Polidori’s Bloodsucking Progeny: Scholars gather to celebrate 200 years of vampire fiction

26 March 2019

To mark the bi-centenary of the publication of John Polidori’s gothic tale The Vampyre, academics from across the world are gathering at the Open Minds, Open Graves Symposium for the bicentenary of The Vampyre to celebrate how the novella founded the modern tradition of vampire fiction that continues to hold readers in thrall today.

It is well known that his vampire emerged out of the same storytelling contest at the Villa Diodati in 1816 that gave birth to that other archetype of Gothic heritage, Frankenstein’s monster. Present at this gathering were Polidori (who was Byron’s physician), Mary Godwin, Frankenstein’s author; Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, and (crucially) Lord Byron. Byron’s contribution to the contest was a fragment about a mysterious man characterised by ‘a curious disquiet’. Polidori took this fragment and turned it into the tale of the vampire Lord Ruthven, preying on the vulnerable women of society. The Vampyre was something of a sensation and spawned stage versions and imitations that were hugely popular. It marked the beginning of European literature’s endless fascination with the figure of the vampire.

On 6-7 April 2019, the Open Graves, Open Minds research group at the University of Hertfordshire will present ‘Some curious disquiet’: Polidori, the Byronic vampire, and its progeny’.  A symposium for the bicentenary of The Vampyre at Keats House, Hampstead.

The symposium will celebrate Polidori for having succeeded in founding the entire modern tradition of vampire fiction. In the hands of Polidori (inspired by the figure of Lord Byron), vampires transitioned from dishevelled peasants into alluring seductive, aristocrats. This elevation of social rank is not all. Links to the aristocracy in England were established. There seemed never to have been an urban vampire, nor an educated vampire prior to this. A predatory sexuality had been introduced in relation to the vampire. We see for the first time the vampire as rake or libertine, a real ‘lady killer’.

Dr Sam George
Senior Lecturer in Literature at the University of Hertfordshire and convenor of Open Minds, Open Graves

Mad, bad, and dangerous’—and hot! That’s how Lady Caroline Lamb saw the poet Byron, the lover who discarded her. And that’s the image we have of the vampire in the twenty-first century. Lamb cast Byron as the dark and duplicitous Gothic seducer, Lord Ruthven, in her novel Glenarvon (1816). In turn, John Polidori, Byron’s physician, took the name Lord Ruthven in creating the first literary vampire, 200 years ago in April in his novella The Vampyre”. Polidori’s vampire is a satirical portrait of Byron as a seducer of women in polite society. Ruthven spawned a series of demonic lovers from the Brontës and Daphne du Maurier to the more sexy incarnations of Dracula and the paranormal romances of mortal women seduced by brooding bad and dangerous vampires. At this symposium, leading scholars of the Gothic tell this story of the legacy of Polidori’s disquieting vampire.

Dr Bill Hughes
Open Minds, Open Graves project

Lord Ruthven is a seminal vampire, eliciting both desire and disgust. He creates the possibility for the villainous bloodsucker to become the romanticised vampire of the late twentieth century. Without Polidori’s The Vampyre, there could be neither Dracula nor his lineage. Lord Ruthven's seductive, Byronic powers make him the first vampire you would invite into your home, and possibly your bed!

Dr Kaja Franck
Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hertfordshire

The event will trace Polidori’s bloodsucking progeny and his heritage of ‘curious disquiet’ in literature and film. The delegates have been selected for their expertise in the Byronic, the Gothic, and the vampiric. The Symposium is to be held at Keats House, Hampstead, home of the poet. They hold a first edition of The Vampyre.

The University of Hertfordshire’s MA module ‘Reading the Vampire: Science, Sexuality and Alterity’ is now in its ninth year.

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