It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches — a hideous creature with long fingernails and eyes that shine like polished tin. The girl wakes up, but is too terrified to flee as the vampire breaks the glass and enters the bedroom. He seizes his victim by the hair, drags her onto the bed, and bites her neck.
The story is probably familiar, but the vampire may not be: this is a summary of the opening chapter of Varney, the Vampyre. Written between 1845 and 1847, probably by James Malcolm Rymer, Varney is a forgotten work from the "penny dreadful" genre. A far cry from Dickens and Eliot, the penny dreadfuls were racy, sensational serials, aimed at an urban, working-class audience with limited time to spend reading. They provoked suspicion from Victorian moral authorities, who feared that the tales of crime, violence, highway robbery, and cannibalism might incite class warfare, or encourage the young in antisocial behavior.
Vampires had entered English literature at the beginning of the 19th century — not at first in crowd-pleasers like Varney, but via the work of Romantic poets like Coleridge, Southey, and Byron. The vampire archetype was born in The Vampyre, a tale written by Byron's physician, Polidori. Not only did Polidori base his story on an unfinished fragment of Byron's, but when it was published, the story was originally misattributed to Byron — much to the dismay of both men. Polidori had based his vampire, Lord Ruthven, on Byron, and the aristocratic, saturnine vampire still popular today owes a great deal to the image of the Byronic hero.
Varney takes the Byronic vampire and adapts him for popular fiction. Whilst Ruthven kills and seduces with the self-assurance of a regency rake, his crimes often take place off-page. In Varney there is no such reticence. The reader is entertained with gratuitous moments of sexualized vampire attack, along with other sensational delights which include Frankenstein-inspired corpse reanimation, public hangings, charnel house visits, exhumations, and murder. As a vampire, Varney is far less impressive than Ruthven. Where Ruthven is aloof and competent, Varney is anxious and inept. He isn't even a real aristocrat. Over the course of a thousand pages, he is repeatedly unsuccessful in his attempts to find a woman to marry and then kill. Any reader who manages to stick with him throughout all three volumes of this thousand-page behemoth may find themselves sympathizing with him. Varney is miserable in his vampire state, unsuccessful in his frequent attempts to disguise himself and trick unsuspecting women into marriage. Most undignified of all, he is probably the only vampire in all of literature to be compared to a mop: "Who'd a thought he would always be turning up in this way, like an old mop as nobody can use?" remarks one of his regular adversaries, astounded to run into Varney in the middle of yet another failed marriage plot.
To readers with an interest in vampire literature, Varney may seem like a literary dead end, with none of the elegance of the Romantic vampires, the tender seductiveness of Le Fanu's Carmilla, or the timeless magnetism of Dracula's king-vampire. Certainly he doesn't stand up well to the attractions of contemporary vampires, like the sexy, scary, or soulful creations of Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Stephenie Meyer.
But Varney does still have a few things to offer — and I think that the birth of ebooks and ereaders marks the perfect opportunity for modern readers to enjoy and rediscover this long, exasperating, and curiously endearing work. The novel is a reminder that what we think about when we think about contemporary vampire stories — humor, slapstick, conflict, seductiveness — was all in existence over 100 years ago. In Varney there are pratfalls, swipes at religious hypocrisy, talk about the morality of vampire killing. The arch and complex vampires of more recent times are not so far off, and we are not as novel as we might like to believe.
Varney is a vampire story in its most basic literary form, shorn of artistic pretensions, told purely for reader enjoyment, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And what readers seemed to enjoy most were sex, violence, comedy, romance, and death. Varney loves to return to its opening scene — the innocent victim sleeping in bed, disturbed by the terrifying vampire. The book reuses the scene with different victims several times, apparently expecting that its audience won't tire of it. It's this trope that is one of the most persistent in vampire fiction, and modern audiences seem as fond of it as Varney's first readers were.
Another aspect of Varney that recurs in later vampire fiction is the trope of reading and storytelling. Appropriately in a story written for the reader's pleasure, Varney returns several times to the appeal of listening to stories, reading, looking things up. When characters want to brush up on their vampire lore, they consult a "book of travels" and discover that vampires come from Norway and Sweden. (Like syphilis, vampirism is often blamed on foreigners.) When Varney is nervous before a late-night interview, he tries to distract himself by reading. Stories are powerful — the story of Varney's vampirism spreads rapidly throughout the village, quickly spurring the villagers to violent action. And stories are important — Varney's last act before ending his life (via a leap into an active volcano) is to ensure that his history will be told. He may not want to live anymore, but he is adamant that his story must survive him.
The vampire is a literary device that is closely bound up with the concept of reading for pleasure, even if what gives readers pleasure may not be intellectually respectable. The vampire, it seems, is also about the pleasure of reading. See, for instance, the obsessive readings and writings carried out by the human characters of Dracula, or the beautiful, venerable, utterly impractical tomes which regularly feature in Buffy. In my novel, The Quick, I've explored the idea of illicit reading and secret vampire knowledge, centering around the image of the library — which may be either a haven or a place of great danger. Vampire stories are often quite obvious in their fascination with texts and reading, just as they are shameless in their enjoyment of sex and violence, sensational plot twists, and Gothic excesses. And here I think vampire fiction makes an open secret of the pleasure of all literature. Reading is not merely dutiful intellectual exercise — at its best it is enjoyment, and this is true for all levels of the literary hierarchy. Reading Shakespeare is a dance, not an hour on the treadmill. Varney unabashedly demonstrates what most vampire novels have to offer — writing that is fun — and in doing so, exposes the pleasure that lies at the heart of all literature. Perhaps disclosing this secret is the vampire's real wickedness.