By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
This is a novella whose reputation exceeds it. Written in 1819, it became the first popular vampire story in our modern culture. I found it to be an interesting read, well worth the effort, but unlike Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was written in 1897, it is not particularly absorbing and certainly not brilliant.
The background to the creation of this tale is notable. The author was a physician and the traveling companion of Lord Byron. While staying on Lake Geneva they met with other friends, including Mary Shelley. There the group passed the time reading, then telling ghost and horror stories. They each decided to write their own tale, and share with the others. Mary Shelley famously came up with the idea for Frankenstein, while John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre.
The story concerns one Lord Ruthven a friend of the protagonist, a young English nobleman named Aubrey. The two are in Rome when the strangeness of Lord Ruthven, who is an inveterate gambler and womanizer, attracts unwanted attention. Aubrey leaves his companion when the latter seduces a beautiful young woman. He travels to Greece alone. There he meets Ianthe, the daughter of an innkeeper. She tells him of the tales of terrible creatures known as vampires who roam the countryside and who live off of the blood of their victims.
Lord Ruthven arrives and shortly thereafter Ianthe is found dead, apparently killed by a blood-sucking attacker. Aubrey does not connect his friend to the killing and the pair resumes their travels together. They are waylaid by bandits and during the struggle Lord Ruthven is mortally wounded. As he is dying, he gets Aubrey to promise not to tell anyone of his fate for one year and one day.
Aubrey returns to London and is amazed when Lord Ruthven shows up some time later. The promise made in Greece is kept, Aubrey is silent, and the lord proceeds to seduce Aubrey's sister and even plans to marry her. On their wedding night, she is discovered dead, drained of all her blood. The mysterious Lord Ruthven has vanished. Thus ends The Vampyre.
This fantastic plot is well deserving of praise. It was Polidori who took the vampire legends, which previously existed among superstitious countryside folk, and "urbanized" them. Lord Ruthven is similar to Bram Stoker's later Count Dracula—both are elegant, mysterious killers who prey on fellow members of high society. And the desire of vampires for beautiful, young victims is first outlined here.
The Vampyre though, in my opinion, is lacking in the intrigue found in Dracula, and too often Polidori (who we must remember was a physician rather than a writer) relies on exposition to tell his story. As a result there is a flat feeling to the narrative as opposed to Bram Stoker's chilling and organic way of writing. The prose here may be scary in the brain, but not in the heart, where real terror dwells.