On a frigid June evening in 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Claire Clairmont, and Doctor John Polidori huddled together in their summerhouse on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. With a thunderstorm raging outside, Byron passed the time by reading out loud from Das Gespensterbuch (The Ghost Book). Upon finishing, he challenged each occupant to write a ghost story. Mary Godwin would go on to pen, Frankenstein.
John Polidori would pen the first English vampire tale, The Vampyre.
The darkly handsome physician had always been ambivalent towards the medical profession. Sensitive and insecure, Polidori had been bullied as a child and turned to poetry for solace. Now he wished to win Byron’s respect. Unfortunately, the infamous poet never missed out on a chance to mock Polidori’s literary ambitions.
The day after the challenge was announced, Polidori wrote in his journal, “The ghost-stories begun by all but me.”
Byron began a piece featuring a mysterious aristocrat named, Augustus Darvell, who made the narrator of the story promise to bury him after he died, but to tell no one of where. More at home with poetry than prose, Byron soon abandoned his ghost story.
Mary Godwin Shelley later recollected, “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole.”
Polidori abandoned that story and at some point turned his attention towards, The Vampyre. Leaving behind the hideous features of Nosferatu, Polidori modeled his vampire into a sauve, sexually-attractive gentleman. Naming the vampire, Lord Ruthven, (pronounced with a silent “th”) was hardly coincidental. Byron’s spurned lover, Caroline Lamb, had used the same name in her own novel, Glenarvon, a fictionalized account of their affair.
Polidori cast himself as the innocent Aubrey who dies in a failed attempt to save his sister from the clutches of Lord Ruthven.
The Vampyre first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on April 1, 1819. The story had reached the magazine editors along with a note regarding the circumstances of which it had come about during the summer of 1816. The letter also claimed Byron as its author. After Byron denied authorship, Polidori came forth, explaining in a letter to the magazine editor, “I beg leave to state, that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale, in its present form, to Lord Byron. The fact is, that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron’s, its development is mine. . .”
Although Byron continued to deny authorship, and stated he disliked the whole subject of vampires and had no interest in writing about them, many readers still believed the famous poet was the author of the tale. Byron’s suspected involvement in writing the tale, helped spur huge sales. Polidori’s fragile ego was smashed once again. To make matters worse, the book had been registered by the book publisher, which meant that Polidori lost the copyright. The Vampyre became a bestseller. Within two years, the novel was translated into German, French, Spanish, and Swedish. Polidori received a token payment of thirty pounds.
Polidori continued his literary pursuits. In 1819 he published an unsuccessful play entitled, Ximenes. This was followed by Ernestus Berchtold: The Modern Oedipus, a seamy tale involving the supernatural and incest. Only 199 copies were sold.
By 1821, Polidori was back living with his family in London, and deeply in debt.
On August 24th, 1821, John Polidori committed suicide. It was a month before his twenty-sixth birthday.