#45: The Vampyre

In which Lord Byron’s dealer rips off his story to spite him and invents a whole new genre

This review was originally posted to Twitter on January 28th, 2019

Initial release: 1819
Author: John W. Polidori

Vampires are a staple of gothic fiction, to the point where they almost define it. But there’s another frequent archetype, that of the rapacious fuckboy, such as in the genre’s foundational work, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. John Polidori’s seminal tale The Vampyre is an example of both.

When you consider that the titular vampire, Lord Ruthven, is named after a thinly-disguised parody of Lord Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, a jilted former lover of Byron’s, it makes sense that rather than hiding in a castle and going “blah!” a lot, Ruthven is instead a fuckboy who revels in ruining lives, often literally draining them of life via some vague means.

There’s an argument to be made in which that fateful sleepover in Geneva in the wet summer of 1816 was an important moment in horror history, not just for Mary Shelley’s blockbuster tale of alchemy and hubris Frankenstein but also the contributions of the other people present at that little ghost writing contest. While Lord Byron never actually finished his story, it was Polidori’s take, building on Byron’s ideas (including borrowing the “tell nobody of my death” plot point,) that would lay out a lot of the modern ideas of vampires, where they hide easily among society. What, you thought Bram Stoker invented this stuff?

A young Englishman enters high society; he meets an enigmatic stranger, Lord Ruthven, who despite an unsettling countenance seems to cause noblewomen to debase themselves to catch his attention. Wanting to figure this guy out — perhaps to learn his secrets — he travels with Ruthven to Italy, observing how he seems to enjoy watching people destroy themselves. Our hero leaves him after learning of how Ruthven had left a trail of disgraced adultresses in his wake in England (much like how Byron had recently left England to escape his debts and all the women he’d jilted, including his wife.) After traveling to Greece, he meets up with Ruthven again, and they travel together until Ruthven is shot and the two are held hostage. Ruthven dies, his body rotting before he even expires, but not before demanding that our hero not tell of his death for a year and a day. Returning to England, our hero re-enters high society, but guess who’s there and guess whose sister he’s gonna marry? The rest is a lot of wash about our hero going mad, etc. etc.

It’s a fairly common type of story by today’s standards, of course, but it’s wise to remember that much of what we take for granted, in terms of the tropes and themes in horror fiction, was invented almost out of whole cloth in 19th century gothic fiction, in stories like this. This was one of the defining stories of the early vampire genre. It pretty much cemented the idea of the modern vampire as an aristocratic fuckboy — modeled very much after the likes of Lord Byron — who preys on the pretty girls of high society, especially the English ones. In fact, it’s that Byron connection that shot this story into popularity, because it was initially published under Byron’s name, a fact that displeased both Polidori and Byron, the latter of whom declared in 1819 that he hated vampires and vampire fiction, and the former of whom was ultimately ruined in part due to the story and his relationship with Byron. But because it was believed that Byron wrote it, it became immensely popular, because society loves a tortured fuckboy and the fuckboy fiction he writes about himself for an audience of fuckboys. (See also: most “classic literature,” Richard Dawkins, Lenin, R. Crumb, etc.) I doubt Polidori would see the irony of this, as he fought for some time to get publications to put his name on the story he wrote to make fun of a fuckboy.

God, Victorian Brits were fucking weird.

While Dracula might be the poster boy for the whole genre, Lord Ruthven has become a stock character in his own right, lurking about in the background in various forms in one thing or another — one book even outright makes him into a disguised Lord Byron! So in that sense, and as the apparent template for the bloodsucking fuckboy that seems to populate much of vampire fiction, he’s earned a seat in the pantheon of lesser-known vampire characters that have entered the public consciousness, alongside Carmilla, Lestat, Orlok, Alucard, and so on. So while this story might be much lesser known than Dracula, it’s arguably more important in transitioning the vampire of folklore into something much more relatable, even tragic — inasmuch as thinly-disguised parodies of Byron can be tragic.

-june❤

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june gloom

june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]