2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, started during a story contest between Shelley and several other writers staying at Lake Geneva.
To celebrate this book, I’m doing a series of posts about Frankenstein and two other stories that came from this contest. Here’s where you can read the previous post.
Before Dracula, there was Ruthven.
The titular character in John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre,” Count Ruthven first shows up as a strange new figure in London society.
Women find him attractive in a dark way, although he only seems to pursue virtuous ones.
A naive young man befriends Ruthven, hoping to understand what motivates his eccentric behavior. As you’d expect in a gothic Victorian story, this does not go well.
While Polidori’s story is based on Lord Byron’s “A Fragment of A Novel” (using the same scenes and expanding them into a finished story), he takes it in a different direction.
For one thing, he clearly bases Ruthven on Byron. “The Vampyre” begins and ends with excerpts from letters people had written about Byron as he lived in exile, having had to leave England after a messy divorce and other scandals.
Lauren Owen even noted in an article for The Guardian that Polidori borrowed the name “Ruthven” from a character based on Byron in Glenarvon, an earlier book written by one of Byron’s former lovers.
In reading these letters at the beginning and ending of “The Vampire,” you get the sense Polidori is admitting Byron was eccentric and even tortured, which makes him a great model of the dark and elusive vampire Ruthven.
At the same time, the letters describe Byron as having a capacity to be brilliant and generous. It’s as if Polidori was writing a character based on Byron’s dark side but also using the book to try and improve his reputation.
“The Vampyre” is also very different from “A Fragment of a Novel” or Frankenstein, in terms of its storytelling technique.
Byron and Shelley mostly “show the stories” (describing scenes in detail, giving lots of dialogue and set descriptions), while Polidori “tells the story” (summarizes scenes and events, giving only a little of the dialogue).
You could compare Polidori’s technique to H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, which usually have minimal dialogue.
However, Lovecraft gives readers plenty of details about his characters and the things they interacted with, which make his stories feel powerful and atmospheric.
Polidori has a few scenes like that in “The Vampyre,” but most of the time he doesn’t give enough details to create a strong atmosphere.
So, you could argue Polidori’s writing approach keeps the story from having its full potential.
On the other hand, you could easily argue that’s what makes the story work. The sparse descriptions make the story feel like a proverb or a folklore story like “Red Riding Hood.”
Whichever way you look at it, “The Vampyre” is still an important story because it gave readers the first modern vampire.
It takes the unexplored ideas from “A Fragment of a Novel” and creates a vampire figure no one had seen before.
Ruthven is a vampire, but he can pass himself off as human and even blend in among refined people. He hides perverse intentions with manners that suggest he’s really just a harmless eccentric.
No one had created a vampire that combined vileness and class in this way before.
Whether Polidori gave this idea justice is up for debate, but the idea survived and decades later Bram Stoker would take it to a whole new level in his book Dracula.
And while Byron and Polidori were laying the groundwork for Dracula, another member in their ghost story contest was creating Dracula’s competitor.
Come back next week for my blog article on the third Geneva story: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein