Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Half Dust/Half Deity
This Christmas I received my very own copy of Bran Stoker’s Dracula, an item I requested along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I have loved vampires from the impressionable age of eight when I saw Stephen King’s mini-series Salem’s Lot. Since then I have read many vampire novels, including Anne Rice’s series, True Blood, and of course Twilight. It struck me as interesting how the image of vampires has gone from terrifying, blood-thirsty monster to chivalrous, sparkling hunk.
To figure this out, I looked to John Polidori’s The Vampire(1897). In Polidori’s novel the villain Lord Ruthven, was said to have been based on George Gordon, Lord Byron. Polidori was Byron’s physician, and knew only too well the tumultuous, fiery and fitful passions of this infamous poet. Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”
In his time, Byron was the first of the modern-day celebrity. His readings were sold-out events; his persona known across Europe, likely due to the combination of his fine poetry and a highly scandalous love life. Women found him magnetic and irresistible due to his passionate, fierce disposition. Byron himself was aware of how his temperament imbued his image: “I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me.”
Polidori’s vampire Lord Ruthven was like Byron, brooding, attractive and aristocratic; the blueprint for the first romantic vampire. Ruthven was attractive, but flawed by “one grey, dead eye.” Byron too was thought of as charming, but was lame in one leg. Byron would attend events dressed all in black, and unable to dance due to his disability he would sneer at the contemporary craze of the Waltz. He was shy, lending him a sense of aloof superiority; and he was rarely seen to eat or drink as a result of an obsessive fear of gaining weight. As a result, his restricted diet led to a pale, drawn look, adding to his supernatural aura. Byron personified the Fatal Man of his poetry.
In writing, outsiders are compelling and interesting; rule-breakers with a certain melancholy and loneliness that incites our sympathy and curiosity. In fiction, if your romantic hero is supernaturally powerful, dangerous and charming as well as being a lonely outsider, you have all of the elements of the classic vulnerable hero in place. The darkly romantic cast to Byron’s poetry was intrinsically twined with his “naturally burning” temperament. He wrote of Man: “half dust/half deity, alike unfit/to sink or soar”. Throughout his autobiographical poems was the brooding awareness of the fleeting nature of life, a sense of dark foreboding and palpable undercurrent of thwarted destiny.
I had always wanted to write a vampire novel that returned to a horror story, but after finding this connection to Lord Byron, I don’t think I will. I am enchanted by the concept of the vampire who has unwittingly become victim to a horrible, incurable affliction and fallen back in love with the romantic, lonely, brooding vampire. I guess the horror novel idea will be shelved indefinitely. In the meantime, I just picked up my new copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which she wrote while in the company of both Lord Byron and John Polanski. Maybe I could try a new romantic twist on the horrific dead/alive Frankenstein.