Dr. Polidori and “The Vampyre”

Title Page of Vampyre 1819 (Note handwritten attribution to Lord Byron)

Title Page of Vampyre
(Note handwritten attribution to Lord Byron)

On June 22, I was continuing my reading of Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” when I encountered an interesting tidbit.   When Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in the famous competition with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, another competitor was Dr. John William Polidori, whose story story from that competition, “The Vampyre”, went on to be the only other work of that competition that went on to achieve any sort of renown (according to Lovecraft).

Wikipedia has an interesting explanation for the title page above:

“The Vampyre” was first published on 1 April 1819 by Henry Colburn in the New Monthly Magazine with the false attribution “A Tale by Lord Byron“. The name of the work’s protagonist, “Lord Ruthven“, added to this assumption, for that name was originally used in Lady Caroline Lamb‘s novel Glenarvon (from the same publisher), in which a thinly-disguised Byron figure was also named Lord Ruthven. Despite repeated denials by Byron and Polidori, the authorship often went unclarified…Later printings removed Byron’s name and added Polidori’s name to the title page.

Go to this link for the Project Gutenberg etext of “Vampyre”.  Modern printings can be found at the Open Library.

John William Polidori 1795-1821 (from Wikimedia)

John William Polidori
(from Wikimedia)

Another couple of interesting notes from the Wikipedia article on The Vampyre:

“The story was an immediate popular success, partly because of the Byron attribution and partly because it exploited the gothic horror predilections of the public. Polidori transformed the vampire from a character in folklore into the form that is recognized today—an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society.[1]

“Polidori’s work had an immense impact on contemporary sensibilities and ran through numerous editions and translations. An adaptation appeared in 1820 with Cyprien Bérard’s novel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires, falsely attributed to Charles Nodier, who himself then wrote his own version, Le Vampire, a play which had enormous success and sparked a “vampire craze” across Europe. This includes operatic adaptations by Heinrich Marschner (see Der Vampyr) and Peter Josef von Lindpaintner (see Der Vampyr), both published in the same year and called “The Vampire”. Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexis Tolstoy all produced vampire tales, and themes in Polidori’s tale would continue to influence Bram Stoker‘s Dracula and eventually the whole vampire genre. Dumas makes explicit reference to Lord Ruthwen in The Count of Monte Cristo, going so far as to state that his character “The Comtesse G…” had been personally acquainted with Lord Ruthwen.[10]

I find it fascinating that possibly the two greatest motifs in the history of horror literature (Frankenstein and vampires) were started at the same friendly competition between four friends.

Unfortunately,  Dr. Polidori did not live to see the success of the literary phenomenon he created.   The article goes on to note:

“He [Polidori] died in London on 24 August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid (cyanide), the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.[3]

Thoughts?  Comments?


An intriguing thought occurred to me soon after I posted this article.  As Dr. Polidori and Mary Shelley were part of the same intimate group, I have wonder what they talked about when they were alone.  Of course, being the proverbial fly on the wall of the room in which Mary and Percy Shelley, Dr. Polidori, and Lord Byron (or any combination of the above) were discussing any topic would be the dream of any literary enthusiast or historian.


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