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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Gregory L. Reece, the author of “Creatures of the Night,” explores the beginnings of the Gothic novel and the rise of vampires in mainstream culture.

Dark and stormy night
Dark and stormy night.

On a stormy night, rain poured relentlessly, occasionally interrupted by strong gusts of wind that raced through the streets. The wind rattled the rooftops and vigorously stirred the feeble flame of the lamps, desperately fighting against the encroaching darkness.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

Introduction to Paul Clifford: A Gothic Tale of Nineteenth-Century London

Edward Bulwer-Lytton commenced his novel “Paul Clifford” with the famous words, “It was a dark and stormy night,” aiming to capture the bleak atmosphere of the less savory parts of 19th-century London. This ominous night marked the beginning of the protagonist’s, Paul Clifford, tumultuous journey—a life filled with romance, adventure, crime, punishment, sorrow, and pathos reminiscent of a Gothic romance character. While “Paul Clifford” may not stand out as the best or worst in its genre, it was once widely popular, though it has faded from contemporary memory, except for its iconic opening line.

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The Enduring Legacy of “It was a dark and stormy night”

The novel’s opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” has transcended the novel itself, becoming one of the most recognizable in English literature. Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” immortalized it as the first line of Snoopy’s perpetual novel-in-progress. Additionally, it sparked a contest challenging participants to craft the opening line of the worst conceivable novel, contributing to the enduring legacy of Bulwer-Lytton’s evocative introduction.

The notoriety surrounding “It was a dark and stormy night” may be somewhat unjust to Bulwer-Lytton. While he authored several forgettable novels, including the influential yet controversial “Vril: The Power of the Coming Race,” which fascinated Theosophists and Nazis, he did contribute enduring catchphrases like ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and ‘the almighty dollar.’ Despite the criticism, the opening line itself isn’t inherently bad, nor is “Paul Clifford” as a novel as terrible as its reputation suggests.

The line’s perceived shortcomings stem largely from its association with the Gothic fiction excesses, where it stands out as the most famous example, though not the worst. In contemporary reading, “It was a dark and stormy night” serves as a signal, placing the reader firmly within a Gothic context. Similar to ‘once upon a time’ signaling a fairy tale, this phrase cues readers to expect a story with darker elements – foreboding castles, thunderstorms, bats, cobwebs, death, murder, and an atmosphere of terror. Despite the satirical treatment of Gothic fiction conventions, including the infamous line, they retain a potent effect, tapping into our primal fears of deep darkness, midnight thunderstorms, lightning, and howling winds, creating a visceral response to a night devoid of moon or stars and sleepless anticipation.

Byron’s Embrace of Darkness and Fury

Lord Byron, known for his multifaceted persona as a dilettante, poet, and sex symbol, expressed admiration for darkness and fury in his hymns of praise. In contrast to Bulwer-Lytton, Byron’s poetic prowess vividly captured the transformative nature of a midnight tempest. Describing the altered sky during a storm, Byron’s words resonate more deeply, depicting the live thunder leaping among rattling crags.

During the summer of 1816 in Geneva, Byron and his companions experienced an extraordinary season known as ‘the year without a summer.’ Uncharacteristically cold and wet, this climate was a consequence of volcanic ash from Mount Tambora blocking the sun’s warmth. As they huddled around the hearth with Percy Shelley and the Godwin sisters, the group found solace in the inclement weather. Engaging in the atmospheric setting, they read ghost stories and embraced the sound of rain and thunder deep into the dark, stormy night.

On one particularly dark and stormy night, it’s conceivable that Lord Byron and his companions gathered around the fire and grew weary of exploring specters solely within the pages of musty old books.

Unleashing Imagined Terrors: Mary Shelley’s Inspiration

The terror spawned from one’s own imagination can prove more horrifying than external threats. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley, found inspiration during the midnight storms of the summer of 1816. Her resulting tale delved into the perils of science wielding unchecked power – a narrative featuring a resurrected, patchwork dead man, brought to life by lightning and celestial energy. These elemental forces, defying the natural order, instilled terror not only in her companions during that fateful summer but also in readers for generations to come.

From Stormy Nights to Cinematic Chills: “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

James Whale immortalized Mary Shelley’s atmospheric genesis in his acclaimed film, “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). The opening scene unfolds in the Geneva drawing room, with Mary, Percy, and Byron immersed in the howling wind and thunder cracks. Byron’s dialogue, reminiscent of Bulwer-Lytton, paints a vivid picture: ‘The crudest, savage exhibition of Nature at her worst without, and we three, we elegant three within.’ However, Byron acknowledges the lurking savagery within the drawing room, addressing Mary’s shivers at the storm’s sounds. Unhesitant to confront her with the truth, Byron sets the stage for a cinematic journey into the elegant yet savage depths of human nature.

Despite your fear of thunder and darkness, it’s astonishing that such a mild and beautiful countenance could conceive the chilling tale of Frankenstein. Can you fathom that these delicate and fair fingers crafted the nightmare, giving life to the monstrous creation formed from corpses stolen from violated graves?

Emerging from the enchanting countenance of Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed Mary Shelley with more cinematic beauty than her real-life self, the monstrous tale unfolds. Lanchester, unlike Gavin Gordon’s portrayal of Lord Byron, embodies the stunning bride of the monster, a she-creature brought to life by the tempestuous narrative.

A Night of Mystery and Horror: Mary Shelley’s Unveiling Power

Puzzled by Byron’s remarks, Mary, displaying a fraction of her latent power, responds confidently. Despite her shivers at the storm, she remains unfazed by the horror emanating from her imagination. “I feel like telling it,” she declares, recognizing the perfect ambiance for mystery and horror as the air itself teems with monstrous possibilities. Byron’s spine-chilling words follow, “I’m all ears. While heaven blasts the night without, open up your pits of hell.” Mary Shelley’s narrative, The Tale of “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus,” unfolds—a story of dismembered corpses, mad science, and the creation of life from death—perfect for the dark and stormy night.

Beyond Mary’s influential nightmare that began that fateful night, others gathered around the fire with Lord Byron also faced the challenge of weaving tales as dark as the storm-clouded evening. Among them were Percy Shelley, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori. While Mary’s “Frankenstein” would become the most celebrated and influential, another tale, produced during that summer of darkness, would see publication first, leaving a lasting impact of its own.

Percy, Mary, and Byron are the three famous writers who were part of the Romantic movement in the early 19th century.

In the April 1819 editions of the New Monthly Magazine, a narrative emerged falsely credited to Lord Byron. Although influenced by an unpublished and incomplete work by Byron, with the title character clearly modeled after him, the actual author was Dr. Polidori. The tale, known as “The Vampyre,” was the progenitor of the modern vampire archetype—a charismatic aristocrat brimming with sexual energy and dark allure. This narrative laid the foundation for all subsequent vampire fiction, spanning from “Dracula” to the “Twilight” series. The template it established is marked by themes of dark sexuality and the consumption of blood.

Enter Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven

Lord Ruthven’s idiosyncrasies made him a sought-after guest in every household; everyone desired to have him, especially those grappling with the burden of ennui after experiencing intense excitement. Despite the deathly pallor of his complexion, which never warmed with the flush of modesty or the fervor of passion, his facial features remained beautiful. Despite lacking a more vibrant hue, numerous women seeking attention and yearning for notoriety attempted to captivate him and extract what they considered affection.

Ruthven became society’s favorite precisely because of his apparent disinterest. His enigmatic nature and mysterious aura were the sources of his allure. The passion of London’s women for him did not stem from extravagant attention or flirtation; instead, it arose from the absence of such actions. Lord Ruthven’s charm lay in his inscrutability, in the unsettling coldness of his demeanor. It was this dark and frigid quality that attracted people to him.

Captivated by the enigma surrounding Lord Ruthven, Aubrey, a young man drawn to the allure of worldliness, arranged to accompany Ruthven for his education. However, Aubrey soon discovered that the mysteries surrounding Lord Ruthven extended far beyond his outward demeanor. Ruthven’s travels led him to the shadowy realms of society, including gambling halls and barrooms, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. Ruthven not only fueled the malevolent endeavors of those already on the path of darkness but also enticed the young and innocent into perilous waters.

Ruthven’s Malevolence Unleashed: A Trail of Ruin

With eyes gleaming more fiercely than a cat toying with a half-dead mouse, Ruthven’s influence was marked by a destructive presence. In every town he visited, he left once-affluent youth torn from their social circles, languishing in dungeons and cursing the fate that had intertwined their lives with this malevolent figure. Meanwhile, fathers found themselves desperate amidst the pleading looks of hungry children, devoid of the immense wealth they once possessed, now unable even to afford the basic necessities to appease their immediate hunger.

Aubrey observed Ruthven callously turning away seemingly deserving beggars, while willingly sharing his wealth with those inclined towards wickedness.

If these actions were insufficient to unmask Ruthven’s true nature for young Aubrey, alarming news arrived in letters from London. Despite rejecting advances from the most promiscuous women in London’s society, Ruthven had instead targeted those of virtuous character. Upon leaving London, it was revealed that he had seduced numerous innocent girls. Witnessing Ruthven’s seduction of the pure firsthand, Aubrey decided to sever ties with his company.

Aubrey’s Tragic Encounter: Vampiric Horrors Unveiled in Greece

While traversing Greece alone, Aubrey found himself captivated by the innkeeper’s daughter, Ianthe. Despite her warning about the vampires that plagued the region, Aubrey dismissed it. One evening, after sunset, he heard a woman’s scream emanating from a small structure in the forest. Rushing to assist, Aubrey was attacked by an unseen assailant. Fearing the arrival of others alerted by the screams, the attacker fled. Regrettably, Aubrey arrived too late to rescue Ianthe, the vampire’s victim. Hoping it was a mere product of his disturbed imagination, he shut his eyes, only to find the lifeless form beside him upon reopening them. Though devoid of color, a serene stillness lingered on her face. Blood adorned her neck and breast, with marks of teeth revealing the opening of a vein. As onlookers recoiled in horror, the word “Vampyre” echoed simultaneously from their lips.

Ruthven’s Cryptic Demise And Aubrey’s Disconcerting Ordeal

Unaware that Ruthven was the perpetrator, Aubrey briefly reunited with him before their partnership was abruptly ended by thieves who murdered the older man. Prior to his demise, Ruthven extracted a promise from Aubrey not to disclose his death to friends and acquaintances in England. Though Aubrey didn’t comprehend the request, he nonetheless swore to keep it a secret. As Aubrey prepared to bury the corpse, he learned that Ruthven had arranged for his servants to place the body atop a nearby mountain, exposed to the first cold moonlight after death. However, when Aubrey sought the body for burial, it had mysteriously vanished.

Returning to London with his sanity shattered, Aubrey was confined by his family and released only to attend his sister’s wedding. To his shock, he discovered she was marrying none other than Lord Ruthven. Attempting to halt the ceremony, Aubrey was forcibly removed from the room and taken back to his quarters. Overwhelmed by rage and terror, he suffered a brain hemorrhage, and his end came swiftly.

Aubrey’s Demise: Lord Ruthven’s Legacy and the Birth of the Modern Vampire

As Aubrey’s strength waned, the loss of blood signaled the imminence of death. Calling for his sister’s guardians, he calmly recounted the harrowing tale that readers have just perused, passing away soon after. Despite the guardians rushing to protect Miss Aubrey, they arrived too late. Lord Ruthven had vanished, and Aubrey’s sister had become the victim of a Vampyre’s insatiable thirst.

In creating Lord Ruthven, John Polidori laid the foundation for the modern vampire, influencing countless depictions in the genre. This vampiric archetype inherits traits from folklore and mythology, rising from the dead and consuming the blood of others. However, Polidori’s innovation goes beyond the supernatural, presenting the vampire as a charismatic playboy and socialite, a debonair seducer of women who becomes the toast of society.

Ken Russell’s Gothic Vision: Lord Byron’s Dark Night Unveiled on Film

In his 1986 film “Gothic,” director Ken Russell vividly brings to life the dark and stormy night in Geneva, illuminating the sinister facets of Lord Byron’s personality. Natasha Richardson portrays the captivating Mary Shelley, while Gabriel Byrne embodies the vampiric and sexually menacing Byron. Against the backdrop of a night haunted by opium-induced demons, lust, and unbridled imagination, Byron and his guests conjure dark forces that jeopardize their sanity. In Julian Sands’ portrayal of Percy Shelley, their collective imagination gives rise to a creature embodying their deepest fears in flesh and blood.

Byron’s Influence On The Modern Vampire Archetype

Russell’s film suggests that Polidori’s tale of Ruthven might be more accurate than initially thought. While Byron contributed the initial idea, he went beyond that, shaping the archetype of the vampire. This portrayal features an alluring, exotic, and mysterious man of the world, embodying not only a blood drinker but also a sexual predator. The film contends that iconic vampire depictions, from Bela Lugosi in evening dress and cape to Gary Oldman with top hat and cane, and Robert Pattinson in contemporary attire, are, in essence, interpretations of Lord Byron. Thanks to Byron, Polidori, and Ruthven, the modern vampire seamlessly navigates between the drawing room and the crypt, blending death with sexuality and the heart of fear with the heart of desire.

Also Read: Champagne and Shrapnel

Prakriti Paudel
Prakriti Paudel
Prakriti Paudel, a meticulous editor and insightful writer, navigates the realms of storytelling with precision and creativity.

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    Prakriti's dedication to editorial excellence and storytelling craftsmanship is evident in her contributions to The Ibtauris Blog.Her multifaceted role as both editor and writer plays a vital role in shaping the platform's success and reputation as a trusted source of engaging storytelling.



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