Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Poet and the Vampyre – review

Author: Andrew McConnell Stott

First Published: 2014

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Love affairs, literary rivalries, and the supernatural collide in an inspired journey to Lake Geneva, where Byron, the Shelleys, and John Polidori come together to create literature’s greatest monsters.

In the spring of 1816, Lord Byron was the greatest poet of his generation and the most famous man in Britain, but his personal life was about to erupt. Fleeing his celebrity, notoriety, and debts, he sought refuge in Europe, taking his young doctor with him. As an inexperienced medic with literary aspirations of his own, Doctor John Polidori could not believe his luck.

That summer another literary star also arrived in Geneva. With Percy Bysshe Shelley came his lover, Mary, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont. For the next three months, this party of young bohemians shared their lives, charged with sexual and artistic tensions. It was a period of extraordinary creativity: Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein, the gothic masterpiece of Romantic fiction; Byron completed ChildeHarold’s Pilgrimage, his epic poem; and Polidori would begin The Vampyre, the first great vampire novel.

It was also a time of remarkable drama and emotional turmoil. For Byron and the Shelleys, their stay by the lake would serve to immortalize them in the annals of literary history. But for Claire and Polidori, the Swiss sojourn would scar them forever. 16 pages of color and B&W photographs.

The review: The story of the night at the Villa Diodati has been much told and, in truth, it was a focal point that led to two of the enduring horror figures – Frankenstein and the vampire. With the secondary title The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature's Greatest Monsters, this book is written in a way that makes it feel almost like a biography rather than a reference work. The end of the book is packed with notes – though strangely these numbered notes do not have corresponding numbering in the body of the text. There is also an extensive bibliography – though, again, the actual body of text does not contain citations. This approach lets the text flow, but makes it disjointed (at best) as a reference work.

However, whilst examining all the primary characters, I did like the fact that Stott offered more clarity than most offer to both Polidori and Claremont. Indeed to me these two where the primary focus of the work.

Polidori was my personal focus and it was great to see more of his works than just the Vampyre being considered. It is interesting to note that Polidori used the symbolism of a vampire bat in his poem Chatterton to his Sister:

 “As vampire bat excites a breeze 
 Soft, cooling, lulling to repose 
The child whose life’s blood quickly flows, 
Feeding the filthy beast with all 
A mother’s fondest name may call.

Another vampiric connection I noticed was the fact that Shelley was accused of being a vampire by his estranged wife Harriet (“The man I once loved is dead. This is a vampire.”)

I also noticed a mention of zielverkoopers, the notes in the book suggest that these “soul sellers” were gangs in the habit of pressganging farmers into service for the Dutch East Indiamen but Campbell’s Guide through Belgium (1815) suggested they were accused of murdering victims and draining their blood to sell – Stott’s endnote on the subject wonders whether this was a vampiric urban legend.

So, a nice focus and a good read. The lack of marrying up notes (and citations) in text was frustrating but the prose is sprightly, the subject interesting and the book deserves 7.5 out of 10.


fenris said...

This book has been on my personal radar for some time. Thanks to your positive review [b]Taliesin[/b], I'm closer to investing in a copy. It's also been published by Canongate Books under two other titles - The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and The Curse of Byron and Summer in the Shadow of Byron.

On a related note, Byron and Polidori appear as characters (supposedly making a clandestine visit to America in 1819) in Robert Michels's vampire novel Feratu.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey Fenris. I wasn't aware of the other titles but do let me know what you think if you do get it. Also thanks for the Feratu heads up

I really should have put a thanks in this to Sarah, my wife, who got me this volume for Christmas :)