12th December 2016 | Michelle Mackie.
Today, the vampire figure has become ingrained in popular consciousness in various incarnations. We have the glittering “vegetarian” vampire in Twilight (2008), the depiction of vampirism as addiction in Interview with the Vampire (1994) and The Lost Boys (1987), as well as the inhuman demons depicted in films like the Blade trilogy (1998-2004) and the Underworld (2003-present) franchise. Neither is there a lack of vampire parody, with the recent mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) being a particularly good example. The figure of the vampire has long roots and traditions, though some would argue that the vampire in its most recognisable manifestation was created by Bram Stoker in Count Dracula himself. Dracula is often conceived of as founding the vampire genre, and so many are unaware of which works influenced its creation. These works are significant, yet they remain on the fringes and are not widely known, taught or published. Let me, therefore, introduce you to Varney the Vampire.
Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer is a Victorian pulp fiction serial which has been described as the ‘most influential vampire story that nobody reads’ (Victorian Gothic 2012). It was published between 1845-1847, decades before Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1872) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the two vampire stories that are traditionally seen as the most influential in the genre. Although undoubtedly intended to shock and horrify its readers, today its depiction of the Eastern-European aristocratic vampire Sir Francis Varney almost seems laughably hyperbolic. Moreover, its dialogue is positively melodramatic. As with much other serialised Victorian fiction, Rymer was paid to fill columns and pages, and as a result, quality suffered. However, it proved quite popular, and a play was put on stage in London during its run. The first description of the vampire in the serial contains many features which are recognisable today, but which were novel at the time:
“The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon the face. It is perfectly white—perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth—the fearful looking teeth—projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends. No sound comes from its lips. Is she going mad—that young and beautiful girl exposed to so much terror? she has drawn up all her limbs; she cannot even now say help”.
Over the course of his more than 200 adventures, Varney feeds off virgins, is almost tricked into marriage, conspires to marry a succession of women (before his plot is exposed at the last moment), is hunted by a mob and chased across the rooftops of London, infiltrates a monastery, tries to be a hero, apologises to his victims, ruthlessly murders, commits robbery, suffers an existential crisis and eventually, concluding the series, throws himself into Mt Vesuvius. Varney also dies and is resurrected on multiple occasions, is impervious to sunlight and is regenerated by the moonlight. If there ever was a vampire, it was Varney.
Varney the Vampire establishes many of the tropes of the vampire genre that are still present today. Rymer drew on material in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), but his is the first vampire who is Eastern European, leaves puncture marks on his victim’s neck, has action centered around graveyards, and has superhuman powers. Although he is adept at disguise, he cannot shapeshift. Later vampiric inventions (not present in Varney) also include vulnerability to crosses, garlic, and stakes to the heart. His immunity to sunlight had somewhat of a reinvention in Twilight, and his characterisation as a sympathetic figure became an archetype in the late twentieth century with novels such as Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.
The story of Varney was continually reinventing itself over its long run. At times Varney is presented as comedic figure, while at others he is downright tragic. Because of this, he is a complex but enigmatic figure, much more so than Count Dracula. Varney the Vampire is, thus, an example of popular fiction that did not enter the canon, yet has had lasting effects on the genre. James Malcolm Rymer is also the author of the Sweeney Todd penny dreadful; it has retained popularity and become urban legend, so why can’t Varney reclaim some fame? The enduring popularity of the vampire in popular culture means that it will likely continue to evolve and develop in new directions. Readers should all look back and acknowledge Varney the Vampire’s contribution to the vampire genre and, perhaps, he will continue to inspire new takes on this classic myth.
About Michelle Mackie
Michelle is studying for an MSc in ‘Literature and Society’ at the University of Edinburgh, where she also did her undergraduate degree. She is primarily interested in Victorian supernatural fiction, but has a soft spot for Renaissance drama. She likes writing cultural reviews and copy editing for The Student newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter @mackiem6 and on LinkedIn.
Article edited by Aran Ward Sell, Scheherazade Khan, Sarah Giblin, and Matthew Tibble.
Image 1: Original title cover: Public Domain, Wikipedia
Image 2: Count Orlok ascending the staircase in Nosferatu (1922): Wikipedia.
Frayling, Peter. Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella. Thames and Hudson, 2016.
‘Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood’. Victorian Gothic, 1 March 2012, http://www.victoriangothic.org/varney-the-vampire-or-the-feast-of-blood/. Accessed 04 Dec 2016.