Byron and Polidori: The Dawn of Western Vampire Literature

by JoHarrington

Forget Dracula. The most influential vampire story of all time was written by Dr John Polidori, but he was inspired by Lord Byron himself.

Before Lord Byron and Dr Polidori put pen to paper, there had been no elegance in vampirism.

Nor was there a stereotypical vampiric figure. They ranged from decaying corpses through to demonic animals. Even if they were human (which was more rare), there was something unnatural in their aspect. They were basically animated dead bodies, closer to what we would consider to be zombies.

Lord Byron made them pass for human beings, with education and grandeur. Dr John Polidori added sexual magnetism and aristocratic lineage.

The Vampyre by John Polidori

This is the most influential vampire tale ever written. Bram Stoker borrowed heavily from it for Dracula, and successive authors since have followed his lead.

Telling Ghost Stories in the Year Without a Summer

Laudanum, wild animals, rain and the presence of two famous writers proved to be a heady cocktail for the creator of the modern vampire.

Image: Villa DiodatiThat was some party.  The literary world has been eternally grateful that it rained during that week in June 1816.  Two Gothic horror genres were born.

But what would you have done if you were John Polidori?  I'd have been tempted to panic or gracefully back away. 

He just went for it with anxiety, to be fair, and a propensity to require feedback on every line.  Yet what he wrote changed everything.

Let's back up a little here and gain the bigger picture.  This was a terrible year for traveling.  The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had taken time out from politically agitating in Ireland, in order to abandon his wife in favor of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. They found it advantageous to escape the gossip by undertaking a Grand Tour of Europe.  Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont went with them.

Unfortunately the weather was against them.  Europe was only just coming out of the Little Ice Age.  Only four years previously, the bulk of Napoleon's troops had frozen to death on the long retreat from Russia.  Just recently, the volcano Krakatoa had erupted, darkening the skies for a year.  In 1816, it merely rained. Constantly.  Incessantly. Heavily.

Claire was a great fan of Lord Byron.  This wasn't unusual.  He was the equivalent of an A-list celebrity of his day.  It would be like knowing that a rock star was living down the road and having the contacts to meet him.  She pushed for Shelley to go and knock on the door.   Lord Byron was only too delighted to invite them to stay.

Villa Diodati was a beautiful retreat.  It nestles on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Cologny in Switzerland.  It was owned by Lord Byron as a stately retreat for a self-exiled member of the English aristocracy. 

It was also completely chaotic.  His menagerie of exotic animals were largely allowed to wander about at will, through the gardens and the corridors indoors.  As for the household, there were large quantities of laudanum just lying around.  Lord Byron and his guests made the best of the inclement weather by becoming high as kites.  Narcotics made the rain outside look pretty, not restrictive.

With both Byron and Shelley under the same roof, it is hardly surprising that they began writing. They were both (and remain still) two of Britain's most famous poets of all time.  What was less predictable was that the other guests would be asked to take up their pens too.

As torrential rain flooded down outside, and the laudanum coursed through their systems, ghost stories were told in earnest.  It matched the mood.  Once they'd reached the end of their memorized store of other people's tales, a competition was proposed.  All present were to write a scary story.  The winner was whomever frightened the others the most.

Byron and Shelley must have both thought they had this in the bag.  It was really a two horse race from the inception.  But Claire Clairmont, desperate to impress Byron, gave it a go.  History doesn't record her efforts, other than it was a bit chaotic.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, just eighteen years old, suffered fits of anxiety over her contribution. She sat for days without a single idea.  But then she awoke screaming from a nightmare and there was the basis for her tale.  She called it The Modern Prometheus.  We tend to call it Frankenstein.

But there was one other person there.  Dr John Polidori was Byron's personal physician.  He was really a member of staff, but he was considered a friend too.  A homosexual, he was deeply in love with his employer, viewing Claire Clairmont's blatant flirting as a rival to Byron's affections.  (If the rumors are true, then they both had a chance with the man himself. He apparently swung both ways.)

Polidori declared his own intention of joining in the writing competition.  He too wanted to impress Byron.  But he was a doctor.  His skill was in medicine, not crafting stories. Yet he kept on trying. Unfortunately, John Polidori didn't come up with anything even remotely scary. He was laughed at for his floundering attempts. 

Meanwhile, Shelley gave up on his own writing  - after vaguely dabbling with his Fragment of a Ghost Story - and began to help Mary with her monster story.  To be fair, he knew he was a great writer.  He didn't have to compete with anyone.  Plus he was bored.

Lord Byron had an idea.  It repulsed him so much that he didn't even finish the story.  He'd rather not win, than contemplate the creature in his mind. Besides, if Shelley wasn't really playing, then Byron didn't need to either.

During the same week, and in rooms in the same house as Mary Shelley,  Lord Byron's story fragment unwittingly kick-started the whole Western vampire tradition.  Every book, movie and discussion in the genre since owes its debt to those few paragraphs, scribbled during that rainy week in June 1816.

First Scene from Ken Russell's Gothic

That drug-fuelled week of horrors in Villa Diodati was brilliantly dramatized by Ken Russell. John Polidori is the gentleman at the top of the stairs.
In fact, it's been dramatized several times...

Byron's Fragment of a Novel

The partially written story was actually made public, tacked onto the end of one of Byron's epic poems by his publishing house. He was furious about that.

Image: Lord ByronUntil Byron's short, unfinished work of fiction, vampires were not like us. They haunted Slavonic, Greek and Turkish folklore as repulsive, zombie like creatures.

They were the undead, risen from their graves, seeking out the life-blood or life-force of family members. They were demonic creatures lurking in the dark.  They carried the stench of death and decay with them.

There was nothing too sentient about them. They were single-minded in the pursuit of blood and flesh.  If anyone had suggested then that vampires might appear sexy, then they might have been locked up. Or at least given very strange looks.

Nor was Lord Byron's vampire alluring.  But it was unlike any vampire that had gone before.  For a start, Augustus Darvell was educated in British schools, alongside the sons of aristocratic families, like Byron himself.  He was well traveled and passed in society for a human being. 

Fragment of a Novel took the concept of the undead, but relocated it into 'civilized' circles.  Darvell was mysterious, but nothing which couldn't be explained away by his worldliness and wealth. He was changeable in his aspect, yet only in facial expressions.  None of the decay was present.

The story ends as Darvell and two companions - an ex-schoolfriend and a Turkish guide - visit the ruins of the Temple of Diana.  He'd been growing physically weaker and was suddenly overcome, needing shade and water. 

Resting under a cypress tree, Darvell made a bizarre request.  Convinced that he was about to die, he instructed his friend to take an ornate ring from his finger, then throw it into a certain estuary.  On the ninth day of any given month, he could visit a specific location.  What he would find there, Darvell would not say.  For the next year, the pair were to tell no-one that Darvell was dead. They should swear an oath on that.

Under the watchful eye of a stork, holding a snake in its mouth, Darvell told the pair that they should dig a shallow grave for him.  The stork would show them where.  As the protagonist turned his head to note the bird's position, Darvell slumped against him, quite dead.

That's where Lord Byron's tale ended in written form, though he did tell Dr Polidori how it would have ended.  The vampire Darvell would have arisen as an elegant vampire, feeding on the blood of the upper classes.

Despite being urged to do so, Byron refused point blank to finish the tale. 

Lord Byron on Vampirism

'The Vampire superstition is still general in the Levant. Honest Tournefort tells a long story about these 'Vroucolachas', as he calls them. The Romaic term is 'Vardoulacha'. I recollect a whole family being terrified by the scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation.

The Greeks never mention the word without horror. I find that 'Broucolokas' is an old legitimate Hellenic appellation---the moderns, however, use the word I mention. The stories told in Hungary and Greece of these foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.

... I have a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets.'

Lord Byron

Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron

This audio version is read by Emma Hignett

Relation d'un Voyage du Levant Vol 1-3 by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort

'Honest' Tournefort was a French botanist, who also recorded folklore in the Levant. Byron read this journal, which included a corpse which remained warm.

The Tragic Tale of Dr John Polidori

The fifth member of the Villa Diodati party had failed to write a sufficiently frightening horror story at the time. Better late than never.

Image: Dr John PolidoriByron may have given up on vampires, but John Polidori hadn't. 

It had been a tale written in his presence.  He had heard it through the haze of laudanum and love.  In his mind's eye, Augustus Darvell had been Lord Byron himself.

It was an idea which festered in his mind. Not easily either. Still only in his early twenties, Polidori suffered deep depression over his homosexuality (and unrequited love for Byron).  It was to later manifest as a gambling addiction, which added heavy debt into the mix.

He committed suicide on August 24th 1821, after consuming cyanide, when he was just twenty-five. 

All of that was five years away.  First he had to survive the summer of 1816, during the storms of which Lord Byron fired him from his service.  It broke Polidori's heart, and he took the vampire story with him. 

Lord Ruthven is undisguisedly based upon Lord Byron.  Even the name was taken from Lady Charlotte Lamb's pseudonym for the same nobleman.  But this Lord Ruthven was the undead creature which prowled through Polidori's novel.  He'd finally found his scary story.

The diary of Dr. John William Polidori, 1816, relating to Byron, Shelley, etc.: Edited and elucid...

Originally published in 1895. This volume from the Cornell University Library's print collections was scanned on an APT BookScan and converted to JPG 2000 format by Kirtas Techn...

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The Vampyre by John Polidori

The story wasn't exactly the same. It was fleshed out and full length. Yet The Vampyre most definitely had its genesis in Byron's Fragment of a Novel.

Image:  The Vampyre by John PolidoriThe anonymous narrator received a name - Aubrey - and a back-story.  The meeting with the strange gentleman came not in a university, but in a drawing room, surrounded by high class society and the implication of royalty.

But the elements were all there.  Two men taking the Grand Tour was central to the narrative. The latter part of the plot hinged upon the death, and an oath not to mention it for a year.

The vampire looked and acted as an English nobleman.  Lord Ruthven had the titles to prove it.  He was not the decaying corpse of Eastern European legend, but recognizably that envisaged by Byron.  More than that.  He was Byron.

In 1816, Lady Caroline Lamb had based a character on Byron in her novel Glenarvon.  In reality, she and the poet had been lovers.  She was married to William Lamb at the time, but the affair was public knowledge and the scandal of the day.  When he spurned her, she took her revenge in literature.

His eponymous character in Glenarvon is an immoral seducer of women. His charisma appears almost supernatural. He betrays all who encounter him, from his lovers to his country.  Eventually the ghosts of the women he destroyed appear to him on a ship.  He's overcome by remorse and throws himself overboard to his death. 

Those who read it called it a kiss and tell Gothic novel.  Byron himself was more blunt.  He called it a 'f**k and publish' story.  

When The Vampyre was published in 1819, no-one was in any doubt about the real life identity of the vampire.  He was called Lord Ruthven.  In Lamb's book, Byron's character had been called Ruthven, Lord of Glenarvon.  John Polidori was hardly being subtle here.

Moreover, the tale begins with Ruthven seducing a married woman, under the scandalized gaze of the English aristocracy.  He proceeded to destroy the reputation of every woman he met on the Grand Tour.  Some of them lost their lives too.

By now, the gossip surrounding the real and imagined exploits of the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' Lord Byron had reached such a crescendo, that readers may have been forgiven for believing that Byron really was vampiric.  He had done (or was supposed to have done) so much that what was draining the blood of ladies beside that?

The Vampyre may have been regarded as yet another semi-biographical kiss and tell tale, but for one key fact.  They all thought that Byron himself had written it.

When John Polidori dropped it off at the publishing house, he was recognized as one of Byron's associates.  As he was a physician, not a writer, the not unsurprising conclusion had been drawn that Polidori was delivering a manuscript from the poet.  He hadn't thought to clarify that at the time.

So the original publications of The Vampyre, in 1819, were credited as 'a tale by Lord Byron'.  Polidori rushed to correct the publishers.  Byron raged.  Both told anyone who'd listen that the novel was by John Polidori.  No-one believed them. It took years for its readership to accept that the author was John Polidori, not Lord Byron.  By then, the vampire literary tradition had been born. 

It was as far from the folklore of the Levant as it was possible to be.  It included English aristocrats, oozing sex and seduction, destroying reputations, as well as lives.  Zombie-like life-sucking corpses were replaced by cold noble men, who cut the throats of the women they attracted, then drank their blood.

The view of the vampire in the West would never be the same again.

Glenarvon (Valancourt Classics)

"I read 'Glenarvon,' too, by Caro. Lamb....God damn!" - Lord Byron In 1812, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of a prominent politician and future Prime Minister, began a tempestuous aff...

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The Vampyre: A Tale

This collection chronicles the fiction and non fiction classics by the greatest writers the world has ever known. The inclusion of both popular as well as overlooked pieces is p...

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Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula

Vampire literature is an amazingly varied genre of writing, providing elements of everything from the penny dreadful horrors to powerful doses of myth and eroticism. Because it ...

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Updated: 06/04/2013, JoHarrington
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Raven on 10/18/2016

Just came across this - great re-telling of the Byron/vampire connection....just one correction. The volcano that more or less 'caused' the 'year of no summer' - the cold and rainy 1816 - was Mt Tambora... Krakatoa was in 1886 or thereabout. Otherwise great share!

JoHarrington on 04/08/2013

I'm glad to have shared the juicy details. I get so enthralled by trivia like this, but yes, it's all Byron's fault! Thanks for reading. <3

EliasZanetti on 04/08/2013

Excellent post! I had no idea about Byron's connection to the vampire myth, I only knew his poems and incidents from his turbulent (and spicy!) life... Thanks for sharing this, thumbs up!

JoHarrington on 04/07/2013

You're welcome. I'm glad that you liked it.

I love how ideas keep evolving all of the time. However, some stories - like, I'm afraid to say, Twilight - appear to have diluted the rich tradition to the point of being a bit tepid.

Paintbrush on 04/07/2013

A great read, thanks.

What are your thoughts on current vampire literature?

JoHarrington on 04/01/2013

Thank you very much. :)

HollieT on 04/01/2013


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