The Modern Vampire is Inspired by This Brilliant and Fairly Unknown Work
In the 19th century, English writer John Polidori (Lord Byron’s medic) wrote a story that would be key to the creation of the vampire.
The figure of the literary vampire, as we know it today, is the product of a few works of 19th century European literature ––one of them was The Vampire, by John Polidori, a frustrated writer and none other than Lord Byron’s personal physician.
John William Polidori (1795-1821) was born in London to a cultured family, close to the world of literature. Even if, according to hearsay, he always wanted to be a soldier or a writer, he studied medicine and graduated at the age of 19 with a dissertation about somnambulism —curiously, one of the affectations linked to the victims of vampirism.
In 1816, Polidori began to work as George Gordon, Lord Byron’s personal doctor. Together they traveled to different places in Europe and apparently their relationship was always difficult: Byron had an absorbent, hypnotizing and arrogant personality —similar, perhaps, to that of a vampire count.
That same year, Byron rented a house in Switzerland, Villa Diodati, at the shore of Lake Geneva; the poet was running away from a scandalous divorce and rumors of incest and sodomy. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (whom would later become his wife, and would be known as Mary Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, Byron’s lover, were invited to this house. One night, the group gathered to tell horror stories —German narrations collected in a French anthology titled Fantasmagoriana—, after which Byron asked each of them to put one of their own making down on paper. As a result of that night, in 1818, Mary Shelly would publish her novel, Frankenstein.
In turn, Polidori wrote The Vampire, a short story that was published two years later and which represents the first work to tell the story of a vampire —Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, Dracula, would be published almost eighty years later. In the first editions, the text was published under Byron’s name, a rumor that was hard for young Polidori to refute.
After parting ways with Byron, John Polidori died two years later in London, in the midst of a strong depression, and greatly indebted due to gambling. Even if there is proof that the young man died because of cyanide poisoning, a suicide, authorities claimed he died of natural causes.
In The Vampire, Polidori tells the story of Aubrey, a wealthy orphan who meets mysterious Lord Ruthven in an elite party in London. The strange man seems to seduce and scare all the women who cross his path and, curiously, just as Byron convinced Polidori to travel with him, Lord Ruthven convinced Aubrey to travel across Europe beside him. After several adventures, Aubrey ends up splitting from the strange character and he travels to Greece alone, where a young girl he has fallen in love with is murdered; her corpse shows two puncture-like wounds on the neck.
Many experts see this story as an allegory for Byron and Polidori’s relationship. After publishing the story signed by Byron, Goethe would call it the best short story ever written by the acclaimed poet. When young Polidori claimed the authorship of the work, he was accused of plagiarism and of using Byron’s name to become famous. Defeated, the young physician tried to become a monk, but the novel he had previously written impeded his access to the monastery. Afterwards, he attempted to study law, but was soon disappointed and fell directly into gambling. When Byron found out about the young man’s suicide, he only said: “Poor Polidori, it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
It is strange and certainly desolating that the creator of vampire literature had such a tragic and lonely end, but his story is, undoubtedly, yet another expression of how a writer’s personal life resounds in his creation. Polidori lived under Byron’s shadow for enough time to pay the price for his closeness to such an imposing —and vampire-like— figure. Polidori’s short story is also another great example of how a “minor” work, fairly unknown, can generate the birth of a figure that, at the hand of other writers, has become a literary archetype.
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