Vampires have been a part of human mythology since before recorded history. However, they were generally shown as inhuman, ravenous monsters rather than the more mysterious and sexualized creatures of the night as we think of them today. That change is due in large part to a novella entitled The Vampyre written in 1819 by Dr. John Polidori.
Polidori was not originally an author. He was a physician, and a young one at that, earning his degree from the University of Edinburgh at the age of 19. Being an attractive prodigy, he caught the eye of the poet, Lord Byron, who hired him on as his personal physician and took him to Europe.
Byron was by then very famous throughout the continent, and the scandal of his divorce and speculation about his sexuality was rampant. Publisher John Murray offered Polidori 500 pounds to keep a journal of his travels with the poet. This journal became a source of contention between Polidori and Byron, who was on the one hand flattered by the attention and on the other annoyed and angered by the intrusion into his privacy. There has been speculation that Polidori and Byron became romantically entangled. Certainly, Polidori was fascinated with the famous poet, but whether the feeling was mutual is debatable.
During their travels, they spent time in Geneva, Switzerland, and in the summer of 1816 they met the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his soon-to-be-wife, Mary Godwin, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Shelley and Byron became fast friends. Due to the explosion of Krakatoa, the weather that year was frigid, and they were forced to stay indoors for much of the time. To entertain themselves, the group told ghost stories, and Byron suggested a writing contest to pass the time. Shelley’s story was published posthumously along with a portion of his journal. Mary Godwin began and later published Frankenstein, the first real science fiction story ever written in English. Byron’s own story was abandoned, but Polidori took the basic elements of that fragment and wrote what became one of the very first English vampire stories–The Vampyre.
Byron and Polidori quarrelled, partly because Byron felt Polidori had puffed up airs, delusions about becoming a famous author, and was not content with doing the job which he had been hired to do. He found Polidori’s personality irritating, and Byron’s journal is full of dismissive and acerbic references to Polidori’s shortcomings. Byron also feared that Polidori’s journal would expose too many of his secrets. Thus, Polidori was dismissed from his position. Devastated, he traveled through Italy and then returned to England, where his book was published two years later.
The main character of The Vampyre, Lord Ruthven, is pretty clearly based on Byron himself. Though Polidori had intended the book as a thinly veiled attack on the poet and a warning about his predatory nature, that intent backfired. In fact, the book was initially credited to Byron, a fact which irritated them both but which surely increased the sales of the story tremendously. The name Ruthven came from a character in a novel by Byron’s famously spurned former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, entitled Glenarvon, and Polidori intended it as a reminder to the readers of the scandal surrounding the poet.
Ruthven, the vampyre, is seductive and deadly. He is strong, masculine, handsome, and sneering at those he feels are beneath him. Readers today will recognize the basis for the English literary vampires which followed, including Dracula. Ruthven is a romantic, alluring, and devastating character who cuts a swath through a room full of women like a hot knife through butter.
On the other hand, the other main character, Aubrey, who finds himself drawn to Ruthven and who observes the terrible effects of being close to him, is meant to be a sympathetic character and most scholars agree that Polidori identified that character as being like himself. There is a clear (at least in my mind as a reader) homosexual subtext to the work, and Aubrey is drawn to Ruthven and seems most angered at the fact that Ruthven chooses young women as his victims rather than noticing him as a potential suitor. Aubrey comes off to me as a sad and bitter man who wishes he were smart enough, handsome enough, strong enough and who fails miserably. In the end, that is the impression which Polidori himself makes as well.
In trying to ruin Byron’s reputation, Polidori only added to his fame. The novella was made into a French play the very next year and later into two operas.
As for Polidori himself, he committed suicide in 1821, leaving behind a string of gambling debts. His sister Charlotte transcribed his diary, omitting anything that might embarrass her family (which likely included anything relating to a possible relationship with Byron), and then she destroyed the original.
Whatever you might feel about the author himself, the book itself is a classic. The character of Ruthven is an archetype and serves as a model for all vampire authors who have followed.
The Vampyre is available as a free e-book through Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6087).