During a wet summer in 1816 at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, four friends were engaged in a literary tournament to write a ghost story that would scare the wits out of them. Reading a German book of ghost stories became tedious, so why not write their own, suggested one?
Only two would finish. One would be remembered for eternity, and the other would have notoriety as an attack of vengeance against a friend.
Tale of the Tape
The four friends each had an inkling of who would win the title of 'Scariest Ghost Story Author', with two stern favourites in the race and two underdogs, or 'dark horses,' hiding in the background. Though they all came to Diodati evenly-matched in dangerous rumours and things that they had to get away from in England, would it be jumping to conclusions as to who would win?
|Name:||George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron|
|Claim to Fame:||Author of bestselling poetry series Childe Harold and The Corsair; notorious libertine; former London society lion|
|Reason for being here:||Left England due to a scandal that came about from a rumoured incestuous relationship with his half-sister|
The definite favourite. Byron had stopped the literary world in its tracks with Childe Harold, and a mere ghost story would not be too taxing, surely?
|Name:||Percy Bysshe Shelley|
|Claim to Fame:||Up-and-coming young poet, namely writing Queen Mab; got expelled from Oxford University for being an atheist; left his first wife and eloped with William Godwin's daughter, Mary|
|Reason for being here:||William Godwin was not impressed when Shelley eloped with his daughter|
Queen Mab had sold very well in England, and Shelley was looking into his early life for ideas.
It turns out that neither of them completed the task. Both got bored and decided to go trekking across the Alps.
|Name:||Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley|
|Claim to Fame:||Daughter of the literary king and queen of their time, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley|
|Reason for being here:||Her father was not impressed when Mary ran off with his best friend|
Something genetic, perhaps? Mary Shelley has good odds on producing a shocker with her literary background.
|Name:||Dr John William Polidori|
|Claim to Fame:||Precocious mind in the sciences and medicine, but no real literary base|
|Reason for being here:||Byron's doctor|
No literary background whatsoever - but Polidori was very eager nonetheless.
Due to the defaulting of the two favourites, Mary Shelley and John Polidori fought it out in the story ring, and it was Mary Shelley who prevailed in the end, with her hideous creation Frankenstein. She was also the only one who finished on time.
However, Polidori was not finished yet. Byron's notes on his Fragment of a ghost story were still fresh in his journal, and what better thing to do than to 'lift' the ideas and make the story Polidori's own?
One Fragment turned into a short novella, and Polidori had hit on a literary goldmine that would blow out endless ideas in the horror genre.
Dr John William Polidori was born on 7 September, 1795, son of Gaetano Polidori, an Italian who had settled in London as the secretary of the poet Vittorio Alfredi, and an Englishwoman, a Miss Pierce. John Polidori trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University, graduating at the age of 19.
He entered the service of Lord Byron in 1815 as his personal physician, treating his club foot as well as other ailments. The poet was impressed by Polidori's aptitude in medicine and the sciences, and was pleased by Polidori's literary aspirations. As this meant that Polidori travelled with Byron wherever he went, he was included in Byron's competition to write a ghost story, first writing about a skull-headed lady, which was soon abandoned.
After Switzerland, taking notes and inspiration from Byron's tale, Polidori published a novella titled The Vampyre: A Tale, in which the thinly-disguised protagonist was based upon Lord Byron. The work was attributed to Byron, but hotly-denied by the poet, who then published Fragment of a Novel at the end of his poem Mazeppa to try and clear things up:
I have a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets.
- Lord Byron
Despite all the odds, people continued to believe that Byron had written the tale and his notoriety as a ladykiller and 'vampire of women' grew.
After a messy argument, Polidori was dismissed from Byron's service, and he set up a practice in Norwich. However, due to his inability to settle into his career, Polidori dropped medicine for law, but soon found himself at a crossroads when his interest in the Bar dropped. He suffered from depression and the last few months of Polidori's life are uncertain. He was reputed to either have self-administered prussic acid due to monetary problems brought on by gambling debts, or to have died from severe head injuries in a carriage accident. Either way, Polidori died aged 26 in August 1821, with the coroner reporting that he had 'died by the visitation of God'.
Though not from a particularly literary background, Polidori was the uncle of the poet Christina Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The Vampyre: A Tale
The Vampyre: A Tale tells the tale of Aubrey, a young gentleman who has just started his life in the top social circles of London, eager to form connections with the rich and famous. He finds this quite difficult to begin with, as the whole world of society balls and social intrigue seems quite daunting, but he soon becomes friends with the social lion of the moment, Lord Ruthven, and his status in life rockets sky-high.
Despite the pleas of his family not to get involved with a notorious libertine, Aubrey travels to Greece with Ruthven for a short holiday, where he meets and falls in love with local girl Ianthe.
However, as is the case in so many stories, something is not quite right.
Ianthe tells Aubrey of a hideous creature of near-immortal life, known by the locals as a 'vampyre'. The vampyre is an undead being who feeds upon the blood of the living to satiate his thirst and to carry on living for centuries longer, never getting older. The description that she gives of a typical vampyre is strangely similar to that of his travelling companion, Lord Ruthven. However, Aubrey shrugs this off.
Until the deaths become too regular to be coincidence.
There is a monster loose in the top social circles of Europe. Young girls and women are vanishing without a trace. Nobody is safe, and Aubrey must protect his sister from a dark evil or she may be the next on the list to slake the thirst of a vampyre.
As this is a short story, there is little room for character development, so Polidori just based the characters on people that he knew.
Aubrey is basically Polidori in all his inexperienced and excited youth. A young gentleman looking to make his mark in the strange world of high society, he finds this by becoming befriended by Lord Ruthven, who knows all the society hostesses personally and privately, and knows where to pull all the strings. Aubrey is in for a good time.
However, he cannot but stop and think about the warnings of his family not to get too deeply involved with a known seducer and player of the periodicals. And Ianthe's description of vampyres going for young girls is too good to be true. Should he trust Ruthven? Well, perhaps Aubrey should delay introducing his new friend to his family... especially his younger sister...
Byron. That is basically all that needs to be said to describe the character of Lord Ruthven. Polidori took the poet's licentious tendencies and attacked it in the form of Ruthven1, who had few affairs that were unknown to the public eye - like Byron.
Startlingly good-looking and very charming to be acquainted with, Ruthven uses women for his pleasure, and more often than not, they mysteriously vanish under the cover of night. It seems to Aubrey that Ruthven craves women to sate his flaming libido. However, as he guesses from what Ianthe suggests, that is not the only thing that Ruthven is satiating.
Ianthe is a young Greek girl who Aubrey meets and eventually falls in love with. She is a dreamy girl who loves the countryside, but knows what is good and what is bad. It is she who tells Aubrey the story of the 'vampyre'.
This is why Ianthe tries her best never to go out alone in the dark, but sometimes the best is not enough.
Miss Aubrey is Aubrey's younger sister, and a relatively minor character who pops up at the end of the tale. Polidori was divided between his career and his family, and so the vulnerability of Miss Aubrey reflects Polidori's nature in this way. She is of marrying age, and reveals to Aubrey on his return to England that she is engaged. However, the identity of her fiancé gives Aubrey an unexpected shock when he finally finds out who it is.
Blinded by the flame that lit up the horror genre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Polidori's Vampyre often falls by the wayside, due to its lack of character development and apparent plagiarism of Byron's original Fragment. However, the idea of the vampyre, or vampire, in English literature was first found in this short novella, and was one of the inspirations of Bram Stoker's Dracula in the late 19th Century.