Vampires first appeared in English popular culture with the publication of Robert Southey’s epic narrative poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Thalaba’s bride, Oneiza, dies on their wedding day, but she returns afterwards because her body had been reanimated when a demonic spirit invades her body:
Like the reflection in a sulphur fire
And in that hideous light,
Oneiza stood before them, it was she –
Her very lineaments, and such as death
Had changed them, livid cheeks, and lips of blue.
But in her eyes there dwelt
Brightness more terrible
Than all the loathsomeness of death.[i]
After the publication of Thalaba, vampyres would become a prominent feature of English gothic fiction; two notable Victorian examples are James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Between the appearance of Thalaba and Varney the Vampyre, however, another vampire novel was written by John Polidori entitled The Vampyre (1819). The idea for The Vampyre was conceived on the same night as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). While entertaining his friends, Mary Godwin, Percy B. Shelley, Polidori, and Clare Claremont, at his house on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, Byron suggested that each of them should write a ghost story after having read aloud to each other extracts from Fantasmagoriana (1812). When Polidori returned to England, The Vampyre was published, although at the time it was attributed to Byron, much to his annoyance.
The Vampyre tells the story of Aubrey, a young English nobleman who, when he makes his debut into society, is entranced by a mysterious and aloof figure called Lord Ruthven:
It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate.[ii]
One of the legends surrounding this mysterious man is that all who friends with him become usually end up experiencing some kind of misfortune. Nevertheless, Aubrey eventually becomes well-acquainted with this mysterious figure and the pair go on a tour of the continent together. At the time that Polidori was writing, it was very common for young noblemen, and the aspirant sons of the upper middle classes, to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as part of their education. As a man of high morals, however, Aubrey disagrees with Ruthven’s typical ‘aristocratic’ lifestyle, which mainly involves sleeping around with women, and the pair take their leave of each other.
Aubrey travels on to Greece where, in the course of his antiquarian research into Ancient Greek monuments at Athens, he meets and falls in love with a young girl named Ianthe. However, one night she is killed in a very unusual manner:
There was no colour about her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: –– upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.[iii]
The locals immediately attribute Ianthe’s death to a vampire attack. Aubrey falls into a deep depression for several weeks and during much of the time he is insensible. When he recovers, he is startled to find that one of the men caring for him is Ruthven, who was also recently arrived in Athens. Gradually recovering, Aubrey asks Ruthven if they can begin making their way back to other parts of Greece because Athens holds too many unhappy memories.
While travelling in the northern part of Greece, Ruthven, Aubrey, and his party are attacked by bandits. Banditry always flourishes in parts of the world where the government is weak and unable to effectively enforce the law. Nineteenth-century Greece was such a place; since the fifteenth century it had been ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire but by 1819, which was when Polidori published his book, Ottoman rule in Greece was on its last legs. A war of independence would break out in 1821 and last until 1830. There was a lot of sympathy for the Greek revolutionaries; firstly they were Christians fighting against “heathen” overlords, so many in Western Europe warmed to their cause; and because Ancient Greece was viewed as the birthplace of Western civilisation, at a time of European international supremacy, it was thought by many governments and members of the public that the Greeks should be supported in their cause. Thus, members of the public in London, through the London Philhellenic Committee, raised £2,800,000 to enable the Greeks to buy arms. Some Brits took a more active role in the Greek Revolution, notably Lord Byron, who took up arms and joined the Greek rebels. While the Mediterranean countries had historically had problems with bandits, the problem got worse with the decline of Ottoman rule.
While Aubrey tells us in The Vampyre that he set little store upon accounts of banditry, and both he and Lord Ruthven decline the assistance of armed guards and take only two escorts with them. They soon regret this decision, however:
Scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.[iv]
Aubrey pleads with the robbers to allow him to take his friend to a nearby house, and promises them a greater reward than they would have gotten by simply robbing the party if they help to nurse Ruthven back to help. The robbers, enticed by the reward, agree to help Aubrey by accepting such a ‘ransom’. They are taken to a nearby dwelling and the outlaws stand guard outside until one of Aubrey’s men returns from the city with the promised money. The collection of a ransoms was one way in which many bandits, who often professed to be against all forms of wanton violence, made money from their victims. The celebrated Rob Roy in the Scottish Highlands often resorted to this manner of robbery; he would hold a (usually very wealthy) victim hostage and they would not be released until their family produced the required sum. One person who documented the problem of banditry in the Mediterranean was Charles Macfarlane, who published his findings in a book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (1834), and he documents several cases of bandits resorting to this method of robbery.
Lord Ruthven seemingly dies of his injuries and the robbers take his body out of the hut to be buried the next day. Yet when Aubrey and one of the robbers arrive at the burial spot, they find that the body is no longer there. The outlaws immediately tell Aubrey that the only possible explanation for the body’s disappearance is that Ruthven was a vampire, but Aubrey dismisses this explanation, thinking that the real reason is that the outlaws have buried him secretly and stolen his clothes.
On his return to England, Aubrey is increasingly plagued by visions of Lord Ruthven, and gradually he puts all the pieces together and concludes that Ruthven was, in fact, a vampire. Aubrey temporarily loses his sanity but when he recovers, he finds out that his sister has gotten married to a young nobleman who of course turns out to be Lord Ruthven. He relates all of his adventures to his servants who immediately rush to save Aubrey’s sister, but it is too late:
When they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE![v]
[i] Robert Southey, The Complete Poetical Works (Paris: Galignani, 1829), p. 122. Southey also introduced the word ‘zombie’ into the English language.
[ii] John Polidori, The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), p. 27.
[iii] Polidori, p. 48.
[iv] Polidori, p. 52-3
[v] Polidori, p. 72.