The First Vampire Story

Lord Ruthven, Vampyre, Polidori

Vampyre, John William Polidori, 1819

Notable for being:

  • the first vampire story in English.

As personal physician to Lord Byron, John William Polidori ran in a literary circle.  He attended Byron during the wet, gloomy summer when Percy Bysshe Shelley dared his companions to write ghost stories.  Mary Shelley produced the beginning of Frankenstein and Byron wrote a fragment that became the basis of Polidori’s short story Vampyre. No one reads Vampyre anymore, but it was quite popular in its day.  Polidori drew elements from Gothic literature, which was all the rage in the early 1800s.

Like a good horror writer, Polidori takes a monster from folklore and recasts it to typify destructive forces in contemporary society.  Unfortunately for this horror story, Regency society was pretty tame.  The scariest part of the story is Polidori’s introduction to the myth of the vampire.  This description beats any horrors contained the actual tale: “these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even the very pores of the skin.” Sick.

The villain of Vampyre is the mysterious Lord Ruthven, a sullen, dark-tempered aristocrat who gains popularity in London society as something of an oddity. All the most fashionable Regency dinner parties had a vampire on the guest list. Our hero, Lord Aubrey, is a bad judge of character, so he decides to travel through Europe with Lord Ruthven. He soon becomes suspicious of Ruthven who delights in corrupting others. Aubrey courageously foils Ruthven’s attempt to ruin the reputation of a young noblewoman. At which point I was thinking “You need to go home and get your sister! Dude, you just got between a vampire and his prey. Didn’t you say earlier that you have a plump, delicious, naïve little sister at home? Go back to London, dummy.” Does he go back to London? No. He stops by Greece so he can form an attachment with a different young girl, who Lord R can then antagonize.

Lord Ruthven, Vampyre, Polidori

The idolizing of naïve, childlike females in early English literature continues to nauseate me. Aubrey falls in love with a child. Polidori never states her exact age, but he describes her as a girl, not a woman. A light, young sylph who flits about the Grecian hills chasing butterflies. She could out-Lolita Lolita. Aubrey becomes obsessed with her, but “Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known.” Infantile. He is in love with someone who resembles an infant. How infantile is she, exactly? Like, is she potty trained?

Aubrey reminds me of Victor Frankenstein. When faced with danger, both men tend to swoon or stand speechless and motionless. They would make terrible firemen. Lord Ruthven does go after Aubrey’s sister. He even becomes engaged to her. Aubrey, of course, falls into a fit. He pretty much goes catatonic. All he needs to do to save his sister is say some words. For example, “Don’t marry him. He is evil. I forbid it.” She would have obeyed him. Aubrey fails to prevent the marriage and dies of. . .melancholy?

You might like Vampyre if you are writing a thesis on :

  • gender roles in early 19th century literature.
  • the origin of the horror genre in English.
  • literary heroes who suck at heroism.

You might not like Vampyre if:

  • you aren’t writing a thesis and you just want to read something good.

Final thoughts: This is a silly story. Not humorous. Trifling.

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Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Frankenstein's monster murdering his wife.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

I am glad Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.  Without Frankenstein the book there would be no “Frankenstein” movie, no “Bride of Frankenstein,” no “Young Frankenstein.”  I shudder to think of my childhood without “The Addams Family” in all its formats.  What I’m getting at is this: when Mary Shelley literally dreamed up Frankenstein and his monster she generated concepts that captivated the imagination of other writers.  Those writers took her ideas and transformed them into the mad scientists and their reanimated inventions that have become so ingrained in our culture.  What Mary Shelley did not do when she produced Frankenstein was write a good book.

I want to enjoy Frankenstein.  I really do, but I have so many problems with it. I will enumerate them in detail.

Style

Shelley kills herself with clauses. Her prose is no fun, because she interjects so many clauses that her meaning becomes convoluted. Her odd syntax also interrupts the flow of her sentences to the point that I sometimes got so irritated that I wanted to throw the book across the room. Take for example this abject failure of a sentence:

I returned home, not disappointed, for I have said that I have long considered those authors useless who reprobated; but I returned, not at all the more inclined to recur to those studies in any shape.

Agh! I guess if you read it a few times you begin to make some sense of it, but it doesn’t get any more enjoyable with multiple readings.

There are a few lovely little phrases buried in Frankenstein. I even found this one sentence that is acceptable in its entirety: I had worked hard for two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body.

 

Plausibility and the Monster

If it’s going to bother you that I expect some measure of plausibility from this early 19th century pillar of sci-fi and horror, go ahead and skip this section. Also, spoiler alert, I guess. I am going to divulge much of the plot before the end of this post.

I know that we must suspend our disbelief to enjoy most literature. I am really good at suspending my disbelief. For example, I am absolutely ok with Frankenstein using electricity to give life to inanimate flesh. What Shelley never explains is why he needs to “prepare a frame for it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles and veins.” Why doesn’t he just take a recently deceased corpse and electrify that? Well, Jesus brought the dead back to life and we simply can’t go around giving mortals the sacred abilities of Christ, you know? Also, this is horror. If you can think of a reason, however flimsy, for your character to poke around in cemeteries, you better let him do it. If he stitches corpses together, even better.

So far I am willing to accept that Frankenstein steals sinews from corpses to create a human body from scratch, more or less, and brings the body to life using lightning. What I cannot believe is that the creature he made was so jacked up ugly that he could not be tolerated in human society. Victor Frankenstein spends months hunched over his creation, laboring over every minute detail, but fails to notice that his creation is so vile looking that people will start trying to murder it the instant they see it. Really?

Understand that Shelley’s original Frankenstein monster is not the shambling, lovable dunce you know from movies and TV. He is faster, taller and stronger than humans. He learns the English language in a couple of months. And not just “me hungry” either. Frankenstein’s monster uses language far above the comprehension level of the average American adult. (Sorry, average American adult. It’s not you; it’s our political system!) Here is an example of Frankenstein’s verbal abilities: “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” Clause-y, but impressive for someone who used to be corpse parts. So, Victor Frankenstein is capable of turning a junk heap of dead bodies into a super smart super human. The monster has a unique identity.  He is not a pre-existing person brought back to life. Implicitly, Victor Frankenstein built a human brain. He    built    a    human   brain.    But he couldn’t make cheekbones? He couldn’t slap some soft, smooth skin on this guy? If only he had given him a handsome face! Frankenstein’s monster is only a monster because he isn’t good looking.

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein’s first big mistake is that he neglects to make his creation pleasing to the eye. Now, let me explain to other ways in which dear Victor is a useless, negligent git. Bear in mind that Shelley frequently cues the reader to pity rather than condemn Victor for his faults. Shelley seems to offer the understanding that Victor’s only error was scientific hubris, not the million other errors he makes throughout the book.

All of Victor Frankenstein’s mistakes:

  • Victor bestows life on his creation without noticing that it is horrifying to look at.
  • Victor is so fixated on bringing his creature to life, that he doesn’t have a plan in place for handling his creature once it is alive. Most of Frankenstein’s problems stem from this initial lack of foresight.
  • He doesn’t tell anyone what he is working on. No scientist has ever completed an experiment, especially a large scale experiment, without consulting other scientists. That’s just not how it works. Also, Victor is working on something potentially dangerous and feels no need to warn anybody that he may be releasing a powerful psychopath on the world.
  • When he sees his horrifying creature brought to life, he passes out of consciousness and into a nervous condition that incapacitates him for MONTHS. The monster is left to just wander freely, doing whatever pops into its brand new brain. He sets this creature loose, without providing for its safety or happiness. It goes on to have a really terrible experience while out in the world and develops some serious rage problems. As you would if you were born a horribly disfigured orphan that no one loved.
  • When Victor finally comes to, he doesn’t tell anyone what he has done.  He doesn’t try to find his monster.
  • The monster murders Victor’s little brother. An innocent young woman is suspected of the crime. Victor thinks that no one will believe him if he tells them about his monster. Instead of trying to make them believe, he just lets them execute that poor lady.  Come on! That has to rank among the shittiest things that a literary character has ever done.
  • The monster murders pretty much everyone else in his family. Instead of fighting back, Victor has more nervous fits. Just loses consciousness for extended periods of time, exactly like the storied heroes of lore. Precisely the kind of thing Hercules or Sir Lancelot would do when troubled.
  • The monster asks Victor to create a mate for him. Victor refuses. I won’t say that he absolutely should have created another “monster,” but this is an example of his continued rejection of his responsibility to provide a reasonable life for his creation.
  • He’s oblivious to the very clear indication that the monster plans on killing Victor’s bride on their wedding night.

I could keep going, but I think I covered the most important parts. I am not a fan of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. I get the feeling that she wants me to admire him, but I think he’s an ineffectual, reprehensible dummy. By abdicating responsibility for his actions, he unleashes a maelstrom of tragedy on anyone around him.

You might like Frankenstein if:

  • you are writing a thesis on the origin of genre literature.

You might not like Frankenstein if:

  • See above.

Final thougts: I am going to come right out and say it: Mary Shelley made it into the canon based on the strength of other artists. Without her husband she probably wouldn’t have been published in the first place. Without “Frankenstein” the movie, Frankenstein the book would be long forgotten. That’s just my opinion, man.