Varney the Vampyre: or, The Feast of Blood, Part 1

Varney the Vampyre: or, The Feast of Blood, Part 1 - James Malcolm Rymer I read this potboiler, in this edition, when I was an undergraduate (a very, very long time ago), and have always had a yen to revisit it. I was pleasantly surprised, and very amused. This facsimile reprint gives ample evidence of how little care was bestowed on the physical production of the novel - it's the 1847 full-length edition that's reproduced, and it's just chock-a-block with bad chapter numbering and pagination, not to mention chunks of type being banged out of alignment or knocked out altogether from the edges of what I presume were stereotype plates. The proofreading could have used a bit of a boost too. But the anonymous author's lamentable tendency to shift back and forth between present and past tense whenever he embarks on a scene-setting "atmospheric" description notwithstanding, this is actually not a bad writer we have here. His vocabulary is extensive and correct; he has a better ability to compose a complex sentence grammatically than about 90% of today's undergraduates, and he has a fecundity of imagination equal to the task of padding out his chapters to the requisite number of inches for the week's instalment.

Indeed, had "Varney the Vampire" been closed out at the end of what is now Volume 1, around page 450, I would have claimed for it some higher qualities, including an interesting suggestiveness about Varney's origins as a vampyre - or indeed, whether he really is a vampyre at all. The lengthy story arc, that of Varney's relations with the Bannerworth family, only really tells us that Varney is convinced that his life is under some sort of charm, and that he believes he has to prolong it periodically - every few months - by a little blood-sucking from a young beautiful female (no others need apply). There is some considerable effort to give Varney an ambivalent moral status; he is generous and charming, and also the victim or potential victim of some really repugnant mob violence. And the mysterious death-and-resurrection of which we eventually learn doesn't take place in typical vampire circumstances at all, but is the experimental resurrection of a hanged criminal by a young doctor.

After the Bannerworth story arc is concluded, the author (who has already been falling back on expedients like "nested" supernatural tales that have nothing to do with the main narrative), seems to run out of steam, and he merely plays two-to-ten-chapter variants on three scenarios: the vampire is resuscitated from death by moonlight upon his corpse, the vampire arrives in town and courts a respectable young lady in hopes of getting married and providing himself with a consistent source of blood, or the vampire appears in some place of public resort like an inn, and attacks a humble but beauteous young female in the middle of the night. In either of the latter cases, he is discovered - sometimes by some character from the previous adventure - and has to flee. The settings are varied (the most distant is a nunnery in Italy), and the nature, motives, and habits of the proposed victims are varied along a spectrum from the sentimental to the broadly comic, but any attempt at psychological subtlety pretty much goes out the window, and as our author goes through the motions, the "rules" of this author's vampire world seem to calcify (young female victims only, moonlight revives the corpse, and the natural world conspires to ensure that the corpse finds itself in moonlight); one wonders just how much this affected later readers?/authors like Stoker. In any case, there are clear signs of relief, I think, towards the end, when the author decides to wrap things up, and gives Varney a serious case of depression, and a suicidal impulse which results in his throwing himself into Vesuvius.

In the course of such a long tale, there are some choices that are cause for giggles for the reader (and quite possibly for the author). The fact that while all the upper-class young ladies have traditional Gothic-heroine names like Flora, Clare and Annabel, all the lower-class young ladies destined to be blood-sucked are without fail named Mary, certainly had me snorting. The red shirts of the vampire world, as it were. Then there was, in a late stage, the appearance of a character named Dr. Polidori (or Pollidori - both versions were used). And I think maybe someone went to a performance of Macbeth? because one of the few incidents that broke the tedious pattern of the second volume was a veritable calling together of a coven of vampires, on Hampstead Heath, of course.

There's something rather charming about the naively pre-Freudian nature of Varney's vampirism, or at least about the author's way of describing it. We are told many times that it is the vampire's nature to seek out only young beautiful women (which leaves the author in a bit of a bind if he also wants to follow up on the notion that taking someone's blood turns them into a vampire - this author does that only once and then kills off the young-lady-vampire very quickly after one indirectly described feeding from a "Mary" before things get too dicey with any possible lesbian implications). Far from making the sex=feeding connection, the author, from the vantage-point of Varney's internal dialogue, explicitly denies it. Especially in this century, with the current vampire mania being an explicit vehicle for the current younger generation's hormonal urges (of all persuasions and orientations), that the author could expect his readers not to make the connection is, well, rather sweet, though of course irritatingly heterosexist, etc. etc.

I see there is a new edition of "Varney the Vampyre" that unequivocally ascribes the authorship to James Malcolm Rymer, an attribution strongly suggested but not fully insisted upon by E.F. Bleiler, the editor of this late-70s facsimile reprint. So perhaps some day I shall hunt down the latest edition and find out more; for now, though, it's been a lovely little return visit to a class of literature that occupied much of my time and thoughts during some of the happiest days of my life.