History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 September 2008

Will the Real Fiend Please Stand Up? Beginnings of a Tradition

Amanda’s post on eating and dieting reminded me of yet another cast of rich, thin, often aristocratic characters, who share what one might also call an eating disorder.

I mean, of course, all those vampires on our TV screens and in our TBR piles.

I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t seen True Blood yet. Nor have I gotten around to J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood series.

But I can quote you chapter and verse from Buffy. I gulped down Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in one long overnight binge, in order to learn what had caused my then-eleven-year-old niece to draw little hearts all over its table of contents -- she’d read the book so many times the front cover had fallen off.

And I’ve got a half-finished vampire story on my hard drive and an idea in my head for a novella that will recast a particularly vexing novel from the literary canon as erotic vampire fiction (and no, I’m not telling which vexing novel).

Who opened the cultural door to this horde of blood-sucking fiends?

In the English literary vampire tradition as in so much else (including the roster of famous dieters) one central and indispensable figure is Lord Byron.

He isn't the first vampire writer. Other English writers (including Coleridge and Southey) referred to vampire myths in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the word appears in the OED some 50-70 years before Byron used it. But as Anne Williams, editor of Three Vampire Tales, points out, the word must not have been very widely used because Byron was able to milk it for its exoticism -- and to call attention to his own travels in Greece -- in an annotation to his 1813 poem The Giaour:

The Vampire superstition [he wrote] is still general in the Levant…. I recollect a whole family being terrified by a scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror.

Scary, foreign, exciting, and hinting here at a strange, quasi-incestuous eroticism, The Giaour was vastly popular; Captain Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairly swoons over it while he grieves for his dead fiancée. The word “vampire” appears in the text as part of a horrid curse put on the hero, who has killed the murderer of his lover, a member of a sultan’s harem:

But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

Byron was to write again about a vampire again -- this time in more extended form -- three years later, during the summer of 1816, as his contribution to that famous story-telling session at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in the company of Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Dr. John Polidori, and (needless to say) Mary Shelley.

It was the story-telling session that produced Frankenstein.

And just how astonishing is it that the vampire figure also made an important entrance into the English literary tradition that summer, during that same extraordinary meeting of… I was going to say of minds, but that would have been a bloodless, indeed an inaccurate, way to describe the overheated goings-on among this brilliant, passionate cast of characters, none of them older than twenty-eight (Byron), while Mary and Claire were still in their teens.

The events are generally known, but the details can still overwhelm an audience that might think itself jaded by Gossip Girl.

Mary -- at nineteen the mother of a baby son -- was really still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She’d run away with Shelley at seventeen, but wouldn’t marry him until some months after the story-telling summer, after Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide.

Claire, Mary’s stepsister, had coolly initiated an affair with Byron the preceding spring, and was now pregnant with his child.

Shelley may or may not have slept with Claire, but certainly (and to Mary’s ongoing distress) continued to endorse the utopian ideal of group marriage.

Byron, who was tired of Claire and avoiding her (except when he wasn’t), had recently fled England to avoid his debts, his shambles of a marriage, the continuing notoriety of his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, and (according to biographer Benita Eisler) an incestuous love affair with his half-sister August Leigh.

While Polidori…

Poli-who?… Also, unkindly, called "PollyDolly"... or "poor Polidori," in Mary Godwin's account of the events:

We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron... The noble author began a tale, a fragment…. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole...

John Polidori was Byron's twenty-one-year-old private physician, secretary, and traveling companion, though Byron had begun to tire of him as well and they parted company soon after the story-telling summer. And actually, "tire of" is also a pretty bloodless way to describe this deteriorating relationship. In Eisler’s words, Byron and Shelley

...persecuted the thin-skinned “PollyDolly” with a savagery that seemed to replay all the torments they had suffered at Eton and Harrow.

Or might have suffered at Sunnydale High.

Neither Shelley nor Claire came up much of a ghost story, but of course we know that Mary created Frankenstein and changed the literary landscape forever. As for Byron's "fragment," it was the first chapter of a vampire novel, later published, as Mary said, at the end of his poem Mazeppa, in 1819.

But the interesting thing here is that by the time this fragment was published, it had been scooped by another, better, story -- The Vampyre, which had appeared in the New Monthly Magazine some months before. Published anonymously but with an introduction that refers to the episode at Lake Geneva and includes the vampire portion of The Giaour, The Vampyre has a villain called Ruthven (pronounced "Riven," this was Caroline Lamb’s name for Byron in her well-known -- and vindictive -- roman à clef, Glenarvon). The story even offers a paraphrase of Byron’s annotation of the word “vampire” that I quoted above.

It was wildly successful and most of its readers thought it was written by Lord Byron.

But it wasn’t. As was soon enough revealed, The Vampyre was written by Polidori. And while it follows Byron’s original, and probably owes a great deal to Byron’s plans for extending the original, it’s a far more compelling read than the one Bryon actually got into print -- largely, I believe, because of Polidori’s portrait of Byron as Ruthven was far more deeply etched than Byron could have done himself.

Partly this is because of the success with which Polidori’s story creates a foil for Ruthven. Resonating with the pain of adoration and rejection, The Vampyre creates an innocent hero, Aubrey, a young gentleman of “that high romantic feeling of honor and candor, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices.” It’s the sort of line Byron might have tossed off before breakfast (and perhaps did, in Geneva), mouthed by someone who so passionately imagines himself an Aubrey that he manages to convince me of the pathos -- at the very least -- of what it felt like to imagine this. What Polidori intuited (or perhaps invented) is the drama of prey and predator -- human and more (or less) than human, used and using.

The Vampyre is surely a plagiarism -- a mode of using, by a man who clearly felt himself used, drained, ruined (in a kind of “daily” way) by a man he must have adored.

But is it entirely a plagiarism? Where is the using and who was zooming who here?

Was Polidori’s contribution to our contemporary cultural figure of the vampire perhaps indispensable? Did the notion of the “couple” of vampire and victim originate with him after all and not Byron? Or does it perhaps owe something to another famous literary couple -- the creature and creator, both of whom we now call “Frankenstein,” in semi-conscious recognition of the inextricability of their two figures joined into perpetuity?

According to Wikipedia, “Polidori died in London on August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid, the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.”

While throughout the nineteenth century, The Vampyre continued to inspire other vampire creations, especially in the theater, across Europe. And just last year, the Polidori/Byron story formed the basis for what sounds like an utterly fascinating novel -- Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits.

Do you read vampire fiction?

Watch the movies or TV shows?

What accounts for your attraction to it, what are your favorites and what relationship do you think it has to romanticism and to today's popular romance fiction?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Pam. I had no idea the whole story between Bryon and Polidori, although I have seen the movie Haunted Summer and Gothic. I wonder why Dracula has taken such hold of the imagination, and The Vampyre hasn't. I don't remember ever hearing of a film or TV adaptation, although I have read a play adaptation of the novel and found it compelling.

I am a huge Buffy fan, and I do read Vampire fiction but I'm fussy about it. I like Mary Janice Davidson's Undead Series, but I haven't yet dabbled in Twilight or JR Ward's series.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I always learn so much from your posts, Pam! They're like a mini-grad school course!

Apart from Bram Stoker, I don't stake out Vampire-lit, but I was a HUGE fan of Frank Langella's stage performance in the 1977 revival of the 1926 Balderston & Deane play, Dracula, the ultimate classy Vampire interpretation with black and white sets and costumes by Edward Gorey. There was a single spot of red in each act (I: a glass of red wine; II: a blood-colored teardrop on Lucy's Carole Lombard-style white charmeuse gown; III: I can't recall). I admit to the ultimate crush on Frank, who I later worked with at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I saw the show 3 times and on a Friday the 13th, sent a white rose and a publicity still from the production backstage (I was working at Variety at the time, so my boss snagged me the entire set of stills from the show's p.r. rep.) I waited at the stage door after the show and he came out and spread his hands and in that magnificent voice of his, immediately exclaimed "Where's Leslie?" The signed photo with "Thank you for the rose and your kind words" graced my college dorm room, and my apartment for years.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I didn't know the story either -- not really, not until I tried to write it down, and I'm still not sure whether Byron published the fragment to quell the stories that he'd written The Vampyre, or whether he would have published it anyway.

History... so cumbersome, so unmalleable one moment, so wonderfully big, free, and roomy the next. Most days literature's as much as I can handle.

But I do think that Ruthven -- the suave, sexy vampire, who uses rather than simply feeds upon his victims -- is in many ways the model that we've inherited.

I recommend the story. It's not very long.

And speaking of stories. Wow, Amanda. Gosh.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam, it's not very often that I have an answer to your questions but this is something I've thought about a lot since I am such a fan of paranormals.

From my perspective there are two kinds of vampire stories --

First the novels and TV shows where the vampire is a hero (TWILIGHT and the novels of Mary Janice Davidson and the ANGEL TV series)

In this case and in my opinion the popularity of vampire hero stories grew up with the need for a new kind of alpha hero -- some way to give the hero an excuse to be cruel and still compelling. I could go on but this post is long enough.

The second type of story has the vampire as a villain. The BUFFY series is the best example of that though there are two major exceptions in her world.

Why did we begin to see the Vampire as villain in so many different works? I trace it back to September 11th. The evil vampire is a representation of an evil doer that we cannot begin to understand, like the terrorists that flew those planes. They must be dispatched and eliminated but they will take all that we have and more than we want to give.

In that world (though not dealing with Vampires per se) is Karen Moning's amazing Fever series -- a five novels series only three of which have been published. (FAEFEVER arrive at my door on Tuesday). Mac's (the heroine) encounters with Evil personified destroys her innocence and almost destroys her life in some of the most powerful writing I have read in years.

If you are into YA or know someone who is I would suggest Rosemary Clement-Moore's PROM DATES FROM HELL. In fact she plays with language in much the same way Wodehouse does in his Jeeves books and this first is the beginning of a series. Again not vampire per se but in the same family of paranormal creepiness.

I have read all of Charlaine Harris and Mary Janice Davidson and even Sherrilyn Kenyon's ACHERON to see what all the fuss was about.

Pam, I subscribed to HBO just so I could watch TRUE BLOOD and am hooked though I do not love the interpretation of the story though I do like the way it represents vampires as both good and bad and very manipulative

I am, needless to say, going to track down and read Polidori's work and wish it had been published in 1818 as it is just the sort of forbidden work one of my secondary characters would have read.

Thanks as always for making me think and this time for giving me a chance to share.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'd sort of thought this might be up your alley, Mary.

Great point about alpha male fantasies being displaced onto the vampire world -- shape-shifting fiction seems to fit in there too. "Cruel and still compelling" is a great phrase -- and I think perhaps we're making progress if we download that image onto a constructed fantasy world that isn't exactly human.

And then, of course, you're right about all the opportunities for tortured hero dram qua Angel and Spike figures.

But I lose my grasp on your argument somewhere re bad vampires and 9/11. I'd be curious whether you think that Joss Whedon altered his view of inexplicable evil after that event... human history having hitherto provided him (and us) so very many sources of inspiration.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Pam! I haven't read any of the current vampire series, I loved "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" and various takes on "Dracula." I prefer vampire stories where the vampires are complex, whether heroes or villains or something in between. As to the appeal--the seduction of the dark side (however you define that :-), the links between love and sex and death and immortality, living outside the laws of of society--lots of archetypes and mythic elements, lots of fodder for great stories and conflicts.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Amanda, I love the Frank Langella story!

12:45 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam, using BUFFY as an example of the influence of 9/11 on the paranormal was misleading on my part.

Let me rephrase it and see if it makes more sense this way. I think the explosion of paranormal characters and stories is a way to explore the unimaginable which is what September 11th was for most of us.

I think most romance readers want a world that can be explained and leaves them feeling better about what the future holds.

The paranormal is the ideal way to explore what we do not even want to imagine and, in romance, good triumphs over it.

This is real pop psychology on my part which is perfectly clear when you read Tracy's post. Most of my explanations come from my constant self analysis (ie "Why do *I* read these books") since, hey, its all about me, isn't it?

5:01 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Pam. I agree with Amanda. Your posts are like a mini course in the subject!

Amanda, I am BEYOND green with envy of your Frank Langella story! And how I wish I could have seen that performance!

I do read vampire novels - a wide variety. I am always amazed at the different interpretations of the vampire legend. Having traveled in Romania / Transylvania and visited some supposed "Dracula" castles (places where Vlad supposedly lived, stayed, etc.) I have a special affection for those stories.

We took a ride in a very old volkswagon van up the side of a mountain to visit one of those castles. We stayed at a lovely little inn at the bottom of the mountain and when we told her where we were going she reached behind the counter in the bar and gave us all rosaries to take with us. Apparently the old superstitions are alive and well. Of course it could have been that she had seen this guy drive up that mountain pass before! Talk about scary! I would have welcomed a vampire attack by the time we got to the top and realize he would be driving us back down!

6:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What none of us has mentioned so far (Pam, what are you and I waiting for? -- maybe fearing raising risky discourse) is the "unspoken" history of the "undead" -- the original mythology about Vampires being a nasty code/frame for "Jew" and preying on Christian children. When did that ugly mythology vanish into the dawn and vampires become more of a metaphor for an Everyman Outsider?

And Louisa, I still admit to a fondness for Frank Langella. He's on Broadway this season with the revival of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons and ironically, I know many of the cast members professionally, though it's been decades since I've seen a couple of them. I've got another Frank story, too, about Williamstown, but I think he'd no idea that a few years before, I was the fan with the white rose and the publicity still.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...


My slender understanding of the folklore is that the vampire myth has to do with the muddling of limits and boundaries. You know how vampires have to be invited over thresholds -- the southern European mythologies often touch upon incomplete or improper burials: i.e., there's a fear that the sacred boundary between life and death is being tampered with. The preying habits of these vampires (the ones Byron doubtless learned about in Greece and wrote about in his preface) seem clumsy, pathetic, almost touching, a la George Romero's ...of the Dead movies.

Perhaps that's why Polidori (who, I believe, had never been to Greece, probably learned the Greek stories from Byron, and was probably much more interested in the teller than the tales) was able to forget about the clumsiness and build himself a suaver, more psychologically evil, more erotic model of vampire.

As for the antisemitism of the vampire tradition, I think that comes into play because of the metaphor of parasitism (read "usury") and also perhaps because Jews had this nasty way of spilling across the threshold of this or that neat national boundary. From the little I've read, I don't think it goes back as far as some of these other traditions, but it certainly has its day in the popular, nationalist culture of the nineteenth century.

Which might be why 9/11 resonates with vampire themes with Mary -- as a desecration of national boundaries (though I have to say that it doesn't for me, having grown up with other terrible images of inexplicable evil).

8:33 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post! I'm not a huge vampire fan, but I love a good story! And wow, Polidori's story if facsinating and sad.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Kathrynn, I'm also touched by Polidori's story. So much so that I'm coming to believe that two of our strongest horror-movie mythologies have woven within them the hot and heavy relationships among a group of people not so far out of their teens. I think Joss Whedon would appreciate that too.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon nominated you and ...

Your site has won a Blog of the Day Award (BOTDA)

Award Code

Your award will go live sometime on Sunday September 21, 2008

Thank you,

Bill Austin

1:25 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Gosh. Thanks. And thanks, Elizabeth.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

YAY PAM!!! And very well deserved too! I can't tell you how many of the History Hoyden blogs I have printed and put in one of my many reference notebooks. Needless to say, this one is definitely going! Congrats, Pam!!

I was aware of the vampire / antisemitism connection. I find it ironic that it exists in the light of the existence of places like Auchwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. No vampire's castle ever witnessed such horrors. The smell of death is still there all these years later. If ever a society fed on the living and turned them into the living dead it was the Nazi movement in Germany. One often wonders if Hitler studied the reign of Vlad the Impaler.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Louisa, I love the idea of being in someone's reference notebook.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And YAY hoydens, too!

7:13 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I just read in the Daily Telegraph that Edvard Munch's painting Love and Pain aka Vampire is expected to sell for at least $35 Million
(19 Million pounds).

I've always been interested in how much later Vampire novels owe to the legends of Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad the Impaler

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing Munch into the discussion, Elizabeth -- here's the painting, for those who are interested.

I'm guessing that there's an arc traced from Regency to fin de siecle re the vampire myth (Byron to Stoker and Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Grey as re dandyism (Brummell to Beerbohm and... Wilde, in just about everything). But that's just a guess.

Meanwhile, all you vampire fiction fans MUST MUST MUST read Octavia Butler's Fledgling. I just read it this week and it's spectacular.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the heads up. I'm also partial to Melissa de la Cruz's YA series: The Blue Bloods. I really like her mythology of the vampires as fallen angels, and her use of Revelations.

5:06 AM  

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