JOHN POLIDORI (1795–1821)

Dr John Polidori served as the physician and companion to George Gordon, Lord Byron, during the latter’s travels on the Continent in 1816–17. His short novella The Vampyre is one of the stories that resulted from the telling of ghost stories at the Villa Diodati in 1816 (see introduction to Tales of the Dead); Byron himself composed a brief fragment of a vampire tale, but never developed it. Partly because it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, The Vampyre was very successful and gave rise to many imitations, and dramatic and operatic adaptations. Polidori named his vampire Lord Ruthven, the same name that Byron’s rejected lover Lady Caroline Lamb gave to the Byron figure in her novel Glenarvon. The central relationship in Polidori’s novel is the narrator Aubrey’s fascination with Lord Ruthven, a possible reflection of the troubled homosexual relationship between Byron and Polidori, who was dismissed by Byron for being vain and ill-tempered. Polidori’s brief attempt at a literary career failed, and he killed himself at the age of 26. Vampire literature was popular in Germany (e.g. Bürger’s Lenore, 1774, and Goethe’s Die Braut von Korinth, 1797), and some British vampires predated Polidori’s (e.g. Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, 1801; John Stagg’s ‘The Vampyre’, 1810; Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, 1816). In much vampire literature, the folklore of vampirism can be as fascinating as the fictional (or poetic) narratives themselves, and historical accounts of vampires, werewolves and other revenants who fed on the living were popular in Northern Europe in the mid-1700s. In the excerpt, Polidori reviews the origins of his tale.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)

Extract of a Letter to the Editor

There is a society three or four miles from Geneva, the centre of which is the Countess of Breuss, a Russian lady, well acquainted with the agrémens de la Société, and who has collected them round herself at her mansion. It was chiefly here, I find, that the gentleman who travelled with Lord Byron, as physician, sought for society. He used almost every day to cross the lake by himself, in one of their flat-bottomed boats, and return after passing the evening with his friends about eleven or twelve at night, often whilst the storms were raging in the circling summits of the mountains around. As he became intimate, from long acquaintance, with several of the families in this neighbourhood, I have gathered from their accounts some excellent traits of his lordship’s character, which I will relate to you at some future opportunity. I must, however, free him from one imputation attached to him – of having in his house two sisters as the partakers of his revels. This is, like many other charges which have been brought against his lordship, entirely destitute of truth. His only companion was the physician I have already mentioned. The report originated from the following circumstance: Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelly [sic], a gentleman well known for extravagance of doctrine, and for his daring in their profession, even to sign himself with the title of Αθεος [atheist] in the Album at Chamouny, having taken a house below, in which he resided with Miss M. W. Godwin [i.e. the future Mrs Mary Shelley] and Miss Clermont, (the daughters of the celebrated Mr. Godwin) they were frequently visitors at Diodati, and were often seen upon the lake with his Lordship, which gave rise to the report, the truth of which is here positively denied.
          Among other things which the lady, from whom I procured these anecdotes, related to me, she mentioned the outline of a ghost story by Lord Byron. It appears that one evening Lord B., Mr. P. B. Shelly, two ladies and the gentleman before alluded to, after having perused a German work, entitled Phantasmagoriana, began relating ghost stories; when his lordship having recited the beginning of Christabel, then unpublished, the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighbourhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression. It was afterwards proposed, in the course of conversation, that each of the company present should write a tale depending upon some supernatural agency, which was undertaken by Lord B., the physician, and Miss M. W. Godwin. My friend, the lady above referred to, had in her possession the outline of each of these stories, I obtained them as a great favour, and herewith forward them to you, as I was assured you would feel as much curiosity as myself, to peruse the ebauches of so great a genius, and those immediately under his influence.


The superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East. Among the Arabians it appears to be common: it did not, however, extend itself to the Greeks until after the establishment of Christianity; and it has only assumed its present form since the division of the Latin and Greek churches; at which time, the idea becoming prevalent, that a Latin body could not corrupt if buried in their territory, it gradually increased, and formed the subject of many wonderful stories, still extant, of the dead rising from their graves, and feeding upon the blood of the young and beautiful. In the West it spread, with some slight variation, all over Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Lorraine, where the belief existed, that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened – and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.
          In the London Journal of March, 1732, is a curious, and of course credible account of a particular case of vampyrism, which is stated to have occurred at Madreyga, in Hungary. It apears, that upon an examination of the commander-in-chief and magistrates of the place, they positively and unanimously affirmed, that, about five years before, a certain Heyduke, named Arnold Paul, had been heard to say, that, at Cassovia, on the frontiers of the Turkish Servia, he had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave, and rubbing himself with his blood. This precuation, however, did not prevent him from becoming a vampyre* himself (*The universal belief is, that a person sucked by a vampyre becomes a vampyre himself, and sucks in his turn.); for, about twenty or thirty days after his death and burial, many persons complained of having been tormented by him, and a deposition was made, that four persons had been deprived of life by his attacks. To prevent further mischief, the inhabitants having consulted their Hadagni*, (*Chief bailiff) took up the body, and found it (as is supposed to be usual in cases of vampyrism) fresh, and entirely free from corruption, and emitting at the mouth, nose, and ears, pure and florid blood. Proof having been thus obtained, they resorted to the accustomed remedy. A stake was driven entirely through the heart and body of Arnold Paul, at which he is reported to have cried out as dreadfully as if he had been alive. This done, they cut off his head, burned his body, and threw the ashes into his grave. The same measures were adopted with the corses of thoses persons who had previously died from vampyrism, lest they should, in their turn, become agents upon others who survived them.
          We have related this monstrous rodomontade, because it seems better adapted to illustrate the subject of the present observations than any other instance which could be adduced. In many parts of Greece it is considered as a sort of punishment after death, for some heinous crime committed whilst in existence, that the deceased is [not only] doomed to vampyrise, but be compelled to confine his infernal visitations solely to those beings he loved most while upon earth – those to whom he was bound by ties of kindred and affection. This supposition is, we imagine, alluded to in the following fearfully sublime and prophetic curse from the Giaour [by Byron].

But first on earth, as Vampyre sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent;
Then ghastly haunt the native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse,
Thy victims, ere they yet expire,
Shall know the demon for their sire;
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, best beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father’s name –
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet thou must end thy task and mark
Her cheek’s last tinge – her eye’s last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o’er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shall tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which, in life a lock when shorn
Affection’s fondest pledge was worn –
But now is borne away by thee
Memorial of thine agony!
Yet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth, and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go – and with Gouls and Afrits rave,
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they.

          Mr. Southey has also introduced in his wild but beautiful poem of Thalaba, the vampyre corse of the Arabian maid Oneiza, who is represented as having returned from the grave for the purposes of tormenting him she best loved whilst in existence. But this cannot be supposed to have resulted from the sinfulness of her life, she being pourtrayed throughout the whole of the tale as a complete type of purity and innocence. The veracious Tournefort gives a long account in his travels [Relation d’un Voyage du Levant, 1717] of several astonishing cases of vampyrism, to which he pretends to have been an eye-witness; and Calmet, in his great work upon this subject [Traité sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires, 1751], besides a variety of anecdotes, and traditionary narratives illustrative of its effects, has put forth some learned dissertations, tending to prove it to be a classical, as well as barbarian error.
          We could add many curious and interesting notices on this singularly horrible superstition, and we may, perhaps, resume our observations upon it at some future opportunity; for the present, we feel that we have very far exceeded the limits of a note, necessarily devoted to the explanation of the strange production to which we now invite the attention of our readers; and we shall therefore conclude by merely remarking, that though the term Vampyre is the one in most general acceptation, there are several others synonymous with it, made use of in various parts of the world, namely, Vroucolocha, Vardoulacha, Goul, Broucoloka, &c.

[SOURCE: ‘The Vampire: a Tale by Lord Byron’, New Monthly Magazine, 11 (April 1819), pp. 194–5]

Return to The 'German' School of Horror

Return to Index of Gothic Readings