There is a new vampire movie in town called Twilight . Twilight is built on a best-selling novel featuring a forbidden love between a mortal girl, Bella, and an immortal vampire, Edward (1). Like Angel in the series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , the vampire-boy Edward is haunted by his own immortality and ‘stuck between two worlds’. Edward is the newest (and perhaps cleanest) of the breed that I would call the ‘good vampires’: he is an innocent as he has inherited his vampirism from his parents and, to top it all, avoids drinking human blood at all costs. His image made me think of the tendency in today’s pop culture to portray romantic, good vampires. Coppola’s Dracula , vampire Louis in Interview with the Vampire or Buffy ’s Angel immediately spring to mind. This led me to wonder: what is the prototype of the ‘good vampire’? To find out, I thought to go back to the source of modern vampire stories. At the end of the line I re-discovered one legendary summer night back in 1816.
On a dark and stormy night in Switzerland, a few illustrious friends met at Lord Byron’s Villa Dorati (2). Amongst the invitees the most well known were Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley; a less famous character was Dr. Polidori. Lord Byron came up with the idea of a contest: each should write their own supernatural tale. Out of this competition originated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein . Yet, there was a second book that today is almost forgotten: Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre . It is ironic that one rainy night could spawn two major twentieth century pop myths: Frankenstein and the Vampire (later called Dracula).
It might be worth to add that the two characters are quite morally opposite. Where Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein is a well-intended, if misguided, man whose thirst for knowledge ends up creating a monster, Polidori’s vampire is a monster that hides behind the image of a well-intended man. Is it perhaps that the ‘good vampire’ myth comes from Shelley’s Frankenstein ? There are connections between the figures, but the vampire is not a Frankenstein-like man of science: he is usually portrayed as an aristocrat. Perhaps I should go deeper in analyzing Polidori’s vampire.
The Vampyre ’s villain, Lord Ruthven, just as the later Count Dracula, is a refined, magnetic gentleman who mesmerizes everyone in his presence (3). Underneath this polished appearance, however, rests a predatory vampire that feeds on the living.
This now classical image of the vampire appears as a strange combination of folklore and culture. In folklore the vampire is little more than a monster, who comes back from the grave to suck the blood of the living (4). Yet Polidori’s vampire is something totally different: a sophisticated aristocrat that only incidentally sleeps in a grave. How did such a mutation come about?
Many suggest that the prototype of Lord Ruthven is Lord Byron himself (5). At the same time, we should not forget that Polidori was writing his work in an era when the concept of the Immortal had been introduced in literature by the seminal book of William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s father), St. Leon .
The novel features a charismatic nobleman, St Leon, who acquires the alchemical elixir of life from a mysterious man, Zampieri. St Leon is a benevolent gentleman whose ultimate motive is to aid mankind, but ends up being tortured by the curse of immortal life (6). It is the idea of obsessing with immortality that Godwin condemns, not St Leon himself. Yet, in writing his novel, Godwin establishes the literary image of the ‘cursed immortal’, the wanderer who can find no peace. The prototype was almost immediately taken up by Percy Shelley, Godwin’s son-in-law, who published an almost copycat version called St Irvyne or the Rosicrucian (7). Here, again, we have the noble gentleman, Wolfstein, that is offered promise of eternal life by a mysterious Italian called Ginotti. Yet Shelley’s version is conspicuously darker: Ginotti obtains the elixir from the Devil himself, and in a dramatic ending, the noble Wolfstein is burned to ashes while Ginotti loses his mind.
I don’t know that Polidori had read Godwin and Shelley, but I think this is very likely. Roberts has also briefly pointed out the association between Polidori’s Vampire and the immortal plot (8). In any case, the figure of the lone and aristocratic immortal, who wanders around the earth because of his cursed immortality, has definite affinities with Lord Ruthven and Count Dracula. Yet in Polidori’s work the lone aristocrat is combined with the evil figure of the ‘mystery stranger’ (Zampieri or Ginotti) and hence becomes a two-faced villain. By comparison, both Godwin and Shelley seem to regard the noble figure with certain sympathy: St Leon, after all, only errs on the side of our humanity, who is obsessed with youth and immortality. There is, in fact, strange actuality to St Leon and Wolfstein’s conundrum, which prompts the question: if someone offered you the gift of eternal life, wouldn’t you take it?
It is this sympathetic image of the immortal to which, I think, we can compare the current ‘good vampire’ motif, rather than Polidori’s and Stoker’s vilification. Polidori, of course, provided the vampire prototype; but Coppola’s Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ’s Angel and Twilight ’s Edward are more akin to Godwin’s unfortunate St Leon than to the evil Lord Ruthven. They are all ‘cursed immortals’ that pay the price of their immortality.
Since I am at it, I would like to further explore how Godwin’s St Leon inspired itself in the ambiguous image of the alchemist and particularly in the image of the mysterious Count of St Germain. Next.
(1) Lady N1. (2008). Plot Summary for Twilight. Online. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1099212/plotsummary . Accessed on 14 December 2008.
(2) Wikipedia . (2008). The Vampyre. Online. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vampyre . Accessed on 14 December 2008.
(3) Polidori, J.W. (1819). The Vampyre . Online. Available at: http://books.google.com/books/p/pub-4297897631756504?id=k1VY81IOnpUC&dq=isbn:1605065692 . Accessed on 14 December 2008.
(4) For instance, Murgoci, A. (1926). The Vampire in Romania. Folklore 7 (4), pp. 320-349.
(5) Switzer, R. (1955). Lord Ruthven and Vampires. The French Review 29 (2), pp. 107-112.
(6) Godwin, W. (1799). St Leon . London: Spottiswoode.
(7) Shelley, P.B. (1811). St Irvyne or the Rosicrucian . Kessinger.
(8) Roberts, M. (1990). Gothic Immortals . London: Routledge.