Lord Byron drafted the original sketch for what became “The Vampyre.” It would be the story of a mysterious nobleman who traveled to Greece, where his death would reveal, among other things, that he had been a vampire all along. That was as far as the great poet progressed before setting the tale aside.
Doctor Polidori then picked it up. He discarded his original idea about a skull-headed lady peeping through a keyhole and fleshed out Byron’s idea instead. As a writer, the doctor was not without talent; as a human being, he was touchy, petulant, envious, quick to take offense—and ultimately self-destructive. He and Lord Byron had quarreled endlessly, so as Polidori continued to create the vampire of his tale, Lord Ruthven, he modeled him on the now-hated figure of the poet. Thus did Polidori’s jaundiced view of a former friend become the prototype of the literary vampire—which, in turn, has given rise to popular depictions of the vampire today.
The most lionized poet of his time, Lord Byron at first glance made a good model for a vampire. Dark and irresistibly handsome, he was, according to one former lover, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Even his friends, such as the dashing naval officer Edward John Trelawny, acknowledged he was “prouder than Lucifer” and flashed the “smile of a Mephistopheles.” Byron stayed up all night, slept most of the day, and once used a human skull as a drinking bowl. He ate sparingly because he could not exercise; a lame leg, he said, made strenuous activity extremely painful. After Trelawny eventually saw the poet’s corpse, he noticed that, beneath the magnificent torso, “both his feet were clubbed, and his legs withered to the knee—the form and features of an Apollo, with the feet and legs of a sylvan satyr.”
But it was Byron’s character that caused the most controversy. Much has been made of the Byronic hero—the man who lives by his own code outside the conventions of society, the figure that novelist Charlotte Brontë called the “corsair.” But to Polidori, Lord Byron resembled nothing so much as Lord Ruthven in the opening scenes of “The Vampyre” he may have been the talk of the ballrooms, but he was also cold, arrogant, haughty, cruel, and predacious—“a man entirely absorbed in himself.”
Aubrey, the story’s narrator, accompanies Ruthven on a tour of Europe but grows disenchanted with him after witnessing his voracious sexual appetites and his cruel treatment of women. Ruthven has a cold, gray eye, while his skin exhibits a hue “which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion.” Furthermore, all those to whom he gave money “inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and most abject misery.”
In Greece, Aubrey falls in love with Ianthe, a beautiful girl who is attacked in a remote place one night and killed by a vampire. Regaining consciousness after wrestling with the fiend, Aubrey beholds Ruthven sitting there. After further adventures in Greece, bandits ambush the two men, and Ruthven is killed—or perhaps not, for the moonlight seems to revive him.
Ruthven next appears in London at an engagement party for Aubrey’s sister. Because he must feed at least once a year on the “life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months,” Ruthven preys upon Aubrey’s sister, which so enrages the young man that he dies of a stroke. In the closing line of the story, evil has emerged triumphant: “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”
Soon after being published—under Byron’s name, which Polidori had not approved—in the April 1, 1819, issue of the New Monthly Magazine, “The Vampyre” was released as a book and became a best seller. Its initial connection with Byron was undoubtedly the reason; in Germany, for example, the poet Goethe supposedly pronounced it the greatest of all Byron’s works.
Whether in England or on the Continent, the saga of the rapacious Ruthven was soon in readers’ hands everywhere. Within a year, it had been mounted on the stage as well. French writer Cyprien Bérard churned out a sequel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires (1820), which was attributed to the multitalented librarian and master of the literary fantasy, Charles Nodier. Though he had nothing to do with its genesis, Nodier proceeded to give Polidori’s tale a second life as a play, Le Vampire, though he switched the locale from Greece to Scotland. The play’s success incited a run on vampires in Paris, moving one critic to lament, “There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire!”
Several seasons later, the fad was still going strong: An English correspondent declared that the vampire was being received with “rapturous applause at almost all the spectacles from the Odeon to the Porte St. Martin…. Where are the descendants of the Encyclopedists and the worshippers of the goddess Reason,” he asked, when Parisians were mad for “apparitions nocturnes” and “cadavres mobiles?”
A young theater innovator named James Planché brought a version of the French play back to London. The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles, opened in August 1820 at the Lyceum; it was given an incongruous Scottish setting, Planché wrote despairingly, only because the producer had “set his heart on Scotch music and dresses—the latter, by the way, were in stock.” Sensationalism, then as now, ruled the pens of copywriters; the playbill stated that vampires “are Spirits, deprived of all Hope of Futurity, by the Crimes committed in their Mortal State” but nevertheless are allowed to exert “Supernatural Powers of Fascination.” They cannot be destroyed, it asserted, if they kill one female each year—“whom they are first compelled to marry.” (That proviso clearly didn’t stick.) Planché, who invented a “vampire trap” that allowed the fiend to vanish and reappear onstage in startling fashion, got it right on his second attempt a few years later, when he set a revised version of The Vampire in Wallachia, using Magyar costumes.
The literary vampire had been loosed upon the world, but Polidori did not live to see its success. He died in August 1821, only 26 years old, and was buried in the consecrated ground of London’s St. Pancras churchyard. The truth of his demise—that he had poisoned himself in despair over gambling debts—was covered up, for in 1821, an Anglo-Saxon law grimly matching Polidori’s fevered imagination still remained on the books: It stipulated that a suicide must be buried at a crossroads, with a stake through his heart. The law was repealed two years later.
Two others who shared those hours in the Villa Diodati that stormy summer of 1816 soon followed Polidori to the grave. In July 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in a sailing accident off the coast of Italy. His body was cremated on a makeshift pyre on the beach where it had washed up—a consummation common among the pagan Greeks the poet had so admired.
Not long after the torch was applied, eyewitness Trelawny recalled, the carcass cracked open; where the skull rested on the red-hot iron bars, the “brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time.” When the flames subsided, there remained only ashes, some bone fragments—and Shelley’s heart, somehow undamaged. “In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace,” Trelawny recalled, “my hand was severely burnt….”
Less than two years later, in April 1824, Lord Byron died in Greece, where he had journeyed to fight in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Turks. Byron apparently succumbed to a fever—if he wasn’t in fact bled to death by overzealous physicians—in swampy Missolinghi, just south of the Albanian border.
Mary Shelley would die of a brain tumor in 1851, at the age of 53. As her son sifted through her effects, he found not only locks of her dead children’s hair but also a copy of Percy Shelley’s Adonais, an elegy for the poet John Keats, who had likewise died young (though of tuberculosis). One page of the elegy was folded around a silk bag, which, when opened, contained some ashes—and a desiccated human heart.