John William Polidori – The Vampyre; A Tale (1819)
Nearly 80 years before Bram Stoker published Dracula, John William Polidori gave us Lord Ruthven, a sallow, unpleasant aristocrat who fascinated the ladies and led nearly anyone who had anything to do with him to ruin. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion—and the vampiric antagonist in this story was probably based, to some extent, on Byron himself, although there is an introductory section AND a concluding chapter to this book that both discuss Lord Byron, and they go to some length to explain how kind and pious he was, despite his tendency towards solitude.
This story, for those who haven’t read it, follows a well-to-do orphan, Aubrey, who meets Lord Ruthven at one of the many social gatherings that rich kids used to attend back in the old days. (Think about the grand ball in Cinderella—that kind of thing.) Deciding that it’s time for his entry into the adult world, meaning a trip to the continent to “complete” his education, Aubrey asks Lord Ruthven to accompany him on his travels, hoping to learn more about this mysterious figure. On the journey, however, Aubrey discovers that his companion is something closer to a demonic force than a gentleman, encouraging the people they meet to indulge in every vice and corrupting any young women they encounter. Aubrey is disgusted, and eventually breaks with Lord Ruthven, only to meet up with him later under some very unpleasant circumstances!
Unlike the more modern, Salem’s Lot-style vampires, Lord Ruthven seems just as happy for his victims to end up swinging from the gallows as he does inviting them to “dinner.” He also seems to be able to appear in daylight, although he does seem to become more bloodthirsty after dark. Another interesting wrinkle in the standard vampire lore can be seen in one incident where Ruthven is shot by some bandits, and he later dies from his wound. Instead of being buried, however, he asks before expiring that his body be laid on a hillside under the light of the moon. Later in the story, of course, he returns from the dead—which surprises Aubrey, but probably won’t take modern readers by too much of a surprise.
He doesn’t sleep in a coffin (that we know of.) Neither garlic nor silver are mentioned in the story. He isn’t bothered by sunlight. What he IS is an awful engine of corruption, a demonic fiend (who drinks blood and likes seeing innocent people come to ruin.) He does seem to have some “glamour” powers, however, and can control seem people’s minds to a certain degree. He isn’t exactly like a modern vampire, but the character is still compelling and nasty, and well worth the effort to get to know.
The tale is short—even with the introduction and the conclusion, which aren’t part of the story itself, the whole book is fewer than a hundred pages. Maybe closer to 70 or 80. (I read a digital version, so I’m not exactly sure how long the book is in print form.) Being as old as it is, the book is naturally public domain, meaning you should be able to find a copy for cheap or free, wherever public domain books can be found, and I definitely recommend reading it, if you’re a fan of vampire tales or gothic storytelling. It’s a critical tale in the development of vampire fiction, possibly one of the first to make a CHARACTER out of a bloodsucker, instead of just a folklore beast, AND it’s also an interesting tale. I’ve read it at least five times over the last few years, and I still find it entertaining.
It’s probably not going to SCARE modern readers, but there are some decent creepy and suspenseful moments to be found in these pages. The language isn’t too difficult to read, either, especially considering the age of the story. (It’s almost 200 years old, you know.) It’s probably not as thrilling as something like Carmilla, but it could also be argued that Carmilla wouldn’t have even been written if Polidori’s Lord Ruthven hadn’t been so popular. Regardless, this is a fun, creepy story, with a deep history, that most folks can probably read in one or two sittings. I enjoy the heck out of it and think most people who like older, eerie stories will probably have a lot of fun with it, too!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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