Werner's Reviews > The Vampyre: A Tale

The Vampyre by John William Polidori
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Apr 13, 14

bookshelves: supernatural-fiction, vampires
Read in August, 2004

Note, April 13, 2014: I've just updated this review slightly to correct some factual inaccuracy in the account of the tale's origin.

Personal physician to Lord Byron, Polidori was present for the same challenge to the Byron-Shelley households to write a scary story that produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but apparently didn't immediately take part in it. He later produced this literary treatment of the vampire legend (the first one to be published in English) using Byron's story, which the famed poet started but left incomplete, as a basis, but re-writing it completely. (The edition of The Vampyre that I read, which is different from this one, reproduces that fragment as well, and it is superior in style and treatment to Polidori's effort.) Really a glorified short story, with a thin, melodramatic plot and sketchy characterizations, this novella succeeded as well as it did because of the novelty of its theme (and the rumor that Byron actually wrote it).

Ruthven is an amoral, egoistic, aloof character supposedly seductively appealing to women, and can be seen as a Byronic antihero in something of the typical Romantic mold, into which his vampirism fits very well; and he set a kind of pattern for the aristocratic male vampires in the classical vampire fiction tradition that would follow. But, like all the vampires in that tradition, he is not a dynamic character.

The central conflict in the story proves to be internal for the hero: does he expose his own sister to mortal danger, or break his word, given to Ruthven, not to disclose something that he knows. This probably strikes modern readers as a false conflict, since most of them wouldn't take their own word that seriously; but while this novella has plenty of implausible melodramatic elements, for Polidori's generation this dilemma would seem genuine: gentlemen of that day were expected to take their given word very seriously, even when it proved to be against their interest. (Whether we've "progressed" or devolved since then is an open question.)
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