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John William Polidori : Author of The Vampyre

John William Polidori : Author of The Vampyre

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer

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and physician, and Bath native. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the 1819 short story, The Vampyre, the first published modern vampire story. Although originally and erroneously accredited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the story is Polidori’s.

Polidori was one of the earliest pupils at recently established Ampleforth College from 1804, and in 1810 went up to the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on sleepwalking and received his degree as a doctor of medicine on 1 August 1815 at the age of 19.

In 1816 Dr. Polidori entered Lord Byron’s service as his personal physician, and accompanied Byron on a trip through Europe. Publisher John Murray offered Polidori 500 English pounds to keep a diary of their travels, which Polidori’s nephew William Michael Rossetti later edited. At the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the pair met with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their companion (Mary’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont.

One night in June, after the company had read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German horror tales, William Beckford’s Vathek and indulged in quantities of laudanum, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley,produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Shelley wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” and wrote down five ghost stories recounted by Matthew Gregory (“Monk”) Lewis, published posthumously as the Journal at Geneva (including ghost stories) Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron’s, Fragment of a Novel (1816), also known as “A Fragment” and “The Burial: A Fragment”, and in “two or three idle mornings” produced “The Vampyre“.

Dismissed on bad terms, by Byron, Polidori travelled in Italy and then returned to England. His story, “The Vampyre” was first published on 1 April 1819 by Henry Colburn in the New Monthly Magazine with the false attribution “A Tale by Lord Byron”, much to both his and Byron’s chagrin. Byron even released his own “Fragment of a Novel” in an attempt to clear up the mess, but, for better or worse, “The Vampyre” continued to be attributed to him. The name of the work’s protagonist, “Lord Ruthven”, added to this assumption, for that name was originally used in Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon (from the same publisher), in which a thinly-disguised Byron figure was also named Lord Ruthven. Despite repeated denials by Byron and Polidori, the authorship often went unclarified.

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The tale was first published in book form by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones in London, Paternoster-Row, in 1819 in octavo as The Vampyre; A Tale in 84 pages. The notation on the cover noted that it was: “Entered at Stationers’ Hall, March 27, 1819”. Later printings removed Byron’s name and added Polidori’s name to the title page.

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Gothic Horrors: The Regency Vampyre

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The “modern” vampire genre (or Vampyre, if you will) stems from James Polidori’s 1819 novel, The Vampyre, however the Gothic craze of the entire Regency era led to this printing, and in fact, real events in Europe led to the fascination of all things mysterious and horrible, as characterized in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. It should come as no suprise, then, that Northanger Abbey has finally been rewritten as an actual Vampire inspired novel (see Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, 2014). Writers have been trying to mash the two genres for years now, beginning with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (supposedly a nod to Pride and Prejudice) and Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, to Jane Bites Back, and other similar tales.

According to legend, vampires are mythical beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures (not unlike General Tilney, one might suppose…) In folkloric tales, undead vampires often visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the neighbourhoods they inhabited when they were alive. They wore shrouds and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or dark countenance, markedly different from today’s gaunt, pale vampire which dates from the early 1800s. Although vampiric entities have been recorded in most cultures, the term vampire was not popularised until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe,although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.

Frotspiece to Polidori's "The Vampyre".
Frontispiece to Polidori’s “The Vampyre”.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. However, it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula which is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.

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