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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Early Vampire Fiction – The Vampyre, by John Polidori

Vampires in fiction, film, TV and whatnot don't do much for me. But I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the pioneering works of vampire fiction – some say it may be the first. John William Polidori’s claim to fame, such as it was, derives from the fact that he penned this work – "The Vampyre" – and from the fact that he served as personal physician to the poet, Lord Byron, for several years.

Polidori’s work has been overshadowed by another work that had its genesis at about the same time, a book by Mary Shelley known to most of us simply as Frankenstein. The genesis for both works dates from a cold, rainy summer when Shelley, Byron, Polidori, Shelley’s husband Percy and her half-sister gathered in a Swiss villa, whiling away their time with fantastical stories and challenging each other to write one of their own.

Only Frankenstein and "The Vampyre" made an impact. The latter was supposedly based on a fragment penned by Byron but not much was taken from that original snippet. It first saw publication a few years later, in 1819, when it appeared under Byron’s name, a mistake that was later corrected. Not that it would matter much to Polidori. Like all of the men at the 1816 gathering of literary luminaries, he died young. Byron lived the longest of the three, dying at 36, while Mary Shelley and Claire Claremont both lived to a ripe old age.

"The Vampyre" concerns the exploits of one Lord Ruthven, a cold and aloof sort of fellow. Imagine that. Who happens to cross paths with the young and naïve Aubrey. He, along with his sister, was made quite wealthy by the death of their parents. This mismatched pair take off on the grand tour of Europe that was so common in this day among the “better” classes.

Ruthven is not a very forthcoming sort and so Aubrey takes it upon himself to try to figure him out. Before long a letter arrives from his guardians at home, laying out some of the faults of his newfound companion, who is apparently something of a rake, and urging him to sever ties with Ruthven. Aubrey proceeds to do so, but not before foiling Ruthven's plans to sully the virtue of an innocent young lady.

Aubrey finds himself in Athens next, where he becomes an enamored of a certain young lady, Ianthe. Who, coincidentally enough, regales him with tales of vampires and whose family are horrified to find that he’s setting out on an excursion to a certain dicey locale. He ignores their concerns and goes anyway, only to find himself (planning is not one of his skills) overtaken by the dark of night and a fierce storm.

Before long he finds himself outside a hovel and hears screams coming from somewhere thereabouts. Only to be assaulted by someone with “superhuman” strength. He’s saved by the requisite mob with torches (which probably wasn’t a cliché yet) but the screaming woman is not so lucky. Apparently she’s been attacked and killed by a…you know. Here's one from the annals of sheer coincidence, it’s his beloved Ianthe.

Aubrey lapses into a raging delirium and soon Ruthven, of all people, turns up to serve as his attendant. He seems a changed man, at first, and apologizes for any previous misdeeds, but it doesn’t last. But the now rather melancholy Aubrey has been changed by his ordeal and before long he and Ruthven are back on the road again, exploring various corners of Greece. At one point they are set up on bandits and Ruthven is shot in the shoulder. Surprisingly, Ruthven doesn’t do so well and before long he is dead. The fact that his corpse disappears thereafter probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Nor should it be surprising that he turns up again, at a coming out party for Aubrey’s sister. Which pretty much sends Aubrey off the deep end.

I’ll leave it at that. If you’d like to know the rest try it out at Project Gutenberg. It's not very long - about 8,000 words - though the author's habit of using interminable sentences and paragraphs sometimes makes it seem that way. And, not to spoil it, but if you're looking for a happy ending you're going to come away disappointed.

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