The Vampyre: A Tale by John William Polidori
Originally published by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819
Price I paid: 99¢
The Vampyre: A Tale is based on a fragment written by Lord Byron in 1816 during a gathering of author friends who, trapped inside due to bad weather, decided to write ghost stories. It was the first vampire story in English prose, and as such had a wide-ranging influence, almost single-handedly creating the now-popular image of the vampire as an aristocratic seducer.Amazon.com, from the publisher
I figured that since Halloween is coming up soon, I might as well find something in the horror genre to read. I know that this is the first time in five years that I realized that, but in a way I think that makes it even more special? Sure, we’ll run with that.
The thing is, I don’t read a lot of horror in general. The result of reading horror is one of two things: Either I’m not scared, in which case the work failed to do its job, or I am scared, in which case I’m scared. I don’t like to be scared. I’m already scared most of the time.
There are exceptions. I like to read Stephen King. He doesn’t scare me that much? I think it’s just because I’ve read him for so long—I was a kid when I first read Pet Sematary, and that was before I was aware of the constant terror that is everyday existence—that I’ve developed the ability to step back and view his works more clinically. I can read his horror almost like I read science fiction, as if to say “Oh, neat, this cat has a demon in it because of a wendigo. I wonder how that works mechanically?”
The other exception is old-timey horror, and possibly for a similar reason. “Oh, a giant indescribable horror has erupted from the sea because of cultists. Neat.”
I enjoy the occasional Weird Tale, but I don’t tend to go back much further than that. Poe is there, obviously, and he’s an exception to the exception, because something about Poe’s melancholy existential terror really gets into my brain. Also, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve read either Dracula or Frankenstein, but they’re both on my TBR shortlist. An Internet acquaintance mentioned doing a real-time Dracula read next year—it’s a series of letters, in case you aren’t aware, so it’d be easy to read each letter on the date it was supposedly written—and I’m looking forward to joining in on that if I remember.
And so now I find myself having read John Polidori’s The Vampyre. I decided to read it for a couple of reasons. It’s easily accessible in ebook form for cheap, it’s short, and it’s also a forerunner of the genre.
Back in May I read The Mummy!, which was purported to be one of the earliest stories of a resurrected mummy. It was, kind of, although it was mostly about courtly soap opera crap set in the 22nd century, and I wasn’t super thrilled with it.
Now I’ve read what is widely regarded to be the first modern vampire story, and I also wasn’t super thrilled with it either!
Side-note, tracking down the earliest werewolf story is apparently more difficult than I care to dive into.
Second side-note, I was gonna make a joke here about finding the first attested book about a Frankenstein, but I couldn’t find a good way to do that while making it clear that I was joking.
Anyway, let’s talk about Polidori’s Vampyre. A lot of people are aware of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein while hanging out with her future husband, Percy, and Lord Byron at a house in Geneva. They all decided to have a little contest to see who could come up with the best scary story, and I think history has told us who won that little contest.
Less spoken-of is the attendance of John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician. He ran with a fragment of story that Byron produced, and ended up writing The Vampyre.
Even less spoken-of is Claire Clairmont, of whom I learned just today. She was an interesting character all her own, but apparently she didn’t write anything for this contest.
The Vampyre tells the tale of Lord Ruthven. He is very much an archetypal vampire! It’s so hard to imagine a time, two centuries ago, when you could write a story about a gaunt pale noble figure that skulks around and people would not immediately recognize that this character is a vampire. This is the book that gave us this archetype, almost eighty years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula started it down the path to ubiquity, although there were plenty of tales in between, like Carmilla and Varney the Vampire, the latter of which I simply cannot take seriously based on the name.
Lord Ruthven shows up in London society and just kinda exists. People note that he’s a bit weird, never smiling or frowning, always pale, but generally pay him little mind.
Our other character in this book is Aubrey, a young aristocrat who is just now being presented to the world. He takes an interest in Lord Ruthven, who responds in kind. Together, they go on a grand tour of Europe.
Aubrey notes some interesting things about his traveling companion. The main one is that Lord Ruthven really enjoys corrupting people, or at least aiding in their corruption. He likes to seduce aristocratic women so that he can socially debase them. He doesn’t much seem to mind whether they’re married (so that he can expose their adultery), or unmarried (so that they’re, ugh, “sullied,” or words like that).
Apart from his seduction of women, Lord Ruthven also enjoys the corruption of other people, and so we get another nice dash of early-1800s social theory from our narrator. See, Lord Ruthven is very keen on giving away his money to the poor, but not the “virtuous” poor.
I don’t know if it’s Polidori’s thinking or if he’s simply reflecting a general attitude of the time, but in this narrative there are two kinds of poor people. There are the “virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue,” and the “idle, the vagabond, and the beggar.”
So yeah, “virtuous” poor people are the ones that used to have money, but lost it because of bad luck. The bad kind of poor people never had money to begin with, because they’re bad people.
The sad thing is that people still think this way and make public policy based on it.
Anyway, Ruthven is generous with his money, but only to the evil poor, so that they can further fall into vice. This bit is just kind of generalized, and doesn’t really come up again. I wonder if it’s supposed to be a reflection on how Ruthven works for the Devil or whatever? Satan’s name is never invoked in this story.
All of this causes Aubrey to finally part ways with Lord Ruthven. He makes his way to Greece, where he boards with an Athenian family. He busies himself searching for antiquities and lusting after the “beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing; to pourtray on canvass the promised hope of the faithful in Mahomet’s paradise” daughter of the family.
I don’t know if that semicolon actually belongs there or is an artifact of the ebook, but I lean toward it being legit. And likewise, I don’t know if this was Polidori’s personal style or simply the style of the time, but holy hell did he love semicolons and em-dashes even more than I do. That’s an accomplishment.
The daughter is Ianthe, and she tells Aubrey tales of creatures that drink blood and cause terror, called vampyres. Aubrey’s reaction is “Oh wow, that sounds a lot like Lord Ruthven. What a crazy coincidence that this silly superstition would do that.”
One day, after returning too late from collecting some artifacts and finding himself in a storm, Aubrey passes through a dark wood, whereupon he finds a small house. Thinking perhaps that the inhabitants could give him directions back to civilization, he makes his way toward it. He then hears a woman’s shrieks and the “stifled, exultant mockery of a laugh,” so he forces his way in. He’s hurled away by some superhumanly strong force. Soon, other people show up and find him, along with the lifeless, bloody corpse of Ianthe. Everybody hollers that it was a vampyre, and sure enough, signs point to it.
In his shock, Aubrey finds himself once again in the company of Lord Ruthven. He never quite brings himself to question the convenience, even as he occasionally thinks “Oh dang, that vampyre from earlier sure does look like this guy!”
Here’s the thing: This is a plot that hinges a lot on our hero being kind of an idiot. Part of me thinks “Well, it was 200 years ago and nobody had even heard of a vampire maybe,” but that’s not enough. Even without the vampire stuff, Aubrey could have put a few things together and noticed that something was very definitely wrong with this whole situation. But he just continues to run with it, all the way through the story, even when it gets personal.
So I’m starting to think that, even taking into account the differences of culture and aesthetics, that this isn’t a very good story. Polidori was probably around twenty years old when he wrote this, so that’s something to take into account too. Sure, there are plenty of fine writers that are that age or even younger. Mary Shelley was 18 when she wrote Frankenstein. But I think they’re exceptional cases. Sadly, we’ll never know if Polidori’s talents would have developed over time, as he died after drinking cyanide in 1821.
Aubrey and Lord Ruthven amble about a little bit more, until one fateful day the are set upon in the road by robbers. During the fight, Lord Ruthven is shot in the shoulder and takes a quick turn for the worse. Just before he dies, he forces Aubrey to swear that he will not speak of his (Ruthven’s) death for a year and a day. Aubrey swears, and then goes back to England.
Aubrey’s return to England introduces us to his sister, who, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t have a first name. She is only called “Miss Aubrey.” Her “embraces and caresses” are often harked upon, in one case calling them “infantine,” and the whole thing is really weird but probably because of those aforementioned two centuries of disconnect.
At this point she is barely eighteen, and yet to be presented to society. Aubrey, for his part, is doing poorly. He basically lies around a lot, in what we might now consider a deep depression but it could be something supernatural too. It’s made worse when he sees, standing around at a party like nothing ever happened, Lord Ruthven. In his surprise, Aubrey makes to say something, but Ruthven grabs him and utters “Remember your oath,” which is apparently all it takes for Aubrey to clam up again.
I suppose it’s possible that a lot of Aubrey’s dumbness comes from some kind of vampiric mind control, but that never becomes quite clear. I lean toward the possibility, if only because every so often he hears, in his head, Ruthven say the same “Remember your oath!” It might be mind control, or it might be some variety of misguided Romantic era loyalty-above-all-else. I dunno.
Aubrey convalesces for the entire remnant of the story, and it’s tedious. He is incapable of doing anything when it becomes clear that Ruthven, now under the guise of the Earl of Marsden, has designs on his (Aubrey’s) sister. Again, it’s not clear whether Aubrey’s illness is induced by Ruthven or not. Either way, Aubrey is unable to tell his sister to save herself in time, and the story ends with her having “glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”
It’s a downer ending, but it also goes for the shock element and completely fails. Like, were we supposed to be surprised that Miss Aubrey got killed by a vampyre? If not, then why yell it at us?
I guess this is the kind of story whose genre is “We watch everything go wrong for a while until it ends.” Is there a name for that? Is there some kind of English majory term that I’ve forgotten? Whatever it’s called, it’s not exactly satisfying to read. Stephen King pulls it off, but that’s because he’s often able to make me care about the characters who are going through all this supernatural trauma, whereas in this book it’s an upper-class twit with barely any characterization to begin with. What do we know about this guy? I can’t think of much, other than he enjoys antiquarianism and he has a relationship with his sister that made me uncomfortable.
A large part of my distaste probably comes from not being that keen on the time period we’re talking about here, anyway. I read old Byron and Shelley and Keats in college and had an affection for them, but that’s worn thin as I’ve aged. Especially Byron, but that’s mostly because he was a piece of human garbage.
On the other hand, without Byron we wouldn’t have had Ada Lovelace. Bullshit makes the flowers grow.
Other than being the first of its sort, I don’t find an awful lot redeeming about this little story. There are plenty of reasons for that beyond simple quality, so I can’t outright condemn it. I’m glad I read it, but I kind of wish I’d opted for Carmilla instead.