Horror Fiction 101: The Vampyre by John Polidori

Foreword

Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.


Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:

  • The Vampyre by John Polidori

  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

  • The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


The Vampyre by John Polidori


It is easy to forget that what is nowadays known as a vampire is very different from its mythological roots. It is also easy to trace back the modern concept of the vampire to Bram Stocker’s Dracula, but one would be slightly mistaken if one puts an end to the search there in that before Dracula, there was Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Illustration in Carmilla by D.H. Friston for its first edition.

Geneva, 1816. It was a rainy summer afternoon that kept Lord Byron’s guests trapped inside the mansion he had rented near Geneva. The guests in question were Byron’s physician, John Polidori, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. The group was a creative one and decided to entertain themselves with the telling and writing of ghost stories; each party should write a story and a competition would take place. This contest would go down in history as one of the most famous writing competitions, as it produced not one but two works that would shape literature even to this day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and John Polidori’s The Vampyre.


The Vampyre is the story of Aubrey, a young man that decides to travel Europe with the enigmatic Lord Ruthven. What begins as an innocent journey turns into a tale of murder and monsters, the seduction and moral collapse of both a brother and a sister under the hands of an aristocratic vampire who carries around him an atmosphere that is impossible to resist until it is too late.


It is said that Lord Byron wrote a fragment of the story and Polidori later developed the idea and created the story, which is one of the reasons why it was first attributed to the poet and published as his. Byron himself denied authorship, but his connection to the story had already given it a very positive influence which contributed to the work’s popularity and success. Another reason why The Vampyre was originally attributed to him was the resemblance between the poet and the vampire in the story.


Lord Byron by Richard Westall.

Lord Ruthven is attractive, wealthy, and he is an aristocrat who spends his time travelling around the world. To a modern reader, this may sound like a description of every vampire in pop culture, but one must bear in mind that before Polidori, vampires were “shaggy, fetid and bestial, they preyed on family members, neighbours or livestock in nocturnal raids that in many accounts approached both the risible and the revolting.” (Morrison, 2019b). Polidori altered that notion, he elevated the figure of the vampire from a peasant turned beast to an aristocrat that seduces and fascinates those around him.


Aubrey’s relationship with Ruthven holds many parallels to the one between Polidori and Byron. Very much like the characters, they travelled together, Polidori as Byron’s physician, which gave him a front-row position to the poet’s debauchery: “As soon as he reached his room, Lord Byron fell like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid.” (Morrison, 2019a, p. 178). He witnessed Lord Byron’s character, the air he carried himself with, and his keen sexual appetites, just like Aubrey did with Lord Ruthven. Both Aubrey and Polidori share a fascination with their travelling companions: an attraction that also appals them.


Vampires before Polidori were described in Eastern European folklore as bloated or sickly pale, and wearing shrouds. Lord Ruthven is the first vampire in western fiction to be described as attractive and seductive, and this phenomenon is not limited to the more traditional vampire figure. The same happens with vampire-like creatures such as the Shtriga, originally portrayed as an old woman with grey hair, who now appears in pop culture as a beautiful woman with pale skin and long dark hair that attracts her victims with her beauty.


John Polidori completely changed the narrative when he decided to model his vampire from Lord Byron. It is thanks to his work that vampires became a regular occurrence in Gothic and Victorian literature, following the concept of the man being haunted by supernatural elements, like the doppelgänger in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Aguirre, 1990, p. 135). The Vampyre successfully transforms an Eastern European myth into an attractive and aristocratic man who enters British high society and corrupts it from the inside.


The vampire myth also became a symbolic representation of social problems at the time, from drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases to the moral decay of an individual in the eyes of society. The latter is very obvious in Polidori’s story as the readers see how Lord Ruthven corrupts and destroys women everywhere he goes. With The Vampyre, Polidori starts the concept of vampirism as an allegory for sex, which will become a key element for vampire literature a few decades later with the publication of Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dracula by Bram Stoker.


Promotion for the film adaptation of Dracula starring Helen Chandler and Bela Lugosi.

Both Carmilla and Dracula explore women’s sexuality and sexual liberation. The first one shows how “Carmilla, the vampire, symbolically needs blood to replace that expended through (lesbian) sexual activity.” (Smith, 2007, p. 99). In Dracula, the readers see how the bite transforms what society consideres a perfect lady, Lucy Westerna (Dracula’s first English victim), into a creature with a wild desire for both blood and sex.


The fear for the “other” is very clearly present in these first instances of vampire literature as an embodiment of social taboos and it is not hard to read the xenophobic, homophobic, and sexist undertones that these works carry. Women are forever tarnished and destroyed after surrendering to Lord Ruthven's sexual attraction; Carmilla is made monstrous through her queer temptations and corrupts women wherever she goes; and Dracula represents the fear that immigration brought to high British society. It is only through the eye of a modern-day reader that these works can be interpreted as an encouragement for female sexual liberation and the celebration of queerness.


From Carmilla and Dracula to Interview with the Vampire, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the modern figure of the vampire is a reinterpretation of a mythological figure that started with The Vampyre and Lord Byron. What Polidori started, Le Fanu and Stocker continued, and vampires became a constant in Western literature that does not seem like it would end any time soon.


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Isabel Panadero

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