Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
Not too many people remember Polidori today. A physician born in 1795 who committed suicide shy of his 26th birthday, he might easily be no more than a footnote. But if you love or loathe Twilight or its fan-fiction progeny Fifty Shades of Grey, or True Blood or Buffy, or The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, or Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, then you have Polidori to thank. Polidori’s short story The Vampyre [sic] was the first work ever to put together the now-familiar elements of the vampire myth. He was the father of vampire fiction.
Maybe the reason we tend not to remember Polidori’s name is that he was a hanger-on to a far more famous man, the romantic poet Lord Byron, the world’s first rock star. He was a sidekick, and no one cares about a sidekick. But in 1816, young Polidori staked his claim on literary immortality.
That summer, or what would have been the summer but for the fact that 1816 came to be known as “the Year Without a Summer,” Polidori accompanied Byron to Lake Geneva, where Byron rented a villa. Byron’s friends Percy and Mary Shelley and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont soon arrived to join them on what should have been an idyllic vacation.
But, unbeknownst to them, a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previously year was causing global temperatures to plunge. By the lake, incessant rain kept the friends indoors. To pass the time, they decided to compose and tell each other supernatural tales. The two famous poets came up with nothing memorable. But Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and Polidori wrote The Vampyre. And he based Lord Ruthven, the vampire of the story, on Byron himself: a charismatic man so self-centered as to be reasonably described as blood-sucking, a man who could charm so many as to have them under what seemed like a magical spell but who, upon closer inspection, was revealed to be an ugly bundle of corruptions.
I can’t get these ideas out of my mind. They seem so relevant to where we are today. Two of the most persistent metaphors of the modern age were born under the same roof over the same handful of days. Frankenstein remains the lens through which we express and understand our discomfort with technology, from gene manipulation to artificial intelligence. And the figure of the vampire remains the template of the modern personality, the self-absorbed celebrities from rock stars to movie stars to individuals just famous for being famous. One such empty celebrity has even succeeded as a politician. His level of self-absorption would have left Byron and Ruthven in the dust. And although, like Dracula himself, he is in reality a bundle of corruptions both physical and moral, he continues to maintain a spell over a great many so that they follow him like the poor bug-eating asylum inmate Renfield following the Count.
And what was the cause of the twin inventions of Mary Shelley and John Polidori? Climate change. “The Year Without a Summer” was a natural precursor and mirror image of today’s anthropogenic climate change, when we see global temperatures rise instead of fall. It was as though a forewarning from nature at the dawn of the Industrial Age, even as it also suggested a solution to our environmental predicament.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."