Ali for their efforts.
The novel’s epilogue announces that an autobiographical manuscript by Ruthwen has since been unearthed, and may be published if the present book is successful. This is followed by a few notes on the work of Lord Byron and Polidori (whose name is misspelled “Polydory”) and some brief comments on the book’s inspirations: it credits historian and folklorist Jacques-Barthélemy Salgues with providing the manner of Ruthwen’s death, while “It is from the piquant work of an Arab poet that we have borrowed the idea of a young female vampire.”
For all its flaws, the novel shows a distinct playfulness in its attempts to expand upon the basic ideas of “The Vampyre”. Over the following two centuries, many other authors would do the same, often with better results.
This series of blog posts will take a close look at how the vampire genre developed in the decades after Polidori’s tale was first published.