Saturday, May 17, 2008

Classic Literature: Varney the Vampire

“Presently the corpse opened his eyes and glared full at them. Oh, such glistening, lead-like orbs, that froze the very current of their blood”
Varney the Vampire, Chapter 143

I must admit that to feature “Varney the Vampire. or, the Feast of Blood”, which was written by James Malcolm Rymer, as a piece of classic literature is, for a couple of reasons, a bit of an oxymoron.

Firstly, the work is not that well known, which makes it difficult to argue its classic status. There are no films directly based on the saga that I am aware of and the name of Varney is seldom borrowed (though there are exceptions that prove that rule). I am sure that many will say they have heard of Varney and its central figure Sir Francis Varney but how many can say they have read it, at least in entirety? For myself I had read extracts certainly and had the complete work in pdf form. But it is such a large tome that there was no way I was going to read it electronically. This article came about after I purchased the critical edition produced by Curt Herr, and yes, I did read the entire saga before writing this.

Secondly it is difficult to call Varney classic literature when by all standards it isn’t really that good in a literary sense. Don’t get me wrong, it was never meant to be. Varney started life as a serial of Penny Dreadfuls and was published as such between 1845 and 1847. In many respects Penny Dreadfuls were the literary equivalent to soap operas, produced weekly and sold for a penny an issue, and one can see within them that awful repetition and meandering that the modern TV phenomenon is also full of. They were also produced by writers often paid by the word (leading to more literary meandering) and rarely, if ever, proof read. Typesetting errors and typographical errors were the norm.

Varney ran for an inordinate length of time, when such a serial could be cancelled at a moment’s notice – if the readership lost interest and thus they were not turning the required profit. As such we find that the text itself is self contradictory in lore, events are forgotten and names become confused. However, the worst sins within Varney are in the early to central chapters and the last third of the saga has much to offer, as Herr himself points out. That is not to say that there isn’t anything worth reading in the first two thirds of the mammoth publication, but that the worst excesses of the Penny Dreadful genre are played out in that section.

However Varney, from a vampire genre sense, is classic literature in that it very much bridges the gap between Polidori’s The Vampyre and Stoker’s Dracula (As an aside we actually have a character called Count Pollidori at one point). We can see the definitive influence Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla had on Stoker and, whilst there is no evidence that Stoker had read any/all of Varney, it is difficult to imagine that Stoker was unaware of the saga.

Indeed Herr points out, in the footnotes to the critical edition, that the turning of Clara Crofton – towards the end of the saga – has many similes with the events surrounding Lucy Westenra in Dracula. The turning itself seems slightly at odds with the lore Rymer introduced (as we shall see) but that is hardly surprising in itself. There is a beautiful description; “and in another moment that white clothing was observed to be in motion. Slowly the dead form that was there rose up, and they all saw the pale and ghastly face. A streak of blood was issuing from the mouth, and the eyes were open.”
Varney the Vampire, Chapter 222

Yet despite the ghastly apparition of the raised Clara, she like Lucy, in death and repose, looks more beautiful than when she was alive. The tales’ similarities might be accidental but it is telling that there are resemblances at all. Further, Rymer occasionally put text of other, invented, Penny Dreadfuls within the text of Varney and at one point we are treated to a vampire one called “The Dead not Dead” – a title reminiscent, as Herr again points out, to Stoker’s The Un-Dead (Dracula’s working title). We should also remember that there is the line in Dracula “and if my death can do her good even now, when she is the dead UnDead, she shall have it freely” (chp 15), and the phrases ‘dead UnDead’ and ‘Dead not Dead’ are similar enough to give pause for thought.

More than that, the nineteenth century literary vampire tended to be rather one-dimensional as a character – a criticism often laid at Stoker. People look to Anne Rice, and her Vampire Chronicles, for the popular inception of a vampire with layers (though perhaps the series Dark Shadows got there first); vampires who felt guilt at their acts and yet were pushed to commit them by their infernal instincts, who were capricious and yet generous and who searched for a meaning to their damned existence. Anne Rice was over 100 years too late, Varney did all that and more; sadist and saint, murderer and saviour, Varney was a complex vampire character unbeknown before and for many years afterwards.

It is pointless, within the confines of this article, to try and relay a plot – though in general it saw Varney involved in many a machination, attempting to acquire either wealth or virgin’s blood – as the saga is so huge. However, what I will do is look to some of the more interesting (if contradictory) lore, genre staples and genre oddities that I noted down as I read through the tome.

The first thing we should ask ourselves is who is Varney? The answer, unfortunately, is that we do not know. Rymer, through the life of the text, changed Varney’s background many times. At one point Varney states that he is 180 years old, at another point he states that he was born, under the name Sleighton, in the reign of Edward the 3rd (1327 – 1377), which would make him more around the 500 mark. This is likely down to faults within the text, rather than any trickery on the part of the character, due to the nature of the Penny Dreadful writing process.

Likewise we do not know how he came to be. We meet a vampire intimated to be his sire and we also hear that vampires come about as a punishment for murder of the innocent. It is suggested that Varney killed his wife or lover, at one point, and his child at another. When we hear that vampirism is a punishment we see a group of vampires (including Varney), summoned, to raise ritually a newly created vampire from the grave. This happens with Clara Crompton, Varney raises her, but she was not guilty of murder – she was merely the victim of a vampire and her birth into the ranks of the undead was part of a sadistic revenge Varney gave out for an act of chivalrous charity (her brothers fished his dead body from the sea). Yet Varney tells Flora Bannerworth, the first vampire casualty detailed in the saga, that a vampire bite will not turn a victim.

It is interesting to note that a red herring is thrown into the early plot that indicates he might have been revived through experimentation with electricity upon his hanged corpse – bringing a modern (post-cinema view of) Frankenstein to mind also. This electrical revival is not the case, and the reviving was coincidental to the experiment (or so I interpreted that section, at least). Later, Rymer likens the effects of the moon (which we shall detail later) to such experimentation when he writes: “Suddenly there was a movement in the form of the dead man −− a spasmodic jerk of the whole muscles of the frame, as if a galvanic battery had been applied to it;”
Varney the Vampire, Chapter 139

The vampire must feed on blood. We hear some folklore that suggests: “those who know about vampires say there are two sorts, one sort always attacks its own relations as were, and nobody else, and the other always selects the most charming young girls.”
Varney the Vampire, Chapter 183
As for Varney, well he is partial to the charming young girls (for that read virginal girls) and has a wont to marry them, often, before feeding. Clara also feeds on young girls and is an early example of female vampire/female victim feeding pattern – predating Carmilla. Whether the vampire can eat and drink normal fare fluctuates; at one point Varney ravenously eats, at another he eats to disguise himself and at yet another he does not partake of mortal food.

The fact that Varney gets these girls to marry him (he has been married several times we hear) is unusual in itself as he is not the dashing hero. He is overly tall, with a ghastly complexion and described often as ugly. Indeed one of the reasons he wants money is as a lure for maidens to marry him as well as to gain a standing in society. The text is a little fluctuating as to whether he has fangs. Sometimes fangs are mentioned, other times teeth. At one point someone mentions a protruding tooth at the front and at another long front teeth are mentioned, both of which brought to mind Nosferatu. At yet another point Varney is described as having tusk like teeth.

Vampires in Varney do not shape change, he is likened occasionally (in his manner of movement) to a wolf – though we should remember that the vampire and the werewolf were interchangeable as concepts at the time – and Annette Lake states that, when attacked by Varney, she dreamt that it was a wolf attacking her before she awoke to see the vampire. Bats are not mentioned – Stoker introduced that bit of lore – and the bat winged demons on the cover of the first issue were artistic and not story integral.

There is a hint of mesmeric eyes but this occurs just once and most of the time Varney’s victims cry out – leading to his detection by others in the household. Like other nineteenth century vampires sunlight is not an issue but, in this, the vampire is not indestructible; he can die by very ordinary means, such as a gunshot or sword strike. More than this, lack of blood (though feeding frequency seems quite moderate) can kill the vampire. However, this is not true death and exposure to moonlight, as with Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, will revive the corpse again:

“No sooner was the whole of the body, the breast, and the face illumined, than there was a particular quiver through that form”
Varney the Vampire, Chapter 104

True vampiric death is difficult to achieve, to say the least. Stopping exposure to moonlight may cause the body to rot after a time and the peasants believe that staking will hold the corpse down and allow it to rot (not necessarily through the heart either, a stake through the stomach is mentioned at one point). Varney, when at his most self-loathing with regards his ‘condition’, attempts suicide. At one point this is attempted by drowning, hoping that the moonbeams will not penetrate the ocean – unfortunately this is when the Cromptons fish his body from the sea. He finally succeeds – at the very end of the saga – by jumping into the fiery mouth of Vesuvius.

I have barely scratched the surface of Varney the Vampire – literally a full book, indeed many volumes, could be written about him, his adventures and his likely impact on the genre. It can be a slog to read but the rewards are there for the genre fan, especially towards the end of the tale. I would recommend Herr’s critical edition as illustrated at the head of this article, which has copious footnotes and critical essays on Varney and the Penny Dreadful form itself.

In Paperback @ Amazon US

In Paperback @ Amazon UK


OllieMugwump said...

A long, rambling serial yes, but it has some classic moments.

Incidently; in which chapter does Varney gather with the other vamps to raise a new one?

I'd very like to read that.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Ollie, its during the London Hotel section chapters 187 - 188 has the actual resucitation at a churchyard in Hampstead

OllieMugwump said...

Thanks very much. That's a great scene, plus the fact Mr. Brooks is;

"A man of good repute, Varney," said the first speaker. "A smooth, fair-spoken man, a religious man, so far as cant went, a proud, cowardly, haughty, worldly follower of religion. Ha, ha, ha!"

who is condemned to vampirism for brutally murdering his nephew.

It's great to get back to a 'real' vampire story, as recently I've been torturing myself through Meyer's "Twilight" - as Basil Fawlty in "Waldorf Salad" - "Painful!"

Taliesin_ttlg said...

It is a wonderful scene...

I quite liked Twilight, not so much for the vampirism but for the characterisation which worked rather well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great review of my edition of Varney- It's really appreciated! I have a book signing coming up and I'd like to copy your review to include in my Press Kit. May I copy it?
Curt Herr

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Curt - with pleasure

Anonymous said...

In the first part of Varney theres a chapter dedicated to the "Interview with the Vampire". That would seem to suggest to me that Rice was a fan. I've noticed other tributes to classic horror in the few pages Ive read from her. (Im not really a fan).

ALso In the Vampire soap opera Dark Shadows theres a whole plot line about an ancient family portrait that looks exactly like Barnibus (is that the vampires name? Its been a while). Thats a plot device also used in the opening chapters of Varney.

Im reading the ebook right now. Very entertaining.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers anon...

Certainly one would hope Rice was aware of Varney - though how much of an inflluence he was I don't know.

The portrait was a good old Gothic plot device and - vampire wise - was first used in Varney, good spot.

Hope you enjoy the e-book, not my favourite format it has to be said (hence waiting for a decent paper based version) but do hang in there because the series really is at its best towards the end

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys- Some cool stuff on Varney here.(!) One word of caution though. Borgo Press has reprinted the series with their own subtitles such as "The flight of the Vampire" or "The Coming of the Second Vampire"- These subtitles have nothing to do with the original series by James Malcolm Rymer. You are better off reading the new complete edition published by Zittaw Press.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers anon - although you'll note that was the edition used to write the article, thanks for the heads up about the new editions.

For anyone reading this, the Curt Herr edition on Zittaw press is, as far as I am concerned, pretty much the definitve version

Zahir Blue said...

As you know (since you commented upon it) I've written my own review. While I agree there's some ripping good stuff, the overall writing is very nearly painful to get through. Still, it has indeed many of the virtues you describe. An acquaintance once opined that someone should "translate" Shakespeare in modern English. I replied by quoting a speech that showed Shakespeare's English is perfectly intelligible if the actor is good and understands the text. Varney on the other hand is just not-well-written. To rework it into something more cohesive and enjoyable would make for a worthwhile project, methinks.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Zahir, fair comment, hence me saying at the head "it is difficult to call Varney classic literature when by all standards it isn’t really that good in a literary sense."

I actually thought Varney might make a nice (rewritten) weekly (or less frequently) podcast - an audio drama as such. But the effort involved made me drop the concept like a stone - just in the rewrite in play form, never mind the acting, directing, recording and production.

An actual rewrite (in prose form) would work and the detritus could be dropped as well.

Anonymous said...

It may have been the junk literature of it's time, but right now I am finding it a totally thrilling and entertaining read.

Some of the writing is wonderful - eg the descriptions of moonlit landscapes.

Varney's escape across the rooftops scene is burned into my memory.

You really do root for the Vampyre.
He is so much a modern individual, sensitive, strong, flawed, multidimensional.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

NR, I agree. There is no way I could have read the entire thing without the elements you describe.

There are some repetative moments, especially in the first saga, but the last 1/3 of the entire thing is absolutely wonderful stuff.

Hope you enjoy it all - Varney deserves more exposure to the public generally, perhaps in the form of a TV serial... but I might wish for it, however it'll probably never happen.

Kuudere-Kun said...

How is Clara described? Is she still on the loose when the story ends?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Unknown, I put a description of Clara in the text above. She ended up laid to peace...

A mob took her coffin and body, intent on burning it. However there was torrential rain and so they decided to bury her at a crossroads (there was also talk of staking her). When she opens her eyes, at the bottom of the crossroads grave) the mob run in fear.

It is actually Varney - now remorseful over the fact that he turned her - who finishes the job...

However, in the Varney mythology, should she be dug up and exposed to rays of moonlight...

Kuudere-Kun said...

Thanks. I think it's be cool to write a Modern set Sequel where Varney and Clara both get revived. Varney returning would require a Volcanic Eruption though, talk about an epic opening.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

It would be... perhaps I'd have some backstory around Clara being revived some decades before... giving her opportunity to get used to her vampire powers and then reading about an eruption and realising that Varney may be revived....

ideas abound (the eruption would have to be the opening chapter though).

Kuudere-Kun said...

You should order The Vampire Omnibus, an anthology book by Peter Hanning. It contains some pretty rare old Vampire stories, most interesting to me was "The Skeleton Count and The Vampire Mistress" it was also published as a Penny Dreadful about 20 years before Varney.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I have that volume :) I actually looked at the skeleton vampire etc as a guest blog here

Kuudere-Kun said...

I would disagree with the attack not being Eortic, I found ti pretty erotic. I discus the story on my Tumblr.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I see your point.

I think my position isn't that the reader won't find it erotic (or indeed that there wasn't an erotic element for the perpetrator) but, much more so, that the attacks on women and children were for ease, as a first consideration...

I hope that makes sense, it is rather early in the morning as I type that and the double negatives were swaying before me!!

Kuudere-Kun said...

I've read that other Supernatural creatures appear in Varney too, including Werewolves. it's not really what your blog is abut, but I am curious how the rules for Werewolfism work in Varney. Is there a a good Werewolve blog that has discussed it?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi unknown... werewolves are mentioned, in respect of Varney, by Herr in that lupine traits are attached to Varney - though he never transforms/shapeshifts.

Perkowski argues that the Serbo-Croatian "vukodlak" never meant werewolf in an English sense but vokodalak (another form of the word) does translate to wolf-pelt and the 1862 tome Der Werwolf describes the buried werewolf as rising revenant like and perhaps even drinking blood.

I am afraid that I am not aware of a werewolf blog that has gone into this in depth. I cover this briefly in my book "the Media Vampire" pp267-272 (also touching the subject when mentioning the film Isle of the Dead and in the chapter on Varney). The book is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK
and Lulu (sorry for the blatant product placement.)

Kuudere-Kun said...

You said there we meet a Vampire implied to possibly be Varney's Sire? Does he/she have a name? or an implied ethnic background?

How many other Vampires show up in the saga? Is this "Count Pollidori" a Vampire?

Since the rules in Varney are largely modeled after Lord Ruthven, I'm wondering if there is a mysterious character I can imagine to be Lord Ruthven. It'd suit my interest in Wold newton Universe pretty well.

Taliesin_ttlg said...


With regards Varney's implied sire, given the nature of the saga he may or may not be, the story changes so often.

Whether there is a name or an ethnic background I can't remember. I suspect that no name is given and I suspect the ethnicity is not addressed - however without trawling through the saga I can't say.

There are a few vampires through the saga – we meet several raising another vampire for instance (a scene which is referenced in the comments), but few are in detail. Again – without trawling through the saga it would be impossible for me to tell you exactly how many.

Count Pollidori was a human character, the father of a young woman who is saved by a stranger (Varney) who then offers his daughter in marriage as thanks.

If you wanted to imagine Ruthven in this universe I am sure you could but I don’t think there was a character designed to be Ruthven.

Kuudere-Kun said...

It turns out from further investigation that "The Skeleton Count and the Vampire mistress" is a Hoax, it was made up by the Author of the Ominbus, it's real existence isn't any more valid then Joseph Smith's Golden Tablets.

Going over the Chapter Titles I notice reference to a "Hungarian Nobleman". And Admiral Bell tells a story about "The Beautiful Belinda". I wonder if those are Vampires.

Taliesin_ttlg said...


I'd like to see the evidence of the hoax if you have it - not that I disbelieve (or otherwise).

Re the chapter titles, to be fair I'm not about to delve back in (at least not tonight) but at at least one chapter of Varney was a faux penny dreadul about vampires.

Kuudere-Kun said...

It's a shame cause the story is a good read.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks Jared. Note that it is at "probably a hoax" - but the health check is there.

Unfortunately my blog post on the story itself is a guest blog hosted on another blog, so I have left a comment with the link you provided.

fenris said...

Wordsworth Editions have published a complete & unabridged version of Varney, the Vampyre as a single paperback that is much, much cheaper than any edition previously available. So now there's no excuse for not owning this flawed but essential epic, which (in my humble opinion) should proudly sit upon every vampire fan's bookshelf alongside their copy of Dracula.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Indeed mine does sit next to the New Annotated Dracula. I would still recommend the version mentioned in the article but nice to know that folks ona budget cab also get it

fenris said...

The Zittaw Press edition does sound highly desirable, but as you say Taliesin, some of us do live on a budget. Thanks to the Wordsworth edition, I now own and can enjoy a classic vampire tale that previously I couldn't have afforded.

fenris said...

Have recently discovered that Varney appears in Merriwether: God's Demon-Thumper, a graphic novel about a demon-hunting vicar produced by independent British publisher Black Tower Comics.

God's Demon-Thumper and it's sequel Merriwether: The Test of Satan are exclusively available from Black Tower Comics' on-line shop both separately and also compiled together as The Collected Merriwether;

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers for that Fenris :)

Carmilla said...

I would love to read the Clara Crofton chapter(s). Please could you advise which these are and where I might find them? I do intend to read the whole saga someday, but for now, I would love to read Clara's story to see what influence she might have had on Sheridan Le Fanu when writing Carmilla.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

So, if you have Varney in 3 volumes it is in Volume 3. The first chapter (Varney being pulled from the sea by her brothers) is Chapter CLXXX. The Old Manor House. −− The Rescue. −− Varney's Despair.

As I said in the article, I think there are similes with Lucy (and therefore Dracula) when she is turned but I'd be interested in hearing parallels you draw with Carmilla