Saturday, October 16, 2021

Varney the Vampyre

The title character of VARNEY THE VAMPYRE; OR, THE FEAST OF BLOOD (1847) is one of the "big four" classic nineteenth-century fictional vampires, the others being Lord Ruthven in John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819), Carmilla in J. Sheridan Le Fanu's novella by that name (1872), and of course Count Dracula (1897, coincidentally fifty years after the book publication of VARNEY). Neither of them, incidentally, has to worry about destruction by sunlight, a trope invented in the silent film NOSFERATU. VARNEY originated as a "penny dreadful," published in multiple cheap installments before its release in three-volume book form in 1847. Originally its authorship was attributed to Thomas Preskett (sometimes cited as "Peckett") Prest, but now James Malcolm Rymer is generally accepted as the principal author. Most likely, several writers contributed to the novel, given its internal inconsistencies. The narrative offers least two different versions of Sir Francis Varney's age, backstory, and method of becoming a vampire. His powers, limitations, and personality also change over the course of the 800-plus pages.

The book's quality is uneven, to say the least. It's rambling and repetitious, with Varney constantly trying to marry innocent young woman, a motif probably borrowed from several of the many stage plays starring Polidori's Lord Ruthven. In each episode, Varney is thwarted and driven out of town, often by a vampire-hunting retired admiral and his comic-relief sidekick. The typical modern reader isn't likely to find much of the alleged humor very funny. The longest and most effective episode is the first, when Varney pursues a maiden named Flora Bannerworth. The often reprinted opening scene of the book, his attack on Flora in her bed, portrays a bloodcurdling assault by an inhuman monster with dead, gray eyes like polished metal. He escapes, pursued and shot by Flora's male protectors, only to vanish when moonlight revives him from apparent death (again, like Lord Ruthven). In later scenes, he poses as a wealthy gentleman readily accepted in the home of his upper-class neighbors. The influence of the Byronic anti-hero tradition is readily apparent at some points, especially when he visits Flora alone and pleads for her sympathy. In another memorable sequence late in the novel, Varney transforms a female victim into a vampire; her grieving friends go to her tomb and destroy her in a scene that strikingly foreshadows the staking of Lucy in DRACULA.

Varney develops into an early incarnation of the repentant vampire. At the end, he confesses his crimes to a clergyman, then travels to Italy where, in a fit of remorse, he immolates himself by plunging into the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

The book remained essentially unobtainable until the 1970s, with only a few copies known to have survived. Now you can find multiple editions on Amazon, including some cheap or free Kindle versions. If you decide to check out VARNEY, make sure you're getting the complete novel, since one publisher markets it in several volumes, each sold separately.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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