VINTAGE VIGILANCE No. 1: JOHN POLIDORI’S “THE VAMPYRE”February 2nd, 2009 by Gabrielle Faust received No Comments »
VINTAGE VIGILANCE No. 1: JOHN POLIDORI’S “THE VAMPYRE”
By L. P. Van Ness
SOMETHING VAMPIRIC in nature has been draining away the energy and resources of contemporary America. Fortunately for us, our leaders are time travelers. In the closing words of his inaugural address, our new president offered us encouragement by taking us back with him through a collective portal to a similar winter at the time of America’s birth, where “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.” At that moment in time, when the Revolutionary War was all but lost, they were inspired by the Father of our nation who declared, “Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.” If you will allow me a small portion of your eternity, let me take you back in time and across the pond to the “dissipations attendant upon London winter,” where we will discover “a nobleman more remarkable for his singularities than his rank.”
It has been a long and dreadful winter, has it not? It’s a furrow existence not only for the living but the undead as well. Their Thirst is great, so you never know where a vampire will materialize these days. Why, you could be sharing a bed or riding to work on the elevated with a denizen of the dead this very moment! We may take solace in the fact that there have been longer, colder times such as the infamous “year without a summer” in 1816, a prolonged volcanic winter that had been caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora. The anomalous weather had trapped Percy and Mary Shelly, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori indoors at their retreat at the Villa Diodati. This gathering together of fine, bored minds produced an orgy of ideas that manifested themselves in literary composition: most notably Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and John Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” Horror , as you can see, was born in the winter.
A murkiness, occasioned by a blizzard of confusion, surrounded the authorship of “The Vampyre.” The story was published in 1819 in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine under the byline of Lord Byron whose fame and name recognition brought it instantaneous success. The young physician, John Polidori, who was the traveling companion of Lord Byron and shared the same situation that Aubrey, the tale’s protagonist, found himself in with the ruthless traveler Lord Ruthven soon stepped forward to claim authorship of the tale. The story seems to derive its inspiration from Lord Byron’s unfinished “Fragment of a Novel.” In the fragment, an inexperienced traveler also shares the company of a worldly man with a “morbid temperament,” the devilish Augustus Darvell. I would argue that it was Polidori, however, who took the skeleton of Lord Byron’s fragment and gave it flesh. His “Lord Ruthven” is an archetype. Polidori endowed him with a “dead grey eye,” which objectified rather than personalized all that it beheld; the “deadly hue of his face,” which remained unchanged by the usual spectrum of human emotions; and “a winning tongue” that gave his vampyre “irresistible powers of seduction.” Lord Ruthven conducted himself by an overall callous and amoral code of life, whereby his only pleasure seemed to be the destruction of the “virtuous” through their own hypocritical weakness of “vice.” The true authorship of “The Vampyre” remains one of horror literature’s great mysteries. One might put the matter to rest by calling it the collaboration of an elaborate hoax that was begun by Lord Byron and completed by John Polidori, for the story was first published on April Fool’s Day. Each of the men winked at the controversy, so there’s no use going back to ask them for clarification.
Of all Lord Ruthven’s charms perhaps the greatest device of all was his “oath of solemnity.” The oath first appeared in Lord Byron’s aforementioned “Fragment of a Novel.” After traveling throughout antiquity, Augustus Darvell and his traveling companion arrived at a Turkish cemetery. A stork with a snake in its mouth perched ominously on a nearby tombstone, and Darvell made his partner swear to conceal his imminent death. The dying man gave the youth his ring and further instructed him to “fling [it] into the salt springs near the Bay of Eleusis at noon on the 9th day of any month” and then “wait at the ruins of the temple of Ceres for one hour.” Darvell promptly expires and is buried. This is where Lord Byron’s fragment ends. What?! Polidori wrote his own tale to achieve resolution. In “The Vampyre,” Lord Ruthven makes Aubrey “swear that for a year and a day you will not impart your knowledge of my crimes or death to any living being in any way.” When the fiend is indeed resurrected, Aubrey is prevented from weakening in his promise by suggestive reinforcement. Whenever their paths crossed, his lord would whisper into his ear, “Remember your oath!” Polidori ingeniously expanded Lord Byron’s honorable concept of an oath into an actual power of hypnotism.
I highly recommend reading “The Vampyre” as a way to help while-away-the-hours of this ferocious winter. As for me? The time has come to return this bloodied quill to it’s skull-well. Ezra Pound and fellow poet T.S. Eliot once engaged in a literary battle over “bogus scholarship.” If you will allow me immunity from such a charge, let me assure or unsettle you that vampyres do indeed exist. I have known the company of two such bafflers of the Elder variety. Having imbibed a frothy brew of Red Bat Beer before our paths crossed, I found the first to be quite affable and quite eager to merely engage me in literary conversation. The second vampyre was positively famished and, consequently, inescapable. I do not miss the harsh rays of the daylight hours, for they wither away at things. Happily, I have discovered that there is a certain eternal excellence that THRIVES only in shadow-light.
Thank you to LP Van Ness for submitting this article for the Eternal Vigilance website! If you are interested in submitting original fiction or blog posts about anything horror, writing, or science fiction related, please drop me a line!