In previous posts, we have been revising the concepts of horror and terror, this time we are going to review those concepts in a literary text. My suggestion was to read The Vampyre, a tale written by John William Polidori.
✶ John Polidori
John Polidori was Lord Byron’s doctor. Polidori started to write The Vampyre on that legendary night that allowed Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, in 1816. The main inspiration for constructing Lord Ruthven was the well- known poet Lord Byron.
“The Vampyre” came before than Dracula, it is known as one of the first vampire tales in English literature. Previously, vampires had been only dirty ragged characters from folkloric tales. It was published for the first time in April 1819 in New Monthly Magazine.
At first, critics believed that “The Vampyre” was Lord Byron’s works, but afterwards, some critics recognized that it could be understood as a satire of his public image. These controversies generated serious conflicts between Polidori and Byron.
⋆ The Uncanny
For horror and terror to be effective, it is necessary to consider some devices to produce the desired effect. We must remember that according to Ann Radcliffe, terror paralyses while horror allows us to move and act. As we are going to see here, one of the devices that produce terror in “The Vampyre” is the uncanny.
The uncanny is a concept presented by Sigmund Freud in his essay “The Uncanny”, that can be used as a literary source, in this case, to produce terror, as it mainly consists in a terrifying experience, which leads us to remember something that was supposed to be forgotten or unknown for so long. It can also be understood as a hidden secret that comes to life. Some situations that may produce an uncanny experience are lost, wonder and constant involuntary repetition. For example, the characters of a novel can experience confusion when they face a situation that makes them feel as they had already lived it. Therefore, uncanny is when the double (soul and body) is a vision of terror.
✶ Be aware for now you will find spoilers ahead! ✶
Terror, Uncanny and “The Vampyre”
“The Vampyre” is a short story that tells the adventure of a wealthy gentleman, Aubrey, who meets a charming mystery man, Lord Ruthven. They decided to travel together, but when Aubrey notices that Lord Ruthven usually seduces women of a mutual acquaintance, he decides to travel alone to Greek and leaves back the womanizer.
In Greece, Aubrey meets a woman with whom he fells in love, Ianthe. She believes in vampires and tells him about those stories, but Aubrey does not believe in them. After some time, Ianthe is murdered by a vampire, and the main character starts believing those tales. Later on, Aubrey decides to travel again with Lord Ruthven and they are attacked by a group of bandits in the road. Lord Ruthven is killed but before passing away, he makes Aubrey promise him not to speak about his death for a year and a day.
As the story goes on, Aubrey follows the promise, but to his terror, he discovers that the lord is alive. When both friends meet, Lord Ruthven remembers Aubrey to keep the promise. Unfortunately, Lord Ruthven has been seducing Aubrey´s sister and they both are going to marry the day the promise ended. That day Aubrey realizes that Lord Ruthven is a vampire, he suffers a mental breakdown, tries to inform his sister about the vampire by sending her a letter before dying. But it is too late. When the letter arrives her sister lies dead, bloodless, killed by a vampire.
Polidori’s work is a clear example of the uncanny defined by Freud, the main plot spins around the secret that is hidden by a long-known character Lord Ruthven. When his vampirism comes to light, Lord Ruthven becomes a stranger to the reader and Aubrey. This revelation is given by a series of unanny sources that produce terror. One of these devices is the constant repetition of the same events through the narrative. Wherever Aubrey goes and meets a woman, she passes away by being murdered by a vampire. Dead is a recurrent repetition which leads to terror, especially when Aubrey realizes that his friend is a vampire. Terror is related with the uncanny, as Freud wrote:
“the subject of the “uncanny” undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible- to all arouses dread and creeping horror” (1).
In “The Vampyre”, when Aubrey realises that Lord Ruthven is a vampire and he is going to marry his sister, he is paralyzed of horror:
“Night passed on without rest to the busy inmates of the house; and Aubrey heard, with a horror that may more easily be conceived than described, the noises of busy preparations” (32).
Now, despite Polidori uses the word “horror” instead of “terror”, if we follow Ann Radcliffe’s distinction, it seems that Aubrey’s reaction seems more likely to be produced by terror rather than horror, for he is paralyzed and is a victim of a mental breakdown. But, at the same time, we can follow the literal significance of horror, for it produces delight in readers, and Aubrey sends his sister a letter to warn her.
The supernatural is also present in the story, being another source for allowing this terror- horror experience. The promise that Lord Ruthven asks Aubrey to keep shows supernatural functioning as a veil to cover something unexpected: his friend is not dead but is a monster instead. The explanation of the promise comes little by little, and the main character keeps it until the very end but when he can reveal the truth it is too late.
The story has an atmosphere of uncertainty which allows the uncanny sensations. By avoiding any definitive information on vampires, the reader is introduced to their existence almost in the middle of the story by Ianthe. At such time, Lord Ruthven is an already familiar character by the reader so there is no suspicion or possibility for the reader to judge him as a vampire. Ianthe is believed to have been murdered by a different character.
In this story, the villain is a vampire, a supernatural agent that was transformed by Polidori from the original folk where vampires were seen and described as a dead person returning to life which sucked blood; to an aristocrat handsome man with the same bloodsucking qualities but beautiful, not as a physical source of horror, Lord Ruthven is described the following way:
“His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him … 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 it is form and outline were beautiful, many of females hunted after him to win his attention” (15).
As it is possible to see in the quotation mentioned above, Lord Ruthven could be easily perceived as any charming human. But this is an uncanny character, at the beginning of the story he is presented as a good gentleman, he seems to be well-know, but only from the distance. But as we get to know more about him as the tale goes he becomes unfamiliar, and in the end when his vampirism is discovered, he becomes a source of horror and terror.
Polidori’s tale “The Vampyre” has elements that produce the uncanny experience by using the following sources that are present in the narrative: there is a constant involuntary repetition of actions, a supernatural and uncanny character. Those devices allow readers and characters to experience terror and horror.
In addition, it is important to consider that the vampire legend before Polidori’s work was not seen as a topic in literature by itself but only a popular folktale, as bloodsuckers that could be found digging graves to feed on the rotten corpses. Therefore, for the first readers in Romanticism, that a popular monstrous character could be among the aristocrats make the tale more horrifying.
✶⋆ Have you read “The Vampyre”?
Works Cited – To Know More
Freud, Sigmund. “Das Unheimliche” (1919) “The Uncanny,” translation by Alix Strachey in
Sigmund Freud, Collection Papers, Vol. 4. New York: Basic Books, 1959.
Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley. Random House. 2016.
Polidori, John. Robert Morrison. “The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre”, edited by
Chris Baldick. Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2008
Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. London. New Monthly Magazine. Vol.
16, no. 1 (1826), pp. 145-152.