And now for something completely diabolical–The year without a summer (1816) and its monsters….

For the second time this summer, a reader and/or writing colleague has written something that struck a chord and gave me the subject for a post.  This time, it was my friend DJ (the writer of some fine fantasy/science fiction/historical stories), who is also a frequent contributor to my “comments” collection.  He implied that he didn’t see the attraction of vampires.  Now, I don’t know that I do either, but when I was a lot younger, Barnabas Collins on the television show “Dark Shadows” certainly had me going.  But Barnabas was what we regard now as a “typical” vampire, a sort of middle-aged, mysterious, tall, pale, and thin brunette with a forbidding manner and a compelling, hypnotic way with the ladies all the same.  He wasn’t a neophyte teenager or young adult with bulging muscles and sex, sex, sex oozing out of his every faithful word.  In other words, he wasn’t in any way related to Edward of “Twilight” fame.

But at one point, even that aristocratic middle-aged vampire was news, hard though it may be to believe.  And he had his genesis in an odd summer shared by some famous poets and their hangers-on during “the year without a summer,” 1816, when the weather in parts of Europe and North America was violently stormy, full of crop failures and famine, and ripe for tales of monsters and demons to be born.  The entire tale of that summer is longer, and you can find it elsewhere, for example in the background history of the tale of Frankenstein:  or, the Modern Prometheus, which had its genesis in the same famous group of writers.  Let me set the scene….

It’s 1816, at the Villa Diodati, on the wind-tossed, thundery, and lightning-struck shores of Lake Geneva.  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has accompanied her new husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Claire Clairmont (Mary’s step-sister, who is pregnant with Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra) to visit Lord Byron (currently at work on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”) and his personal physician John Polidori.  They are isolated by the weather and decide after reading some ghost stories (including William Beckford’s fantastic Oriental tale “Vathek”) to write ghost stories of their own.  When during this time Lord Byron reads aloud from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s scare-fest of a poem “Christabel,” the poet Shelley becomes so frightened and disorganized in his thinking as a result that he needs to rush from the room, and they find him in a near-hysterical state.  They go off separately to write.

Though the Frankenstein tradition (author:  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) is the most famous to come out of this group reading, both Lord Byron and John Polidori elect to write about vampires, with Polidori’s completed story being inspired by Lord Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel,” never completed.   Several important things happen as a result of this collaboration.   First, the vampire, which was merely a form of monster in European and pre-European folklore, something like the werewolf, begins to have human characteristics and traits, and a standard personality.  In his “Introduction,” Polidori attributes the legend to the Arabians and the Greeks originally, possibly a reason that the vampire’s “death” (and subsequent return to life) take place when a young friend, at first perplexed and then appalled by sensing that a former friend is a vampire, and the erstwhile noble friend–or should that be “fiend”?– are travelling in the East.  In both Byron’s unfinished story and Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” the seemingly cynical and yet dying nobleman makes the request of his young friend (in Polidori’s case, swears him to keep an oath) that he will not reveal the death for a certain amount of time.  In both stories, this is evidently intended to be a way of allowing the nobleman to come back to life and find a place in society again unimpeded, though that is only implied in Byron’s story and not written out.  In Polidori’s story as opposed to Byron’s, also, the connection of the vampire with night (and even with the moon, more traditionally associated with werewolves) is evident, as the nobleman asks to have his corpse exposed to the rays of the moon.  Both of the literarily famous vampires have strange burial requests, moreover, something that is carried over in the by now hackneyed notion of the vampire’s necessary tie to his coffin.  Even the name of one of the two original vampires owes something to other parts of literary history:  Lady Caroline Lamb, a former lover of Lord Byron’s, wrote the Gothic romance Glenarvon.  In it, she chose to put a Byronic figure named Lord Ruthven.  When Byron’s and Polidori’s stories were published, both were originally attributed to Byron, because not only was the author’s name of Polidori’s manuscript given as “Lord Ruthven,” but even the vampire in the tale was named “Lord Ruthven”!

So much for the background.  Do you know an aristocratic, cynical, not yet old but seemingly eternally young man or woman who frequents high life without seeming to gain much actual pleasure from party-going, though all the women (or men) in his or her life seem to be drawn thitherwards without being able to stop themselves?  Does this person go around at night a lot more than in the day?  In fact, when’s the last time you saw them during the day?  Do the victims of the opposite sex seem to wither away and die, and have strange marks on their necks that no one can account for?  (But they do look like bites, don’t they?  No, you’re being overly imaginative.)

If you’re the young hero, here’s what you’ve of course told yourself when you doubted your friend the nobleman, à la Byron from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:  “Yet must I think less wildly–I have thought/Too long and darkly, till my brain became,/In its own eddy boiling and o’erwrought,/A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame:/And thus, untaught in youth my heart to tame,/My springs of life were poisoned.  ‘Tis too late!/Yet am I changed; though still enough the same/In strength to bear what time can not abate,/And feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate.”

And I think that could the “vampyre” speak from the heart, he would utter another stanza from that long poem, to explain his fall from grace:  “I have not loved the world, nor the world me;/I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed/To its idolatries a patient knee–/Nor coined my cheek to smiles–nor cried aloud/In worship of an echo; in the crowd/They could not deem me one of such; I stood/Among them, but not of them; in a shroud/Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could/Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.”  (Standing “among them, but not of them” is in fact exactly how Polidori first paints the picture of his “vampyre,” one who is in an earlier poet’s words both “daungerous” and “digne,” that is “high and mighty” and “overly proud.”)

Finally, the fact that Byron was also working on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” when he experimented with his vampirish “ghost story” is perhaps even indicated by a sort of cross-fertilization of topic and theme here.  For, unlike the proud nobleman, who continues the fatal course of holding himself apart from his fellows in a high-handed way, Byron in the very next stanza continues speaking of his character-narrator’s frame of mind:  “I have not loved the world, nor the world me–/But let us part fair foes/ I do believe,/Though I have found them not, that there may be/Words which are things,/hopes which will not deceive,/And virtues which are merciful nor weave/Snares for the failing:  I would also deem/O’er others’ griefs that some sincerely grieve;/That two, or one, are almost what they seem–/That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.”  Perhaps having this in mind was what kept Byron himself from turning into a metaphorical “Lord Ruthven,” and certainly he went on in his next long poem “Don Juan” to parody the picture of the proud and distant Byronic hero who slays women’s hearts with a glance (never mind a bite), a sure sign of emotional health:  after all, when have you ever heard of a vampire making fun of himself?  (If Edward does it, be sure it’s only because he’s in his first reincarnation and still has time to get old and bitter–maybe we should look to Anne Rice for that chuckly innovation!)

4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments

4 responses to “And now for something completely diabolical–The year without a summer (1816) and its monsters….

  1. Thanks for a fun romp through dark shadows, Victoria. I loved Barnabas Collins, too! What a show, perfect after-school fodder. You might find interesting Rebecca Solnit’s long account of Frankenstein’s composition and scenario in her The Faraway Nearby.

    • Yes, thanks. You’re the second person I’ve read who recommends Rebecca Solnit’s book, though the other person had a memoir and fiction focus. I can see I’m going to have to get to it, sooner or later.

      • Dear Richard, Please forgive the unintentional slight of my appearing not to recognize you, a frequent and thoughtful commenter, in this reply to your comment. At the time, I was tracking down some missing replies which had been labelled as spam, and I got your replay confused with someone else’s, so that the “other person” recommending Solnit’s book is in fact yourself, and somewhere or other there is a missing response from another reader also recommending it (I think it must have already been done away with by the spam filter by now, because I didn’t succeed in finding it in time). I hope you will continue to share your valuable insights when you feel the urge to reply to a post. Best, Victoria

    • Dear Richard, Please see my second reply to this post, below (sorry about all the confusion).

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