The Vampyre by John William Polidori is the first story in our Lockdown with a Vampire challenge. We want to remind our readers that they can find a review of this story in Italian on the Bloody Reader blog too.
The Vampyre by Polidori dates back to 1819 and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it was the story that originated the character of the Vampire as we know it today. Lord Ruthven, the vampire in question, is a unique character. Even though he is never described as ugly, his appearance is definitely not the focus when confronted with his peculiar personality. That is, in fact, what lures young Aubrey into the vampire’s trap.
In June of 1816, a group of writers take up residence at Villa Diodati, in the Geneva area. The days are cold and rainy and they decide to pass the time by reading and making up horror stories. That’s where Polidori brings to life his Vampyre and the now famed character of Lord Ruthven, destined to become a source of inspiration for many following authors.
When Lord Ruthven makes his entrance in the parlours of London, he catches the attention of many members of high society, young Aubrey among them. But there’s something extremely dark behind the Count from Marsden and soon enough, Aubrey will have to pay the price for his curiosity.
Polidori’s Vampyre is definitely one of the classics of horror literature without which we probably wouldn’t have many of the stories that are still read today. Even Bram Stoker, when creating his Dracula, was inspired by the figure of Lord Ruthven, this just to give an example of the ways in which this small work left its mark. Born out of a kind of game and challenge among the writers, it became one of the works that irreversibly changed horror literature.
The ambiguousness of Lord Ruthven
As we already mentioned, Lord Ruthven is somewhat of an ambiguous figure. His appearance is never described with a great deal of detail. About it, we know that he has a gaunt and inexpressive face, cold and grey eyes that betray no trace of emotions. What’s enticing about him is precisely this attitude of his. It’s more about charisma than it is about attractiveness.
His demeanour is ambiguous. Very little can be understood about him. The more he avoids others’ attentions, the more curiosity he arouses in the parlours. He doesn’t shun female company, but he doesn’t go looking for it either. He doesn’t seem to be tempted by sin, but he surrounds himself with people who are ruled by it. He wins in the virtue game, loses against those who are loaded with riches. Lord Ruthven is gifted with subtle cruelty. He acts in a careful and focused way and no one can say with certainty what is going through his mind. But he does take pleasure, quite a lot of it, in bringing misery into the lives of those around him. He doesn’t harbour any affections, and when he shows otherwise he only does so in service of a precise goal. Every one of his moves is pondered, calculated, and meticulously thought through.
Even his relationship with Aubrey is marked by personal goals; however, the reader only begins to understand them when the story is close to its ending. As does its protagonist. What Lord Ruthven displays is merely a facade to take everything away from Aubrey, his very essence first and foremost.
Created as a caricature of Lord Byron, who was also present for the challenge at Villa Diodati, Lord Ruthven is probably the first vampire from high society. From that, we can infer part of his personality. He might be noble, but he becomes beastly when he needs to satisfy his hunger, his thirst for blood, and his greed for destruction.
The story has a typical style of early 1800s literature. The lexicon is aimed at a highly cultured audience, at the upper-class socialites. After all, all the participants of the challenge were famous writers. The work itself is undoubtedly innovative, as is the vision of the vampire it presents. It definitely is a monster who drinks blood, but it’s also capable of mingling with human beings even though it’d rather keep its distance from them. However, it’s not yet described as an exclusively nocturnal animal. Sure, there are mentions of the fact that his abilities become stronger in the darkness that sunset leaves behind, but Ruthven doesn’t seem to have any problems living in the daylight, to the point that some of the scenes do seem to be set in the daytime.
In any case, The Vampyre is a fairly short story that can easily be read in a few hours. Even so, it will always and forever be recognised as one of the masterpieces that every fan of horror – and of vampire stories, in particular – should read at least once in their life.