Over the last couple of years, I’ve been reading Varney the Vampyre which is alternately attributed to James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Prescott Prest. This was published originally as a so-called Penny Dreadful series from 1845-1847. It spans an impressive 220 chapters and has been cited as one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Now, Varney the Vampire is a rambling work. As I read, it’s apparent the author had weekly deadlines. It meanders through asides that go nowhere and rambles for pages where it’s apparent the writer was just trying to fill space, not certain where he was going next. Despite that, the novel has had some truly exciting and delightful moments. I particularly like the character of Admiral Bell, the uncle of Charles Holland, fiancee to the vampire’s first victim, Flora Bannerworth. Whenever Admiral Bell appears, I almost visualize Popeye the Sailor dropped into the middle of a Victorian Vampire novel.
The title character himself is interesting and full of mystery. He speaks very coldly about life and death and seems very fixed on obtaining the Bannerworth’s ancestral home.
In many ways, the novel reminds me of Dark Shadows. It’s a soap opera of sorts. Some chapters barely seem to forward the plot. Many lines are actually outright laughable, but there are parts that truly engage and bits of vampire lore that are different than later vampire novels. One I’ve mentioned here before is the fact that Varney needs the light of the full moon in order to heal from serious injury.
As I was reading along in my Project Gutenberg edition, I noticed that we skipped from chapter 40 directly to chapter 44. A note in my print edition says there is no chapter 41, 42, or 43. I find myself wondering if that was a counting error on the part of the publisher, or if those chapters have just been lost to time. The narrative flows without a pause, but it’s always possible we’re missing a three-chapter aside.
In the chapters I’m currently reading, Varney the Vampire was challenged to a duel by Flora’s brother Henry. During the duel, Henry missed (or did he hit the vampire and it simply did no harm?) Varney refused to return fire. Just then, an angry mob shows up. Who should prove to be Varney’s biggest defenders? None other than Henry Bannerworth and Admiral Bell! The reason is that even though he’s a vampire, it would be unseemly for a mob to kill the vampire. Varney is a gentleman and must be dispatched through gentlemanly means. A stake through the heart would be to coarse and crude. I can’t quite tell whether the author is poking fun at the upper class or whether he’s just passing along an accurate account of what upper class people of his day would have done. Either way, I’m guessing there’s truth to this picture. You can’t poke fun at something unless it’s believed to be true.
Like I say, Varney is a long, meandering and sometimes very silly book. It’ll take me a while to get through it, especially since I only read a chapter or two at a time, then move on to another book. Still, there is value here and it’s certainly worth checking out a few chapters if you want to see one of the earliest vampire novels.