THE VAMPYRE: THE SECRET HISTORY OF LORD BYRON. BY TOM HOLLAND. (1995) BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Not since INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE was published almost twenty years ago has a novel of this genre appeared that’s half as good as Tom Holland’s THE VAMPYRE… a powerfully atmospheric tale.’
‘Vampire fiction gets a transfusion… a classical alternative to the traditional tale; Byron himself would have been pleased by such an eerie, erudite addition to his myth.’
‘A tour de force of scholarship and gothicity.’
LOS ANGELES TIMES.
Well, way to make Lord Byron (1788-1824) even cooler, lol. The early nineteenth century Romantic poet had already acquired the reputation of being quite the cool dude of mystery and danger; hadn’t Lady Caroline Lamb said of him that he was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know…?’
And then along comes Tom Holland, writer, to make Byron a vampire as well as a cad, a rake, a bounder, a club-footed seducer of women and writer of such poems as CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY and ODE TO NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE. He might as well have made him into the next James Bond or successor to Indiana Jones while he was about it…!
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I must say, having an affinity for both vampires and the Romantic poets, especially Byron and his pal Percy Bysshe Shelley, both of whom were present at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in Switzerland that fateful stormy summer during which Mary Shelley penned FRANKENSTEIN, the most famous book of gothic fiction ever written, besides Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, of course.
The book THE VAMPYRE is fiction, but it follows the course of Lord Byron’s life pretty closely from the time he first decides to leave England for ‘a tour of the Continent,’ and the characters in Lord Byron’s real life are all present here also, as well as some rather toothsome and bloodthirsty new creations of Tom Holland’s.
The book has been likened to Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE and, indeed, Lord Byron is, in fact, relating the story of his ‘fall,’ as he calls it, to a young woman called Rebecca, a descendant of his who has been mysteriously summoned to Byron’s house in modern day England.
Here’s what he tells her about his European travels: ‘It was the custom then for men such as myself, well-bred and hopelessly in debt, to perform a tour of the Continent, long seen by the English as the most suitable place for the young to take rapid steps in the career of vice. I wanted to sample new pleasures, new sensations and delights- everything for which England was too narrow and tight, and which I knew, abroad, would be easy to procure.’
He travels with his friend Hobhouse. In Greece, he is turned into a vampire by a terrifying man-being called Vakhel Pasha, who finds Byron beautiful and clever and a unique individual worthy of all the knowledge of the Universe which the Pasha is keen to impart to him. The Pasha calls this transference ‘the Gift;’ Byron has reason in time to view it as ‘the Curse.’
Byron has become a ‘vardoulacha;’ ‘The vardoulacha drinks blood,’ we’re told in the book. ‘It is an evil thing. You must beware of it, for it prefers to drink from a living man.’
If you think you don’t know the word, you do, lol, if you’ve ever seen Mario Bava’s genuinely frightening movie BLACK SABBATH (yes, yes, the band took their name from this film!). The middle section stars Boris Karloff and it’s about vampires or vardoulacha, that’s all I’ll say…!
The Pasha has much to teach Byron before he vampirises him: ‘Do not be afraid, milord. Be young and old; be human and divine; be beyond life, and beyond death. If you can be all these things together in your being and your thoughts, then- then, milord- you will have discovered immortality.’
That’s kind of a tall order, is that. I mean, if we could all do this stuff, we’d all be going around achieving immortality all the time. The fact that we’re not is possibly testament to how difficult it is. ‘I give you knowledge,’ the Pasha says then another time. ‘Knowledge and eternity. I curse you with them.’ Clearly the one-for-all gift voucher hadn’t yet been invented…!
Byron likes the idea of being immortal, but not of drinking blood. At first, the notion revolts him. But if drinking blood is what he has to do to survive, he’ll do it. ‘I felt the incisors extend from my gums- the skin gave- blood, in a soft silken spurt, filled my mouth. I felt a shuddering delirium, as the blood was pumped by the dying man’s heart, and rain flooded out across my parched skin and throat. I drained my victim white. When I had finished, his gore in my blood felt heavy like a drug.’ Intoxicating stuff.
With a fellow vampire, Lovelace, Byron embarks on an orgy of blood and debauchery. He also learns everything there is to know about being a vampire. ‘Much as a lover is instructed by a courtesan, so I was taught the arts of drinking blood. I learned how to enter a victim’s dreams, how to master my own, how to hypnotise and generate illusions and desires.’
A return to England, and Byron finds much to amuse him in the salons of upper crust London, and much to slake his thirst in the back alleys. ‘I returned to London, that mighty vortex of all pleasure and vice, and climbed the giddy circles of its delights. In the dark places of the city, where misery bred nightmares far worse than myself, I became a whispered rumour of horror, stalking the drunk and the criminal; I fed with a greedy compulsion, cloaked in the filthy mists of the slums.’
After an incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh and an unsuccessful marriage to Annabella Millbanke (why does the vampire Byron want a child so much, and what is the ‘golden blood’ he desires above all else?), Byron leaves England forever in 1816.
While in Brussels, he desires to see ‘the fields of Waterloo, where the great battle had been fought a year before.’ The bit where the legions and battalions of dead soldiers rise up from their graves to salute Byron as their ‘Emperor of the Dead’ is magnificently chilling and my personal favourite bit of the book, even over and above the fabulous Villa Diodati stuff, which soon follows.
In Switzerland, Byron, his physician Polidori, the poet Shelley, his mistress Mary and Byron’s teenage mistress Claire Clairmont (whom he’s desperate to get rid of because she’s too clingy!) all play the game of ‘Who can write the best ghost story?,’ to which history has already testified.
Byron, who swings both ways in the book, is extremely attracted to the intelligent, soulful and golden-haired Shelley. He is also desperate to get Shelley to come over to the dark side and become a vampire like him, but he is reluctant to force vampirism on him and wants Shelley to come to him willingly. He might be in for a bit of a wait, so…!
One person who’s mad keen to be vampirised by Byron is the young Dr. Polidori, who’s half-crazed with jealousy of Byron’s well-deserved fame as a poet and the fact that Byron’s been given the gift of eternal life and more knowledge than you can shake a stick at. Whether Byron chooses to share his ‘Gift’ with the odious, poisonous Polidori or not, he will find his former friend a thorn in his side from this time onwards…
The descriptions of Venice, where Byron spends some time, are gorgeous too. ‘Venice had grown into a playground of depravity. Everything about her was extraordinary, and her aspect like a dream- splendid and filthy, graceful and cruel, a whore whose loveliness conceals her disease. I found in Venice, in her stone and water and light, an embodiment of the beauty and vileness of myself. She was the vampire of cities. I claimed her as my right.’ The images of buildings of decaying grandeur sliding over time into the slimy waters of the canals are firmly established in the reader’s mind.
Then there’s Byron’s overwhelming love for the beautiful slave girl of his ‘creator,’ Vakhel Pasha’s, and his disconcerting discovery that he may have gained immortality, in that he will now live forever, but this won’t stop him from growing older and more hideous with time. Only drinking ‘the golden blood’ can prevent this; but where is he going to find a shop that stocks it at this hour of the night…?
There’s also his real-life desire to help the Greeks in their time of revolution, and finally the crippling loneliness that strikes every vampire, unless they are lucky enough to find suitable companions for themselves down through the centuries. Catherine Deneuve’s character Miriam Blaylock in vampire flick THE HUNGER (1983) is a lady who refuses to be lonely; but how happy are her consorts?
Anyway, I’ll leave you with the stern words of wisdom imparted by Lord Byron to the loathsome Polidori: ‘You must steer your own course… We are all lonely, we who wander the Ocean of Time…’ For secret reasons which I am forbidden to share with you, I couldn’t have put it better myself…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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