In 1816 Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and John Polidori spend a stormy week together in a villa near Lake Geneva, a party for the ages as they say. Stuck inside due to unseasonal rains and they pass their time together by telling each other scary stories. There was probably some drug-taking involved and everybody was basically lusting after everybody else but afterwards Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus based on the stories she told, and John Polidori basically invented the classic vampire tale based on one of the stories Lord Byron presented. As Noel Coward put it, “What a swell party this is.”
In my opinion, Frankenstein is an under-rated masterpiece, but I’d never read Polidori’s lesser known The Vampyre, never felt a need to, until this summer after I heard an episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time devoted to the subject.
In just under 40 pages, Polidori sets up the classic framework that so many vampire stories will follow. A young gentleman falls under the spell of a slightly older, richer, more exotic man. He follows this mentor, puppy like, to a strange land in the east, eastern Europe. There is a castle. Strange goings on at night. Rumors of supernatural evil. The young gentleman decides to flee back home to the west, but not before entering into a bargain with the exotic mentor whom he now believes is a vampire.
Back home things are fine for a while, but soon the gentleman hears that his younger sister has become enamored with a handsome new arrival to the social scene. He wants to warn her, but he has made a bargain with the vampire not to reveal the secret of his true nature for a year and a day. Will his sister remain safe long enough to hear the warning that could save her life, or will the vampire succeed in his plan to abduct her for the blood which will prolong his life?
It’s a very gothic tale from the ultimate gothic source. You can probably guess the ending.
The Vampyre is a very short novella, 40 or so pages, which makes it easy to satisfy your curiosity, but I can’t say that are any other real rewards in reading it. I enjoyed it. It was fun. But the works that followed it are more rewarding reading if you ask me.
From all literature produced by the people who shared that villa in 1816, the one I recommend the most whole-heartedly is Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel is really tough to beat. The men in the group did very well, but she’s the clear winner as far as I’m concerned. And the one I would most want to party with.