Vampyres, Volcanoes and Byron

The current spate of vampire fiction is a continuation of the almost unabated popularity of the genre over recent decades. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to Lord Byron and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia almost two hundred years ago.

On April 10, 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa, Mount Tambora erupted, ejecting 160 cubic kilometres of material into the atmosphere. It was the biggest eruption in 1,600 years, killing 11,000 people directly and another 60,000 through impacts on crop survival.

The Mount Tambora event combined with four other large volcanic eruptions in the previous three years and low solar activity to produce a period of low temperatures in the Northern hemisphere. The effect was so severe that 1816 became known as the year without a summer.

It was in July of that year that Mary and Percy Shelley visited Lord Byron in Switzerland. Expecting pleasant mid-summer weather, it was instead cold and wet and the visitors and their host were, for much of the time, confined to Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. It was there one night that Byron challenged his guests to write a ghost story.

Inspired by a dream, Mary Shelley wrote a tale about a scientist’s attempts to reanimate a dead body. She later developed the idea into the novel Frankenstein.

Byron wrote the apocalypse-themed poem, Darkness. He also began a story based on a vampire character. Byron’s physician, John Polidori, used it as inspiration for his own work, The Vampyre, the tale of the mysterious Lord Ruthven who seduces women and drains them of their blood. Basing the character in part on Byron, Polidori’s stroke of genius was to transform the vampire from the mindless, zombie-like monster of Eastern Europe into a seductive, aristocratic predator – like Byron, the vampire was mad, bad and dangerous to know.

An illustration from Le Fanu's Carmilla.

The next two most influential contributors to the genre lived a few kilometres apart, attended the same university and worked for the same newspaper. In the 1870s, a young Bram Stoker began work as a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail. One of his employers, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, achieved some fame in 1872 after the publication of his novella, Carmilla, a disturbing vampire story with lesbian overtones. Strongly influenced by both this and Polidori’s short story, and incorporating the historical figure of Vlad Dracula, Stoker wrote the definitive work of the genre, Dracula.

Vlad Dracula was known as the Impaler.

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