At the dawn of the Regency, vampires had little to show for themselves in literature. What had been written of them was neither compelling nor seductive. There was the bat that had attacked the king in Sir Burges’ poem Richard the First (1801). The slave dealer in Montgomery’s 1807 The West Indies was a “bloated vampire of a living man.” In 1810, His Grace the Duke of Norfolk found himself the embarrassed object of an obscure poem’s dedication about a goblin entitled The Vampire. Miss Aiken, in her 1811 Epistles on Women, decried those polluting “vampire forms.”
Then came The Vampyre in 1819. Critics promptly gave it the kiss of death:
“a flat and feeble tale of supernatural horrors.” Edinburgh Monthly Review
“one (and we are happy to believe the last) of that travelling junta of our country-folk..” Antheneum
That “travelling junta” would be Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, who spent part of 1816, that “year without a summer” in a scandalous interlude at a Swiss villa. To be part of a junta was not what bothered Byron. It was the fact that the “vampyre” was neither a bat nor parasitic slave trader, but a suave English aristocrat. Not unlike himself:
“A bustling inhabitant of the world..restless and erratic..subject to pecuniary embarrassments.” — Monthly Review, 1919
Pecuniary embarrassments aside, the fact the creature had been christened Ruthven left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to its identity. This was entirely due to the efforts of Lady Caroline Lamb a few years before in 1816’s Glenarvon. Her character was also named Ruthven, but everyone knew him as Byron–the villain who had so cruelly abandoned her.
To add insult to injury, the publisher had the effrontery of passing off The Vampyre as Byron’s own work.
The notion was not so farfetched to the average Regency reader. It must be remembered that Byron had written of vampires before. His Giaour (1813) featured an infidel who indulged in an illicit affair with a pasha’s harem girl. She had been tossed into the sea to die whereupon the giaour killed the pasha. Byron’s narrator predicted the giaour would eventually suffer the fate of the vampire, rise from the dead and suck the blood of his loved ones, to his everlasting torment.
Perhaps Byron might not have added the following footnote to Giaour if he knew one day he might be made into a vampire himself:
“The Vampire superstition is still general in the Levant…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. The freshness of the face, and the wetness of the lip with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire. The stories told in Hungary and Greece of those foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.”
Amid a flurry of protestations and recriminations over the vile Vampyre and his story, it was eventually revealed that one Dr. John Polidori was the true author, whom “we cannot imagine what mental disease could induce Lord Byron to endure for a moment.” The good doctor was in attendance during the interlude at the Villa Didorati (the lodging of the aforementioned junta). There he had served in the capacity of Byron’s own personal sawbones before they parted in ways less than amicable.
Dr. Polidori was astonished at the vindictive hurled in his direction, which went something like this:
“The publication of that vile abortion, ‘The Vampyre‘ under the name of the greatest of living geniuses, was a wrong… which will not be easy for the perpetrator to expiate.”
He hastily insisted that the work was never meant to see the light of day, that he had placed the manuscript into the care of an unnamed lady, who later gave it to an unscrupulous publisher, who unleashed it upon an unsuspected Public wholly and wantonly without permission.
Amid the flurry of these protestations and recriminations, the aforementioned Public devoured the work, giving it an astounding success.
It was the birth of a new subgenre within the Gothic novel.