The vampire as we know it today — often suave, aristocratic, and deadly deceptive — was first conjured during that famous “Haunted Summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron proposed to his guests Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, that they each come up with their own supernatural chiller after having just read some German ghost stories. Famously, Frankenstein was born from this contest, but few know that Dracula was as well, or at least its precursor. Polidori and Shelley quickly abandoned their attempts, and Lord Byron began a treatment of prose that he too lost interest with. Byron’s story, about a man who dies while traveling with his friend yet is seen by that same friend upon his return home, was taken up by Polidori and fleshed out into the short story “The Vampyre”. It appears that the tale was left at the Villa Diodati and found by publishers, who mistook it for Byron’s work when they published it a few years later.
There is a great deal in the yarn that we recognize today. Modeled after Byron himself, the vampire is mysterious and a corrupter of young women. The story can be read as a supernatural thriller as much as a cautionary tale to girls about marrying or consorting with young libertines like Byron.
The rest of the Oxford World Classics collection in which I read the story consists of macabre tales which were published in British magazines during the 1830s (aside from those in Blackwood magazine, which are collected separately). Surprisingly, while some tales are dated and even seemingly pointless (like a man trying to get cats off of a corpse), others are still entertaining, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s story about an attempted murder which would later be expanded into his novel, Uncle Silas, or one inspired by the recent murder spree of Burke and Hare. Others are still disturbing, such as a true story about the massacre of a Protestant family in Ireland, where a baby is bayoneted and thrown into a burning house.
As someone who is genuinely interested in early Gothic and who views these stories as historical artifacts in addition to entertainment, I really enjoyed reading this collection. It certainly won’t be for everyone, especially if you have no patience for loquacious writing and single paragraphs that stretch for pages. As for me, it has kept me thirsty for more nineteenth-century Gothic.
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