Monday, 30 January 2012

The Vampyre


Nowadays mainstream bookshops seem to have a whole section devoted to vampire novels, which usually seem to be some form of undead Mills & Boon. Like many classic monsters the vampire comes and goes in the night, waxing and waning in popularity. Where did the vampire fiction genre come from?

Many would say Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897 (download the novel at the excellent Project Gutenberg site, as text or audio file). However, the first novella which established many of the vampire-in-fiction tropes was The Vampyre, published in 1819 by John Polidori. It featured an aristocratic vampire (Lord Ruthven) with a bestial interior: an irresistible seducer of women and immortal corrupter of morals.



Its genesis makes an amazing tale in itself. Polidori was Byron's doctor, and travelled with him. He was with Byron in the wet summer of 1816 when they stayed at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva with Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont. It is no surprise that with such talented company, the presence of drugs, and ghostly tales told by the fireside, the eventual outcome was The Vampyre by Polidori, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818).

It is interesting to re-read The Vampyre nowadays. It floats within the Gothic vein and establishes itself as an early work of horror because of the darker sides of Gothic that it focusses on. A journey through an ominous wood cannot be completed without being accompanied by thunder and lightning. Many horror tropes are encountered during the tale: murder and gore, blood, a neck opened by teeth, supernatural elements, visions of the dead, madness and decay, confinement, and death. Unfortunately for the modern reader it is difficult to capture the impact it will have had at the time, since the foreshadowing of ominous details right from the start seem so obvious to us now due to familiarity - we would know to be wary of anyone with dead grey eyes and a "deadly hue of his face"' who makes people nervous. All of the clues to an infernal nature now appear as heavy-handed dramatic irony when Lord Ruthven sneers at misfortunate virtue, but rewards the lustful, vicious and iniquitous. Tragedy is obvious when we are told that those who don't believe in vampires (like the protagonist Aubrey) will be brought down with grief by the monster.

The parts I enjoyed the most on my re-reading were those set in Greece, where tales of the vampire represent a darkness amongst the rural idyll.
"when they heard the name of the place, they all at once begged of him not to return at night, as he must necessarily pass through a wood, where no Greek would ever remain, after the day had closed, upon any consideration. They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path. Aubrey made light of their representations, and tried to laugh them out of the idea; but when he saw them shudder at his daring thus to mock a superior, infernal power, the very name of which apparently made their blood freeze, he was silent."
However, even here there is language which is difficult for 21st Century sensibilities to read and appreciate without a snigger:
"Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing to portray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet's paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain's side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to the taste of an epicure."
Ah, the days when men were men, and women 'tripped' their way along as lightly as a wu-shu practioner upon the surface of a lake. Still, one has to appreciate the adoring worship in the words above. The modern equivalent is probably something from one of my favourite comedy series, Flight of the Conchords:
"You're so beautiful
Like a, tree
Or a high-class prostitute
You're so beautiful
Mmm, you could be a part-time model
(But you'd probably have to keep your normal job)"
For me the genesis of The Vampyre is more interesting than the work itself, in part because I studied Byron and the cult of Byronism for my final year as an undergraduate (and my love of the subject no doubt contributed to the first class honours I achieved). It has certainly made me want to re-read other works on my shelf from those days, such as Tom Holland's The Vampyre, which plays with the myth that Byron really was a vampire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, but I shall be staying clear of any vampire literature!