Poor Polidori: The Toxic Relationship that Inspired The First Vampire Story

I am obsessed with the story of John Polidori. I’ve been working on a play for a few years about this story called Poor Polidori (contact me to produce when theater is alive again). I write about it briefly in my upcoming book (details to come). I’ve talked about it drunk at bars because I had great conversation skills even in The Before Times and usually one person would say, “this story is crazy! Why isn’t there a movie about it?”

There isn’t a movie about John Polidori’s life because it gets overshadowed by the other, bigger story that was present at the time of this story which is essentially how this story comes to be made to begin with. The major theme here in Polidori’s footnote in history is about being overshadowed, feeling like his life-force was being drained by someone bigger and flashier than he was. This is the story of how literature came to meet the very first vampire story in literature, The Vampyre.

First let us set the scene. It was a dark and stormy summer when the biggest literary giants in 1816 gathered together in Switzerland at Villa Diodati. Does this sound familiar? How about the cast of characters which includes Mary Shelley, Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. WHAT A BUNCH OF ALL-STARS, RIGHT?!

A bunch of stars plus this random dude. So who was John Polidori? He was a young Italian-English gentleman who studied at the University of Edinburgh were he did studies on sleepwalking which is kind of interesting for things that go bump in the night. He really wanted to become a writer, but his skills were in medicine which is how he met Byron. Byron invited him to come with on a big journey that would end in Switzerland. We know all of this because Byron’s publisher paid Polidori to keep a diary of his travels.

So, yes, this story — the story I’m fascinated with — takes place on the same fateful gathering that gave the world Frankenstein with the literary elite of the day and this wannabe writer with stars in his eyes and skills that simply did not compare. This same gathering gave the world the modern prototype for the vampire, the character who would become Dracula. It was a night of sharing horror stories — of course it did! But it is entirely overshadowed by the bigger, better writers who were there. Part of that is because they were all extremely gifted and famous and Polidori simply wasn’t. The other reason he gets overshadowed is because, well, Polidori was annoying.

He’s treated as a nuisance by everyone there, but Polidori writes about things differently. For example, when Percy and Mary arrive at Villa Diodati, there is a story of Byron and Polidori in a boat together. Byron leaves Polidori behind because he is embarrassed by him, but Polidori suggests that he immediately felt that he could not compete for Byron’s attention with Percy Shelley there so he stayed in the boat. He starts sulking, writing about all the times he feels left out at the villa. He describes, for example, being introduced to people with Byron, but his name was “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible”. Okay, whoa. He writes with the intensity of a high school poet and I am here for it. But Byron wasn’t. Byrons seems to have acted differently around Polidori at the Villa, wanting to cozy up to Shelley and leave Polidori in the dust.

So, yes, it was a rainy night in 1816 when these literary elites were more productive than anyone else on a rainy night (was doing a puzzle not good enough for them?). Shelley wrote in the introduction to Frankenstein, that they read a book of ghost stories out loud and it inspired a challenge for each of them to write their own ghost story. She briefly describes Polidori’s idea, saying that: “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady.” Woof, her pity! A skull-headed lady sounds dope, Mary. Give it a chance!

(It is worth noting that Mary Shelley’s account of the events differs from everyone else’s slightly, including that skull-headed lady bit which is also attributed to Shelley. Mary also leaves out her step-sister Claire Claremont entirely who was definitely there trying to shag both Byron and Shelley.)

She then describes that: “The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task”. That means that Byron and Shelley were like “nah, I’m bored” while she continued working on her story. She did…and so did Polidori. The two people who felt the need to prove themselves (Mary Shelley, for anyone who forgets, was the daughter of super famous writer, Mary Wollstonecraft). Mary wrote that Byron and Shelley talking about Darwin’s experiments was her inspiration, specifically a piece of vermicelli that Darwin allegedly put in a glass case that began to move on its own. I think that’s vermicelli as in the noodle. Sounds like Darwin was just making spaghetti, but regardless this inspired her to have a vision of a dead man who suddenly twitches to life AKA Frankenstein’s monster. The rest is history!

That’s great for Mary and her creation of a brand new genre, but what did Polidori do? He apparently was inspired by something Byron wrote called “A Fragment” and was very likely inspired by Byron’s general demeanor to write the story of an incredibly charming and wealthy man named Lord Ruthven (HMMMM) who befriends a good young gentleman traveling through Greece. The good, innocent, pure young gentleman meets a woman he likes who gets killed by a vampire. He and Lord Ruthven then get attacked and Lord Ruthven is about to die, but makes our strong and handsome leading man keep his death a secret. He returns home to England and finds Lord Ruthven there. What?!?! Dun dun dun! Lord Ruthven starts to seduce our brave protagonist’s sister, eventually killing her by draining her of her blood. Our smart and incredible leading man realizes that everyone who has ever come into contact with Lord Ruthven has had their life ruined.

Obviously, The Vampyre is based on Lord Byron. I mean, right? I’ve read Polidori’s diary (it’s not invasive if it’s published) and it’s clear that he reveres Byron. The Vampyre appears to come out of his resentment toward this literary rockstar by the end of the travels together. Byron frequently teased Polidori’s desire to be a writer, called him “polly dolly” everyday and brow-beat him until Polidori couldn’t take it anymore. What happens when you cross a writer? They base a villain on you.

To be fair, Byron was not a great guy. Please don’t feel like Byron was misrepresented by being the actual model of the modern vampire. Sure, he was fun, eccentric, and sexually prolific; but he was an asshole. He treated his lovers terribly. Hell, Mary Shelley’s sister Claire was a hookup he had before he left England and she essentially invited herself on this trip to get him back, so Byron spent his time avoiding the neediness of both Polidori and Claire Claremont.

He wasn’t great, but it doesn’t sound like Polidori was either. Like a lot of toxic situations, the worst was brought out of both people. There is a tale of Polidori accidentally hitting Byron in the knee with an oar and Byron, hiding his face to shield his pain, said, “Be so kind, Polidori, another time, to take more care, for you hurt me very much.” To which Polidori replied: “I am glad to see you can suffer pain.”

I MEAN. These two! Are these legendary 19th century writers squabbling or a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Poor Polidori, people just dismissed him. He’s painted as being “in the way” of everyone’s fun hang and Byron’s good time, but I see an overly enthusiastic dweeb who was just way in-over-his-head and grappling for an ounce of Byron’s affection. I see Polidori stammering for respect by trying almost anything he could think of, from reading his writing out loud even though no one asked him to do that to eventually lashing out and writing The Vampyre.

Even the fact that The Vampyre’s Lord Ruthven never drinks the blood of our amazing leading man is telling to what they dynamic was like. He just sucks the life out of everyone around him like it’s all a big psychological game Ruthven is playing. Is that how Polidori viewed Byron, as someone trying to squash his happiness? What a crushing relationship.

Quick aside! Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s long time on-again-off-again scorned lover, wrote a novel called Glenarvon with a character named Lord Ruthven Glenarvon who was a very Byronic character. Actually, he was a grotesque caricature of Byron as revenge, but Byron dismissed it and her after its publication. Her legacy as a writer is also forgotten, like Polidori’s, and she is better known as the woman who called Byron “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Multiple people around Byron attempt to write something based on him and get dismissed while he is literally considered a hero.

Okay, but there’s more.

John Polidori’s story winds up getting published because he allegedly leaves his manuscript to a countess who gives it to someone who gives it to an editor at a struggling London magazine. It is not attributed to anyone, but the editor thought, “Hey, maybe Byron wrote this.”

LOL what? How and why would a giant like Byron drop this off at a small magazine, but whatever. Big delusions, my dude.

It was published thus as “A Tale Told By Lord Byron” which is a great marketing scheme to sell magazines. It worked! The story becomes very popular and the magazine essentially becomes a horror rag.

Byron was furious. He published what he actually worked on at the villa, Augustus Darvell, and wrote a sassy letter to the magazine.

“If the book is clever it would be base to deprive the real writer, whoever he may be, of its honors. And if stupid, I desire the responsibility of nobody’s dullness but my own…I have, besides, a personal dislike of vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means indulge me to divulge their secrets.” L-O-FUCKING-L, dude. Lord Byron was SCATHING. That’s some serious 19th century shade.

Lord Byron’s petty.com response is such a good example of why Polidori likely based The Vampyre off of Byron. He was arrogant and charming no matter how mean he was to Polidori. It has been suggested by historians and anyone with good inference skills that Polidori had some unrequited feelings for Byron. Large swaths of his diary were taken out and destroyed before they were published, leaving many to wonder what was in those entries. More than that, it’s curious that the legendary bisexual poet would travel with this barely-practicing physician he had just met. It at least leaves a lot to the imagination! Imagine the fan fiction one could write!

Polidori did come forward as the story’s writer, but it doesn’t really give him the same kind of notoriety that Byron got or that his story got as a whole. The publisher paid Polidori 30 pounds instead of the 300 he was owed when he was Byron. As such, he committed suicide in 1821, months after this incident.

The Vampyre wound up being as successful — if not more so — than Frankenstein. It launched nearly every modern vampire (my one exception is the lesbian vampire who is based on the novella Carmilla and I believe belongs to a class all on her own, but we can get to that in another essay or you can read my NSFW writing about it at my work). It’s so unfortunate that John Polidori died young because he wound up introducing The Vampyre to English literature which would eventually bring us Bram Stoker’s Dracula which would eventually bring us Bela Lugosi WHICH WOULD EVENTUALLY BRING US Blade. Am I following this correctly? Definitely. This toxic relationship with a very famous writer brought us a monster that would sink its fangs into culture and never let go.

Stephanie is a writer and comedian whose work has been featured on Reductress, Slate, The Weekly Humorist, The AV Club, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura and more.

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