As I’m hoping to read Dracula soon, I thought it might be a good idea to also read one of Bram Stoker’s influences – John Polidori’s The Vampyre. This short story is considered to be one of the first vampire stories in literature and the first to portray a vampire in the way we would recognise today. I have actually been interested in reading this story since I read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was intrigued by the references to the vampire Lord Ruthven. (If you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo you might remember the scene where the Countess G- is remarking on the Count’s pale skin and nicknames him ‘Lord Ruthven’.)
The origins of The Vampyre are fascinating. John William Polidori was Byron’s personal physician and in 1816, went with him to Switzerland. At the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, Byron and Polidori were joined by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and decided to amuse themselves by writing horror stories. Mary began work on what would become Frankenstein, and Byron wrote the beginning of a vampire story (which survives today as Fragment of a Novel) based on the various vampire myths and legends. Although Byron abandoned his vampire story, Polidori took inspiration from it and The Vampyre was the result. Unfortunately for Polidori, The Vampyre was wrongly attributed to Byron, despite Byron’s attempts to set the record straight.
As a story, it really isn’t very satisfying. Our narrator is a young Englishman called Aubrey, who travels to Rome with his acquaintance, the nobleman Lord Ruthven. The more time he spends with Ruthven, the more Aubrey begins to distrust him and to realise that Ruthven is not what he seems… The plot is so thin that there’s not much more I can tell you without spoiling it – although really, there’s nothing to spoil as the story is very predictable (for the modern reader anyway – I’m sure it would have been more compelling at the time when it was first published).
The Vampyre is interesting historically because of its portrayal of Lord Ruthven as a mysterious, pale-faced aristocratic figure who preys on innocent young ladies, which is the way many future vampires would be described (the vampires of folklore had generally been described as hideous-looking monsters). If you’re interested in how vampire stories began and how they evolved over the years, this is worth reading. If you’re just looking for a good short story to read, you might be disappointed with this one.
Byron’s Fragment of a Novel is also available online and is so short it only takes a few minutes to read. It’s a shame he decided not to continue with this, as I think it had the potential to be much better than The Vampyre. I’ve read a few of Byron’s poems but this is my first experience of his prose and even based on such a short sample of his work I find his writing superior to Polidori’s.