LiteratEye #33: The Horror Story Byron Didn’t Write Made His Rep as a Vampire

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the thirty third installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #33: The Horror Story Byron Didn’t Write Made His Rep as a Vampire
By W.J. Elvin III
October 2, 2009

bela_200“Everywhere you look in entertainment these days, you see vampires.” It was cultural critic Johanna Schneller who stuck her neck out to make that observation, quoted in The Week magazine.

Vampires everywhere. Well, then, wouldn’t it be just the right time for a film focusing on suspicions that literature’s premier bad boy, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a vampire?

Yes, of course, you say, the more vampires the better. And by the way, who is this GGLB character?

Byron is considered a poetic genius on par with greats like Milton or Dryden, but it is his orgiastic personal life that draws most of the attention he gets today. His work still sells – I just saw a six-volume set of his collected works on eBay. He wrote some exquisite, memorable lines – ‘She walks in beauty like the night’ – but the language of the bulk of it is undoubtedly foreign to modern readers.

It used to be, you described someone as “Byronic” and any literate person knew just what you meant. The brooding, mysterious, rebellious poet of later times is a knock-off of the image Byron created for himself.

He was the sort modern publishers hunger for, a master of manipulating his own image into a creation that fascinated the public, thereby enhancing sales of his books. Of recent authors, he calls to mind Ernest Hemingway, a writer who lived much of his legend but also made certain he got plenty of publicity as a result.

Like the vampire, Byron was an outcast. His poems appeal to lovers, especially those nursing broken hearts, but his interpersonal approach to love was far more athletic than emotional. Though creating scandal was his stock in trade, reaction to the affair with his half-sister, along with the buzz about bisexuality, brought an end to his welcome in his home country. He left England and never returned.

But back to those who walk in the night: In Byron’s day, vampires weren’t quite the beautiful and beloved creatures they are often seen as today. They were the undead, risen up from the grave and looking it.

Whether he had the personal qualifications or not, Byron was certainly intrigued by vampire tales. His poem The Giaour (The Infidel), involves someone turned into a vampire as punishment for evil behavior.

There’s no doubt that Byron inspired Dr. John Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, one of the first “dark and stormy night” tales, chocked full of betrayals and blood-sucking. Polidori was, for a while, Byron’s physician and traveling companion.

The story concludes in a very modern way, with no one living happily ever after. And that included the author, Polidori. Having stolen the idea from Byron, he then published the book as Byron’s work – a not uncommon practice when the poet’s name guaranteed sales, and publishing was a fairly unregulated free-for-all. Later, Polidori committed suicide.

Even Byron had limits regarding his public image. In denying authorship of the book, he issued the famous quote: “I have “¦ a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets.”

In addition to Polidori, Byron’s one-time mistress Lady Caroline Lamb put a thinly veiled Byron in the role of vampire in her book, Glenarvon. It is a gothic “seduction narrative,” written as revenge for being dumped by the poet, and very kindly reviewed as “overwritten.”

Polidori’s tale served as model for most future literary portrayals of the vampire. Lezlie Kinyon, writing on the Strange Horizons web site, tells how modern vampires differ from the nasty creatures of old folk tales. They have evolved into “the palely beautiful, expensively tailored, cunningly charming, aristocratic, and hypnotically erotic image presented by such as Bela Lugosi or the more recent portrayals in film by David Bowie’s stylish — and, ultimately tragic — vampire in The Hunger to Anne Rice’s Lestat.”

Is the current interest something that just popped up recently, emerging with the popularity of Buffy and subsequent TV and film focus?

Trends analysts used to rely on, roughly speaking, 25-year cycles. You could go back to popular magazines of 25 years ago, jot down the major interests they focused on, issue current predictions based on that, and very likely maintain your guru status. I’d imagine the tempo has picked up a bit.

But I recently saw an essay arguing that vampires are a constant in the culture – well, interest in them, at any rate. The fascination may be more intense at one time than at another but it is always at least a strong undercurrent.

Would either of the books that appear to use Byron as the vampire provide the basis for a modern film? Well, they’re a bit old hat. But it turns out a modern author has made a book that pulls no punches — Byron is the vampire. It’s Lord Of The Dead by Tom Holland.

In Holland’s book, Byron is found by a young English woman who opens a family crypt, and he tells her the tale of how he became a vampire during his journey to Greece.

The author is a Byron scholar, so fiction is interlaced with fact. Byron’s telling of the tale is but half of what evolves into a classic horror plot. Some reviewers, probably expecting just a nice terrifying vampire tale, said Holland’s display of his knowledge of Byron’s life got to be a pain in the neck.

To me, the worrisome thing about all this is that today’s fantasy becomes tomorrow’s fact. Unthinkable tales that shocked and amazed us years ago are today’s morning news stories, read without spilling a spoonful of granola.

What if, in addition to swine flu, west nile, various STDs and so on, we have a vampire epidemic? Well, if you get in a jam and don’t have crucifixes, garlic or silver bullets handy, I picked up a useful tidbit while reading an essay, Teaching the Truth about Byron’s Vampyre.

It turns out vampires have an obsession with counting things. So if cornered, just spill a bag of rice in front of the bloodthirsty critter and make a run for it. You’ll have plenty of time because he or she will have to go one-by-one through every single little grain.

photo: Universal Pictures

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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