The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire

The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire

A interesting piece about the origin of the modern vampire. I strongly recommend to read the full article.

From that famed night of ghost-stories in a Lake Geneva villa in 1816, as well as Frankenstein’s monster, there arose that other great figure of 19th-century gothic fiction – the vampire – a creation of Lord Byron’s personal physician John Polidori. Andrew McConnell Stott explores how a fractious relationship between Polidori and his poet employer lies behind the tale, with Byron himself providing a model for the blood-sucking aristocratic figure of the legend we are familiar with today.

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“The Vampyre” is a product of 1816, the “year without summer,” in which Lord Byron left England in the wake of a disintegrating marriage and rumours of incest, sodomy and madness, to travel to the banks of Lake Geneva and there loiter with Percy and Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin). Polidori served as Byron’s travelling physician, and played an active role in the summer’s tensions and rivalries, as well as participating in the famous night of ghost stories that produced Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

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Like Frankenstein, “The Vampyre” draws extensively on the mood at Byron’s Villa Diodati. But whereas Mary Shelley incorporated the orchestral thunderstorms that illuminated the lake and the sublime mountain scenery that served as a backdrop to Victor Frankenstein’s struggles, Polidori’s text is woven from the invisible dynamics of the Byron-Shelley circle, and especially the humiliations he suffered at Byron’s hand.

It was no great leap for Polidori to believe that Byron was sucking the life from him, just as others had accused Byron of possessing a charismatic power that eclipsed their own identities. Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron had charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.”

[…]

But the most overt example of Byron as the devourer of souls was a novel John read over the course of the summer – Glenarvon by Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron and Lamb had enjoyed a brief and transgressive affair until he, somewhat rattled by the vivid expanse of her erotic imagination, had called it off. The novel is a thinly veiled portrait of the relationship set in a lonely castle during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, that interweaves breathless Gothic fiction with the wayward love of Calantha for the Irish rebel Lord Glenarvon. Glenarvon is a brooding anti-hero who dresses as a monk, stalks ruined priories, and howls like a wolf at the moon. His face glowers “as if the soul of passion had been stamped and printed upon every feature,” possessing the ability to enslave her. “Weep,” he cries, binding her ever tighter to him, “I like to see your tears; they are the last tears of expiring virtue. Henceforward you will shed no more.” Calantha is powerless. “My love is death.”

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