During the unseasonably cold and rainy summer of 1816, Lord Byron challenged his weather-beleaguered guests to a ghost story writing contest. Although the most famous tale to come out of that challenge is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, also penned a genre-defining contribution in the form of “The Vampyre.” The story chronicles a young Englishman’s ill-fated encounters with the mysterious Lord Ruthven, literature’s first vampire icon, and was later adapted into a novel, several plays, and opera productions before Ruthven made a very public cameo in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
Varney the Vampire (1847)
First published as a serialized gothic saga, Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood was later adapted from its cheap “penny dreadful” format into a single epic volume. Although authorship remains unclear between either Thomas Preskett Prest or James Malcolm Rymer, Varney is most often attributed to the latter (as is Sweeney Todd, incidentally). The saga concerns the titular vampire, who emerges as a rather sympathetically self-loathing figure despite terrorizing the Bannerworths (his implied mortal family). Varney establishes archetypal vampire characteristic like fangs, superhuman strength, and hypnotic powers.
“The Family of the Vurkodlak” (1839)
Russian prose stylist and dramatist A.K. Tolstoy (Leo’s distant cousin) introduced the vampire to Russian literature with his short story “Upyr” in 1841, which tells of a family cursed with vampirism because of an unfaithful wife. But it was his story “The Family of the Vurkodlak,” written two years earlier but published after Tolstoy’s death, that compounded the genre’s local conventions. Originally written in French, it tells the story of a traveling aristocrat who attempts to save a Serbian family from its vampire-afflicted patriarch. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s influence on Tolstoy is clear, as is the residue of rural folklore and suspicion.
A heavy influence on Bram Stoker in both substance and structure, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla is also the prototype for lesbian vampire fiction. The novella concerns the relationship between a young girl named Laura and her father’s mysterious ward Carmilla, whose intimate friendship is eventually strained by the latter’s temperamental mood swings, peculiar sleeping habits, and stubborn secrecy. An unmistakably Van Helsing-like figure eventually saves the day, revealing Carmilla’s true identity as a vampiress who seduces young girls before preying upon them. Although the modest sexual undertones reflect the period, le Fanu gets his jollies with a few spicy passages: “with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.'”
“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894)
Neither living nor dead, the vampire is the perfect symbol of otherworldly limbo — and therefore a fitting subject for science fiction master H.G. Wells. A cross between “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and Little Shop of Horrors, Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” is about a British botanist tending to an exotic plant that turns out to have a parasitic hankering for human blood. Although not explicitly a vampire, the villain plant of Wells’ story combines genre conventions such as dangerous beauty, exoticism, and, of course, a thirst for blood in a way that inspired later psychological variations on the vampire genre by everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle to Algernon Blackwood.