With the blockbuster success of the vampire in text and film over the past few years, it seems only fitting that January’s Monster of the M...

Monster of the Month: The Vampyre

With the blockbuster success of the vampire in text and film over the past few years, it seems only fitting that January’s Monster of the Month should be the vampire. But the quirky spelling of the “vampyre” here points to this article's focus on the very beginning of the vampire in John Polidori's "The Vampyre," a story that introduces the vampire as we know him today despite his many modern permutations.

It was a dark and stormy night in June 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Geneva, Switzerland when a singular meeting of minds spawned the twin nightmares of Frankenstein and the literary vampire. Gathered around the villa’s hearth were the libertine George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley the poet, and his wife Mary Godwin Shelly, the daughter of William Godwin and an accomplished author in her own right. Hanging back in the shadows were Claire Clairmont, Mary’s flighty stepsister and John Polidori, Byron’s physician who harbored literary aspirations of his own.

John Polidori received his medical doctorate at the young age of nineteen from the University of Edinburgh where he studied mesmerism and wrote his thesis on sleepwalking. Polidori met Byron at a time when the poet was in need of a traveling physician to accompany him on his travels through Switzerland. Though he is regarded as one of the proverbial bad boys of English poetry, Byron suffered from a club foot, a physical limitation that never interfered with his more amorous pursuits (Claire Clairmont would leave the Villa Diodati pregnant with Byron’s child).

The Villa Diodati
Polidori jumped at the chance to attend a man he regarded as his personal idol. We can imagine him watching Byron by the light of the fire with avid interest, wanting nothing more than to than to bask in the preternatural glow of the man he admired. Unfortunately for Polidori, the adoration was one sided and Byron joined with his close friend Percy in ridiculing Polidori’s literary attempts. The stormy weather outside would have been no match for Polidori’s inward tumult as he repressed his intense resentment for a man he had worshipped.

 Mary Godwin Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron
In the midst of this personal drama, Mary, Percy and Byron regaled each other with the reading of German ghost tales—an appropriate pastime considering their gothic surroundings—until Byron conceived the idea of a contest for “each [of them to] write a ghost story” For Mary Shelley, the only one of the three to complete her tale, inspiration came in the form of a waking dream in which she witnessed “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together…[as it stirred] with an uneasy half vital motion” The result was her masterwork, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

But while Mary was busy penning her tale of terror, Byron and Percy both struggled with the challenge. Percy, poet that he was, wrote the gloomy ode “Mont Blanc” while Byron composed “A Fragment,” a piece duly named after the fact that Byron failed to finish it.

Like the vampire who refuses to stay bound to its earthy grave, Polidori’s feelings of resentment towards his former mentor refused to die. Polidori had an axe to grind and like any frustrated writer he sought his revenge in prose. Polidori wrote “The Vampyre”, the first appearance of the vampire in prose, borrowing largely from Lord Byron’s “Fragment”, though in Byron’s story there is never any mention of the work “vampyre”. “The Vampyre” was first published in 1819 anonymously and subtitled “A Tale by Lord Byron”. Byron was taken aback by this attribution and denounced the story as one that could never have come from his pen. The fight over ownership of “The Vampyre” would consume much of Polidori’s short life. Afterwards he gave up writing and died at the age of 26.

Despite his frustrated life and early demise, Polidori is universally acknowledged as progenitor of the vampire in literature. Varney the Vampire, a penny dreadful about the adventures of an undead aristocrat, even pays tribute to him with a character named Count Polidori.

In “The Vampyre”, Polidori establishes the archetype of the vampire as a wealthy aristocrat. Lord Ruthven represents the decay of the aristocracy and can easily be read as a symbol for Lord Byron. Ruthven destroys everyone and everything he comes in contact with, giving money to beggars in search of vice and ruining the reputations of promising young women.

Just as Ruthven ghosts for Byron, the naïve young Aubrey who accompanies Ruthven on a tour of Europe can seen as a stand-in for an innocent Polidori. Aubrey becomes Ruthven’s next victim and their relationship brings him to physical, mental and financial ruin. Ruthven kills Aubrey’s beloved and marries then murders his sister.

In light of Polidori’s professional and personal clashes with Byron, “The Vampyre” can be read as a unique testament of a man whose life was destroyed by a failed relationship with his idol.

Further Reading:
A Fragment by Lord Byron
The Vampyre by John Polidori