The curious origins of the vampire fiction industry

Bloody fiction: The vampire was ever the charmer, but young women had a funny way of going missing or turning up dead around him   -  ISTOCK.COM

Two centuries ago, in the Year Without a Summer, a brooding poet and his friends dreamed up the undead

The Villa Diodati, located near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, is a picture-postcard mansion — a sprawling, sun-kissed, tree-lined haven with some of the cleanest air and water in the world. Originally called Villa Belle Rive, it was renamed (after the owners) by Lord Byron, the leading Romantic poet and politician, who rented it between June and November 1816. The year was a strange one, by all accounts. Today we call 1816 the Year Without a Summer because of the drop in temperatures experienced globally, which led to famine-like situations in several parts of the world. Over three days in June, Byron was forced to stay indoors because of continuous rainfall. Giving him company were his personal physician John Polidori, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s soon-to-be-wife Mary (née Godwin), all of 18, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont (with whom Byron later had an affair and a daughter named Allegra).

Picture it, if you can: Four people huddled together, contemplating the incessant thunderstorm, passing the time telling ghost stories. They began with picks from Fantasmagoriana, an 18th-century collection of German ghost stories, translated into French in 1812. Soon they were making up their own ghosts, on Byron’s suggestion. The evening led to a bet, and to two of the definitive works of Gothic fiction — one, of course, was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The other was Polidori’s The Vampyre, a short story based on an earlier text by Byron called A Fragment. First published 200 years ago, Polidori’s novelis now recognised as the beginning of vampire fiction, setting the stage for some classic tales that have stood the test of time. Without The Vampyre (and, of course, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula), there would’ve been no The Vampire Diaries or Twilight — billion-dollar film franchises devoted to these denizens of the night.

Later editions of The Vampyre included an anonymous letter from Lake Geneva, where the events of that evening were described rather vividly.

“It appears that one evening Lord B., Mr. P. B. Shelly, the two ladies and the gentleman before alluded to, after having perused a German work, which was entitled Phantasmagoriana, began relating ghost stories; when his lordship having recited the beginning of Christabel, then unpublished, the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighbourhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression. It was afterwards proposed, in the course of conversation, that each of the company present should write a tale depending upon some supernatural agency.”

Rich, charming, lethal

The Vampyre is narrated by Aubrey, an orphaned young man who’s been left a considerable estate by his parents, with the rider that he is now responsible for the fortunes of his (unnamed) younger sister. Much of the story is an account of Aubrey’s relationship with Lord Ruthven, an esteemed but enigmatic member of London high society. Nobody knows where Ruthven came from, only that he’s extremely wealthy and that he throws grand dinner parties now and then. Aubrey is initially very taken by Ruthven’s magnetic personality — which was, quite clearly, very popular among the ladies.

“He had, however, the reputation of a winning tongue; and whether it was that it even overcame the dread of his singular character, or that they were moved by his apparent hatred of vice, he was as often among those females who form the boast of their sex from their domestic virtues, as among those who sully it by their vices.”

Over time, however, Aubrey begins to notice certain strange things about Lord Ruthven, most notably the fact that young women around him had a funny way of going missing or turning up dead. During Aubrey and Lord Ruthven’s travels to Greece, the latter befriends a young woman named Ianthe, who’s the daughter of the innkeeper hosting the two men. When Ianthe, too, turns up dead with bite marks around her neck, Aubrey’s suspicions are roused and he briefly abandons Lord Ruthven. Soon, however, Ruthven returns to London and sets his eyes upon Aubrey’s sister. It is at this point that Aubrey thinks about outing the aristocrat as a vampire.

Of the many threads in The Vampyre that are now considered vampire fiction staples, the foremost is the idea of the aristocrat vampire — an unsubtle, if potent metaphor for the rich feeding off everybody else. Being immortal, the vampire has accrued a lot of wealth down the years. He now uses this money to accomplish two things. First, he weasels his way into polite society. Once this is done, the aristocrat vampire uses his charm and social standing to seduce young, submissive women — variations of the ingénue, basically. This lends itself to the iconic image of Dracula bent over a young woman’s neck from behind, fangs bared for the world to see.

Over the last 30 years or so, vampires have become big business. The five Twilight films (2008-12), based on Stephanie Meyer’s novel cycle of the same name, collectively grossed $3.4 billion worldwide, almost 10 times the cost of their production. TV shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are smash hits — pop cultural landmarks, really. Anne Rice has sold millions of copies of her Lestat series of vampire novels (although the film adaptation, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, was a commercial and critical failure). Moreover, it’s not just super-popular creators we’re talking about. Acclaimed directors such as Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) have also created their vampire lore. Everybody, it seems, wants a slice of that gigantic blood pie.

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Byronic distance

Funnily enough, The Vampyre was initially published not just without Polidori’s permission, but with authorship attributed to Lord Byron instead. The man responsible was Henry Coburn, who ran the New Monthly Magazine. Interestingly, the same publisher was responsible for Lady Caroline Lamb’s Gothic novel Glenarvon, which contained a vicious caricature of Lord Byron — called Ruthven (Lamb had a short-lived affair with Byron that left her heartbroken and, by her own admission, bitter). Coburn’s confusion was thus, at least partially, a product of this convergence of Ruthvens.

Upon publication in 1819, it became clear that Byron was not, in fact, the author. For starters, the man himself insisted again and again that he hadn’t written the book. Also, readers quickly realised (and there were a lot of readers, for the slim volume had become an instant hit) that The Vampyre was almost as harsh on Ruthven as Lady Lamb was in Glenarvon.

With good reason, too, for Polidori, despite being a friend of Byron, nursed a few grudges. As Andrew McConnell Stott wrote in 2014, Polidori was very often treated more like a sidekick than a friend by Byron. Polidori had very fixed literary ambitions of his own. One day, when he invited Byron to read aloud a play that he (Polidori) had written, the older poet decided to lampoon it in front of his aristocrat friends instead — forcing Polidori to leave the room in embarrassment.

Stott writes: “It was no great leap for Polidori to believe that Byron was sucking the life from him, just as others had accused Byron of possessing a charismatic power that eclipsed their own identities. Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron had charmed, described him as having ‘such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it’, a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, ‘the facility of… bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection’.”

Over the years, we’ve seen all kinds of vampires on the page and on screen — there’s the noble vampire, a la Edward Cullen from Twilight, there’s the punk-monster Dracula (especially Dominic Purcell’s version from Blade Trinity), there’s Blade, the vampire who becomes a vampire hunter (and drinks only the blood of dead animals).

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Lord Ruthven, however, remains the spiritual ancestor of all these bloodsuckers and many of his core traits abide, to this day, among modern-day vampires — a silver tongue, raw sexuality, and a certain untameable charisma. It’s perhaps fitting that when vampires take over a town in shows such as Buffy, we often see strange weather phenomena marking their presence. After all, Polidori made up Lord Ruthven because he and his friends were stranded indoors thanks to the perfect storm, in the Year Without a Summer.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 14, 2019

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