Sesana's Reviews > The Vampyre; A Tale

The Vampyre; A Tale by John William Polidori
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Oct 25, 2011

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bookshelves: classics, folklore, horror, fantasy, mental-illness, monsters, vampires
Read from October 25 to 26, 2011

The main significance of of The Vampyre is historical: this is the first published work about vampires in English. Nearly everything that followed in the English language can be traced back to here. Amazing that such a short story (20 pages in the book I read) can be so influential.

What's most important is good, very good. The plot itself, though a little slow to start, ramps up fairly quickly and ends brilliantly. (It does rely on one character valuing his word of honor above all else, including another's life, but I'm willing to accept that as an historical artifact.) Few authors would have the courage to end their story as Polidori does, which is a shame.

The vampire here is Lord Ruthven, who is everything one can ask of a non-sparkling vampire. He's outwardly cultured, dangerously magnetic, and, in the end, entirely ruthless. He's a frequent seducer of women, but only those who are perfectly chaste when he meets them, and they always vanish without a trace when he is done with them. He gives generously, but only to those who will use his generosity to put themselves in an even worse situation. And he is an enemy who is worse than deadly if crossed. It's easy to see the blueprint of Dracula and Angelus here. Of course, Ruthven is based on Byron.

The bones of the story are good, but the writing itself is less than exciting. Polidori either didn't know how or didn't trust himself to write dialog, because there's virtually none. Most conversations are recorded in narrative, in very long and tedious paragraphs. But Polidori was not a writer by profession, he was a doctor, and he cranked this out in a couple of days. For all of that, it's quite good, it just needs an extra layer of polish and a defter hand with words.

My copy includes an incredibly short (5 pages) fragment by Byron himself, from which Polidori based his Vampyre. The editor in my edition flatly accuses him of plagiarism, and it's a fair cop. Byron's version if unfinished, so it's impossible to tell how much of what eventually happened in The Vampyre is directly from the brain of Byron and how much was Polidori's invention. But there's enough to make me sad that Byron didn't finish it himself. His version is much better than Polidori's.

I read The Vampyre solely for the historical significance of the work, and it ended up being much better than I had expected. It's a chilling story with one of the most memorable fictional vampires in literature, and if Polidori had been a slightly better writer, it would still be remembered as fondly as Dracula.
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