Gregory L. Reece, author of Creatures of the Night, traces the origins of the Gothic novel and the emergence of the vampire in popular culture.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets . . ., rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford with these words and with them sought to evoke the despair and danger of the seedier parts of nineteenth-century London. It was on the dark and stormy night in question that the novel’s eponymous hero, as a child of three, lost his mother and began a life of romance, adventure, crime, punishment, sorrow and pathos worthy of a character from the pages of a Gothic romance.
Indeed, Paul Clifford is a quintessential Gothic romance. It is neither the best nor the worst of the genre, quite popular in its day but now mostly forgotten – mostly forgotten, that is, except for the opening line. ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is one of the best-known opening lines in English literature, parodied by Charles Schulz’ Peanuts (it is the first line of Snoopy’s perpetual novel-in-progress) and commemorated by a contest in its honour, a contest challenging entrants to compose the opening line of the worst imaginable novel.
This notoriety, I suppose, is more than a little unfair to Bulwer-Lytton, who, although the author of a string of forgettable novels – including Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, a hollow-earth science fiction classic influential to Theosophists and Nazis alike – did leave us with such catchphrases as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and ‘the almighty dollar.’ Furthermore, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ despite all of its bad press, isn’t really that bad an opening line. (Neither is Paul Clifford really that bad a novel. It’s bad – just not that bad.) The line suffers mostly from its association with the excesses of Gothic fiction of which it is not the worst, just the most famous example. What the line does for the contemporary reader is to place one in a particular Gothic context. Just as surely as ‘once upon a time’ is a signal that we are about to begin a fairy tale, probably complete with an ending of the ‘happily ever after’ variety, so ‘dark and stormy night’ is a cue that we are about to begin a story with more sinister elements: dark forbidding castles, thunder and lightning, bats and cobwebs, death and murder, terror and all things awful. For as much as the conventions of Gothic fiction, and ‘dark and stormy night’ is certainly one such convention, are satirized and made fun of, they also remain powerful, continuing to evoke the terror we feel, perhaps rooted in our primeval past, at deep darkness and midnight thunderstorms, flashing lightning and howling winds, a sky without moon or stars, a night without sleep.
Lord Byron, dilettante, poet and sex symbol, wrote hymns of praise to such darkness and fury: ‘The sky is changed! – and such a change!’ he wrote of the midnight tempest. His words conjure up the darkness and storm far more profoundly than Bulwer-Lytton’s: ‘From peak to peak, the rattling crags among/Leaps the live thunder!’ It was on such a night of thunderclap and lightning flash that Byron gathered around the hearth with his friends and companions. The summer of 1816 in Geneva was uncharacteristically cold and wet. ‘The year without a summer’ it was called, the sun’s warmth blocked by clouds of volcanic ash spewing from Mount Tambora. It was weather fitted for huddling ‘round the fire with Percy Shelley and the Godwin sisters, reading ghost stories and listening to the rain and thunder late into the dark, dark night. On one dark and stormy night, Lord Byron and his companions perhaps grew bored of seeking spectres in musty old books.
Might not a terror of their own imaginings be more frightening still? It was, of course, from those midnight storms of the summer of 1816 that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (shortly to become Mary Shelley) drew the inspiration for her tale of science gone mad with power, of the patchwork dead man rising from the grave, of lightning and energy from the sky, elemental forces bringing life where there should be none, bringing terror to her companions and to her readers for generations to come. The scene was dramatized by James Whale in his undisputed classic film, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The film opens on that drawing room in Geneva, Mary and Percy and Byron listening to the howling of the wind and the crack of the thunder. With dialogue that might better suit Bulwer-Lytton than the real Lord Byron, the black-and-white Byron speaks, ‘The crudest, savage exhibition of Nature at her worst without, and we three, we elegant three within.’ But Byron knows that all is not elegant in the drawing room; he knows there is savagery there as well, even in Mary who shivers at the sounds of the storm, and he is not so shy that he will not confront her with the truth:
Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark. And yet you have written a tale that sent my blood into icy creeps . . . Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein, a Monster created from cadavers out of rifled graves? . . . And it was these fragile white fingers that penned the nightmare.
Yes, it was from such a lovely brow that the monstrous came. Indeed, as the audience will later learn, it is the stunning Elsa Lanchester – her Mary Shelley more beautiful on film than in real life (in this sense the opposite of Gavin Gordon’s Lord Byron) – who will play the bride of the monster, the she-creature brought forth by the tempest. Mary, showing but a glimpse of the power that is within her, is puzzled by Byron’s remarks. She might shiver at the storm, but she does not shiver at the horror that came from her imagination: ‘I feel like telling it,’ she replies. ‘It is a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.’ Then Lord Byron speaks words that send shivers down the spine. ‘I’m all ears,’ he says. ‘While heaven blasts the night without, open up your pits of hell.’ Mary Shelley’s story is, of course, the story of her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, a tale of dismembered corpses and mad science, a tale of life from death, a tale perfect for such a dark and stormy night. But Mary was not the only one to produce a tale of horror during that summer of darkness, though hers is certainly the most famous. Those gathered around the fire with Lord Byron included Percy Shelley, Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori. They were all challenged to produce a tale of terror as dark as the storm-clouded evening. Mary’s would be the most influential and the most celebrated nightmare begun that night, but another tale would see publication first and would have a lasting impact all of its own.
This tale appeared in the April 1819 issues of the periodical New Monthly Magazine, falsely attributed to Lord Byron. It was influenced by an unpublished and unfinished piece by Byron, and Byron was clearly the model for the title character, but the tale was actually written by Dr. Polidori. The story was The Vampyre, and within its pages one can find the genesis of the modern vampire, the charming aristocrat rife with sexual energy and dark allure, as well as the template for all later vampire fiction, from Dracula to the Twilight series, a template distinguished by themes of dark sexuality and of blood.
Enter Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven:
His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention. In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions, and gain, at least, some marks of what they might term affection. (27)
Ruthven was the toast of society precisely because of his seeming lack of interest. His allure was found in his mystery, in his inscrutable nature. He aroused the passion of London’s women, not because of the lavish attention and flirtation that he heaped upon them, but because of the absence of these very things. There was something dark about Lord Ruthven, something unnerving about his cold demeanor, and it was this dark frigidity that drew people to him.
Among those entranced by the mystery of Ruthven was Aubrey, a young man of just the right age to be enamored with the worldliness of Ruthven. Arranging to travel with Ruthven in order to complete his education, Aubrey discovered that the secrets of Lord Ruthven went deeper than his surface appearance. Wherever Ruthven traveled he sought out the darker corners of society, the gambling halls and barrooms, and left a path of destruction in his wake. Ruthven encouraged the success of those already walking the path of evil and darkness and he tempted the young and the innocent into dangerous waters.
[H]is eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse. In every town, he left the formerly affluent youth, torn from the circle he adorned, cursing, in the solitude of a dungeon, the fate that had drawn him within the reach of this fiend; whilst many a father sat frantic, amidst the speaking looks of mute hungry children, without a single farthing of his late immense wealth, wherewith to buy even sufficient to satisfy their present craving. (35)
Aubrey watched as Ruthven turned seemingly worthy beggars away empty handed while he gladly shared his wealth with those who sought only wickedness.
As if this was not enough to reveal the true character of Ruthven to young Aubrey, he soon received letters from London with disturbing news. It seems that Ruthven, while rejecting the advances of the most wanton women of London society, had instead focused his attention on befouling those of pure character. Upon his departure from London it was discovered that he had seduced many innocent girls. Soon, Aubrey witnessed Ruthven’s seduction of the innocent first-hand, and decided to part from his company.
While traveling alone in Greece, Aubrey became enchanted with the daughter of the innkeeper with whom he was staying. The girl, Ianthe, warned Aubrey of the vampires that haunted the region, a warning that he chose to ignore. One evening, after the sun had set, Aubrey heard a woman’s scream coming from a small structure in the forest. He ran to help, but was assaulted by an unseen attacker. Frightened by the approach of others who heard the screams, Aubrey’s assailant fled. Unfortunately, Aubrey had been too late to save the vampire’s victim, Ianthe. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: – upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein: – to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, ‘A Vampyre! a Vampyre!’ (48)
Still not aware that Ruthven was the culprit, Aubrey joined him again briefly before their partnership was shattered by thieves who murdered the older man. Before his passing, however, Ruthven secured a vow from Aubrey that his death would not be reported to his friends and acquaintances in England. Aubrey, not understanding, nevertheless made the vow of secrecy. Before Aubrey could bury the corpse, he discovered that Ruthven had made arrangements for his servants to place the body at the top of a nearby mountain so that ‘it should be exposed to the first cold ray of the moon that rose after his death’ (56). When Aubrey went to find the body and prepare it for burial, he discovered that it had mysteriously disappeared.
Aubrey returned to London with his sanity in tatters. Locked away by his family, he was only released to attend his sister’s wedding. Shocked to discover that she was marrying none other than Lord Ruthven, he tried to stop the ceremony, but was dragged from the room and taken back to his quarters, his rage and terror resulting in a brain haemorrhage. It did not take the end long to come.
Aubrey’s weakness increased; the effusion of blood produced symptoms of the near approach of death. He desired his sister’s guardians might be called, and when the midnight hour had struck, he related composedly what the reader has perused – he died immediately after. The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE! (71)
Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the first modern vampire and the grandfather of so many vampires to come, thus established important features of the vampire story. The vampire rises from the dead and drinks the blood of others, elements derived from folklore and mythology. But the modern vampire is also a playboy and socialite, the toast of society, a suave seducer of women.
Filmmaker Ken Russell dramatized that dark and stormy Geneva night, and the dark and stormy nature of Byron’s personality, in his 1986 film Gothic, a film that revels in the dark, sinister and macabre aspects of Byron’s sexuality. Natasha Richardson played a once-again too beautiful Mary Shelley alongside Gabriel Byrne’s vampiric and sexually threatening Byron. Over the course of the strange night – a night haunted by the demons of opium, lust and unbridled imagination – Byron and his guests conjure up dark forces that threaten their very sanity. Their imagination, in the words of Julian Sands as Percy Shelley, gave life to ‘a creature, a creation, a jigsaw of all our worst fears in flesh and blood.’ The creature of the night, taking varied forms and shapes for each member of the party, is at its heart Byron himself, his seductive allure claiming not only Mary’s stepsister Claire but Percy and Polidori as well. In Russell’s film Shelley is a vampire, asking Mary, ‘would the smooth neck of a woman be so desirable were it not for our secret wish to see upon it a trickle of blood?’
Polidori’s tale of Ruthven, Russell’s movie seems to say, may be truer than we imagine. Lord Byron provided the germ of the story that Polidori completed, but he did much more than that. He provided the pattern of the vampire, the handsome, exotic, mysterious man of the world, a sexual predator as much as a drinker of blood. Bela Lugosi in evening dress and cape, Gary Oldman with top hat and cane, Robert Pattinson as Edward in t-shirt and denim jacket were each in their own way playing Lord Byron when they put on the fangs for the movie cameras. Thanks to Byron, and Polidori and Ruthven, the modern vampire is a creature as at home in the drawing room as in the crypt, a creature that combines death with sexuality, the pounding heart of fear with the pounding heart of desire. ■