The First Vampire Story

I first encountered the name Dr. John Polidori in the 1973 television movie Frankenstein: The True Story. I was eight years old at the time and this film was one of the few times I have been truly terrified by a horror film. The film, which now plays as by turns dull and preposterous (I watched it again not too long ago), implies that it is relating true events, mostly because it cleaves more closely to Mary Shelley’s novel than most versions. When I was a kid, I fell for it.

One way it deviates, however, is the insertion of Polidori (played by the incomparable James Mason) which is a sly wink to fans of Gothic horror. In the film, he is made the teacher and mentor of Victor Frankenstein. In real life, he was Byron’s personal physician, and one of the four people in attendance at the famous party where Frankenstein was first hatched (including Byron himself and of course the Shelleys, who were not yet married).

It’s interesting to me that the legendary retreat is generally only spoken of in connection with Frankenstein, because it also happened to be significant in the evolution of the myth that gave birth to Dracula. The idea for The Vampyre came from Byron himself, although he never produced more than fragments. It was Polidori who wrote it up into a story, which was published without his knowledge (under Byron’s name at first) in 1819. This makes it the first vampire tale; the seed of an entire genre. Among the many elements it introduces is the notion of the vampire as a suave seducer with unmistakable sexual overtones (as opposed to the ugly grotesque Nosferatu image). It is said that Polidori based the undead character Lord Ruthven on Byron himself.

It is a short story, and frankly a much better read than Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, which is a structural mess and owes its great permanent success to a long line of playwrights and screenwriters who took the story and imposed a shape on it. I found all sorts of elements fascinating (over and beyond its effectiveness as a tale — I found the end quite chilling).  I found the story to be an illuminating link between the English Romantics and Poe (who arrives on the scene about a decade after this story). I have read and re-read Poe’s whole body of work since I was a teenager, and often wondered about his Gothic precursors and influences. He seems to project a mental Europe over the American landscape; he was definitely drinking a different kool-aid than James Fenimore Cooper, for example. Also, The Vampyre takes us closer, I feel, to the folk material that gave birth to this legend. A lot of the action is laid in Greece, for example, at a time when Greece was considered the same kind of decayed, mysterious backwater as Transylvania.

At any rate, the full text of the story is here, for your dining and dancing pleasure.

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