The fictional vampire may have made his debut at the Algonquin Round Table, but he flourished alongside the cave-dwelling cannibals and homicidal maniacs who introduced the British working class to the magic of reading. The 1845-1847 penny dreadful Varney the Vampire was penned by none other than James Malcolm Rymer, who created the character Sweeney Todd. Victorian Gothic writes:
James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire has been described as the worst book of the 19th century. Introduced in 1845, the completed serial consists of over 600,000 words of tedious dialog, aimlessly meandering storylines, maddening repetition, and enough kernels of genius to consistently inspire horror fiction into the present day. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Russell T. Davies and Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau are just some of the writers and filmmakers who have been indebted to concepts originated in the pages of Varney, making it easily the most influential vampire story that nobody reads.
The first full-length work of vampire fiction, Varney appeared in the penny press some 36 years after the original short story sketches by Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and decades before J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). It can thus be conceived of as a transitional work, expanding upon some of the ideas of its predecessors while introducing many familiar tropes that were soon be canonized into the genre, but along the way it also explored themes that were way ahead of their time.
James Malcolm Rymer’s Vampire
Like the lordly vampires that came before him, Sir Francis Varney carries off an aristocratic deportment that is partially the product of his extreme age and experience. He is a master Svengali, able to deftly manipulate the families of his intended victims, but is not at all handsome or seductive. He is described as having a long nose, sallow complexion, protruding fangs, extended fingernails, and uncanny tin eyes; features that would form the basis for Count Orlock in the 1922 film Nosferatu.
He feedings are slapdash, nocturnal assaults during which his victims scream bloody murder as they wake to find him gnawing upon their arms and necks. More often than not, he is forced to flee as angry friends and relatives storm into the bed chamber and inevitably discover him for what he is. Where Dracula was wolfish and Carmilla feline, Varney the Vampire is more like a rat.
As a vampire he is endowed with some additional strength, agility and a limited ability to fascinate with his gaze. He is not vulnerable to sunlight, or garlic, or crosses, but hardly needs to be, as he can be he felled by any of the ordinary devices that would harm a mere mortal. Following Byron, Polidori, and the folklore they drew upon, Varney’s immortality consists not in any physical invulnerability, but in his body’s ability to regenerate beneath the light of the moon. Throughout the story, Varney is shot, drowned, or otherwise “killed,” only to wake up later on some seashore or in a charnel house where the moon’s rays have finally found him.
[Full Article at Victorian Gothic]
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