“You promised — you swore that I would never be forced to rise again as the monster I’ve become!”
Let’s face facts: So far, this entire week of Dark Shadows has basically been one long suicide note. Newly-risen vampire Barnabas Collins asked his servant Ben to end his eternal torment, but the floating head of the apparently-deceased witch-vixen Angelique stopped Ben mid-staking. Now we’re back to square one.
So I’m going to put this right out on Front Street — absolutely nothing happens today that didn’t happen yesterday. This is the third episode in a row written by Ron Sproat, the writing team’s remedial student, who has a childlike faith in the power of recap scenes to grip the audience and hold us spellbound.
But I can’t just write the same post three days in a row, so I’m going with my new emergency backup plan, which is to talk about Varney the Vampire.
Lately, I’ve been looking into the history of pre-Dracula vampire fiction, and I’ve been surprised to discover that there actually was some. I’d figured Bram Stoker made everything up himself when he wrote Dracula in 1897, but it turns out Stoker was part of a larger tradition of English vampire literature that goes back to the early 1800s.
A couple weeks ago, I talked about “The Giaour”, Lord Byron’s 1813 epic poem about Turkish folklore, which includes a brief section about a vampire cursed to feed on the blood of his daughter, his sister and his wife. This was followed in 1819 by John William Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, which established the concept of the vampire as an aristocrat, feeding on the lower classes.
And then there’s Varney the Vampire, the 1845-1847 “penny dreadful” series that established everything else. Fifty years before Stoker unleashed Dracula on the public, a genius/lunatic/hack named James Malcolm Rymer published chapter after chapter of cheap, scandalous vampire horror.
The penny dreadfuls were basically the soap operas of the mid-1800s, just aimed at teenage boys instead of housewives. They were long-running, open-ended narratives, released in individual chapters on cheap paper, and sold for a penny per installment. Boys who couldn’t afford a penny per week would form a club to buy each chapter, and then pass it around so everyone could read it.
Varney the Vampire was one of the most popular serials — it ran for two years, reaching 220 chapters before the publisher pulled the plug and brought the series to an abrupt end. Reading it now, you can see Rymer single-handedly inventing a lot of the core elements of the fictional vampire — a long-dead ghoul with fangs, long fingernails, superhuman strength and a hypnotic gaze, biting succulent young women on the neck and leaving two puncture wounds — and he does it all in the first chapter.
I’ve started reading it, and it’s surprising and funny, and there’s a lot more Dark Shadows in it than you might expect. So this is going to be my backup plan when I need a Sproat break.
So here we go, on an uncertain and frightening journey into the past. Delightfully, Chapter 1 does actually begin on a Dark and Stormy Night.
A faint peal of thunder now comes from far off. Like a signal gun for the battle of the winds to begin, it appeared to awaken them from their lethargy, and one awful, warring hurricane swept over a whole city, producing more devastation in the four or five minutes it lasted, than would a half century of ordinary phenomena.
It was as if some giant had blown upon some toy town, and scattered many of the buildings before the hot blast of his terrific breath; for as suddenly as that blast of wind had come did it cease, and all was as still and calm as before.
Sleepers awakened, and thought that what they had heard must be the confused chimera of a dream. They trembled and turned to sleep again.
And if you can get any meaning out of that, you’re welcome to it. Didn’t that just say that a hurricane devastated the city? Why are all the sleepers going back to bed? Does that include the people living in the buildings that fell over?
Then a hailstorm busts loose, which pretty much puts the kibosh on the “still and calm” stuff for the rest of the chapter. The whole book is like that, just one paragraph contradicting the next. It turns out there were bloopers even before 1960s daytime TV.
But all of that is just background weather reports. The meat of the chapter is about a girl, “young and beautiful as a spring morning,” asleep in a stately bed in an antique chamber in an ancient house. This is Flora.
One arm is over her head, the other hangs nearly off the side of the bed near to which she lies. A neck and bosom that would have formed a study for the rarest sculptor that ever Providence gave genius to, were half disclosed.
The next several pages are all about whether Flora is awakened by the wind, the hail, the rain and the lightning. The world is apparently ending right outside her window, but it takes a minute for that to register with her. By the way, I’d keep an eye on that neck and bosom; I have a feeling that might come up again, later on.
Anyway, she finally comes to, and what she sees at the window makes her shriek.
“What — what was it?” she gasped; “real or delusion? Oh, God, what was it? A figure tall and gaunt, endeavouring from the outside to unclasp the window. I saw it. That flash of lightning revealed it to me. It stood the whole length of the window.”
I have no idea who she thinks she’s talking to. Like all soap opera characters, the cast members of Varney the Vampire are compelled to vocalize every single thing that crosses their minds.
The dark figure is running its long fingernails along the window, trying to find a way in.
No word is spoken, and now she fancies she can trace the darker form of that figure against the window, and she can see the long arms moving to and fro, feeling for some mode of entrance. What strange light is that which now gradually creeps up into the air? Red and terrible — brighter and brighter it grows. The lightning has set fire to a mill, and the reflection of the rapidly consuming building falls upon that long window. There can be no mistake. The figure is there, still feeling for an entrance, and clattering against the glass with its long nails, that appear as if the growth of many years had been untouched.
Yes, that’s all one paragraph. This is the kind of story where midway through a paragraph, all of a sudden a mill catches on fire and burns to the ground, and then we just go back to whatever we were doing.
But let’s let the guy inside, and take a look at him.
The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon its face. It is perfectly white — perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth — the fearful looking teeth — projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends.
So already we’ve got the pale face, dead eyes, long nails and — most importantly — the fangs. Two paragraphs later, another important feature is introduced:
Now she has got to the verge of the bed, and the figure pauses. It seemed as if when it paused she lost the power to proceed. The clothing of the bed was now clutched in her hands with unconscious power. She drew her breath short and thick. Her bosom heaves, and her limbs tremble, yet she cannot withdraw her eyes from that marble-looking face. He holds her with his glittering eye.
So that gives us the hypnotic gaze, and in the next chapter we get flashes of light darting from the eyes. All of this is Rymer’s invention — the entire description of what a vampire is, and will always be — all at once, over three pages that also include a hurricane, a hailstorm and a mill catching on fire.
And as the first chapter concludes, we get to the real purpose of this entire project — the super-sexualized rape imagery of the vampire attack.
With a sudden rush that could not be foreseen — with a strange howling cry that was enough to awaken terror in every breast, the figure seized the long tresses of her hair, and twining them round his bony hands he held her to the bed. Then she screamed — Heaven granted her then power to scream. Shriek followed shriek in rapid succession.
The bedclothes fell in a heap by the side of the bed — she was dragged by her long silken hair completely on to it again. Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction — horrible profanation.
He drags her head to the bed’s edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in its grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth — a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast!
Whew! Those italics are in the text, by the way; they’re basically the written equivalent of a big dramatic-sting music cue. Rymer might as well have written Dunn–Dunn–DUNNNNN!
And that’s a great Friday cliffhanger, obviously; you can totally see why you’d need to get hold of a penny to get next week’s chapter.
In Chapter 2, the vampire is still hideously repasting, so we meet Flora’s hapless brothers, Henry and George Bannerworth, and a family friend named Mr. Marchdale.
We’re supposed to believe that these are three different people, but they always have the same reaction to everything.
There’s a funny passage in Chapter 4 where Marchdale suggests to Henry that the creature who attacked Flora was a vampire, and Henry jumps to his feet in alarm. Then, literally two pages later, George joins them and says that he thinks that the creature who attacked Flora was a vampire. Henry says that Marchdale has just come to the same conclusion, and George says, “Gracious Heaven!” It’s fantastic.
Anyway, in Chapter 2, Flora’s blood-curdling shrieks have aroused the house, and no wonder; it’s a pretty arousing situation. George and Henry are not the first responders you might wish for.
“Did you hear a scream, Harry?” asked a young man, half-dressed, as he walked into the chamber of another about his own age.
“I did — where was it?”
“God knows. I dressed myself directly.”
“All is still now.”
“Yes, but unless I was dreaming there was a scream.”
“We could not both dream there was. Where do you think it came from?”
“It burst so suddenly upon my ears that I cannot say.”
There was a tap now at the door of the room where these young men were, and a female voice said, —
“For God’s sake, get up!”
“We are up,” said both the young men, appearing.
“Did you hear anything?”
“Yes, a scream.”
Yeah, great. We’ve covered that. Can we get a move on?
But Marchdale is a bit quicker on the uptake, plus: he’s armed. He dashes back into his room, and emerges with a pair of pistols, running for Flora’s chamber. It’s locked, and they have to force the door.
“I hear a strange noise within,” said the young man, who trembled violently.
“And so do I. What does it sound like?”
“I scarcely know; but it closest resembles some animal eating, or sucking some liquid.”
Which is not a thing that a human would ever say.
They grab a crowbar, and we get a page and a half on their struggle to open the door, which climaxes with an equally unlikely bit of dialogue:
“It opens — it opens,” cried the young man.
“Another moment,” said the stranger, as he stil plied the crowbar — “another moment, and we shall have free ingress to the chamber. Be patient.”
A moment later, free ingress is exactly what they have. Henry runs into the room with a candle, but the creature leaps off the bed, and Henry ends up falling on the floor and dropping the candle. That turns out to be par for the course, as regards Henry and the action sequences.
The dark figure makes for the window.
Before it passes out they each and all caught a glance of the side-face, and they saw that the lower part of it and the lips were dabbled in blood. They saw, too, one of those fearful-looking, shining, metallic eyes which presented so terrible an appearance of unearthly ferocity.
Marchdale wields his pistol, and Rymer lets loose with one of the sillier sentences that you’ll read all year.
The report was tremendous in that chamber, for the pistol was no toy weapon, but one made for actual service, and of sufficient length and bore of barrel to carry destruction along with the bullets that came from it.
The creature howls like an animal.
Suddenly, then, as if some impulse had seized upon it, it uttered a wild and terrible shrieking kind of laugh; and then turning, dashed through the window, and in one instant disappeared from before the eyes of those who felt nearly annihilated by its fearful presence.
“God help us!” ejaculated Henry.
Marchdale charges through the window after the beast, dropping from the balcony to the garden and giving chase. Henry and George follow, leaving their mother behind to tend to the injured Flora.
The mother approached the bed-side of the insensible, perhaps murdered girl; she saw her, to all appearance, weltering in blood, and, overcome by her emotions, she fainted on the floor of the room.
So that’s great. Everybody in this family is a big help.
The boys chase the monster through the garden. It’s not quite dawn yet, but there’s plenty of light, thanks to the burning mill. Remember the burning mill? It’s still burning, apparently. Nobody shows the slightest concern about it.
Marchdale spots the creature at the garden wall, trying to make a getaway. They all sort of stand there watching him for a minute.
“He will be gone,” exclaimed Henry, as at this moment, after many repeated attempts and fearful falls, the figure reached the top of the wall, and then hung by its long arms a moment or two, previous to dragging itself completely up.
Finally, they rush toward the wall, with Marchdale’s second pistol.
Henry had the weapon, and he pointed it full at the tall form with steady aim. He pulled the trigger — the explosion followed, and that the bullet did its office there could be no manner of doubt, for the figure gave a howling shriek, and fell headlong from the wall on the outside.
“I have shot him,” cried Henry, “I have shot him.”
That’s another great soap opera cliffhanger, and the resolution at the start of Chapter 3 is appropriately anti-climactic. The guys look all around the outside of the wall where they saw the creature drop, but they don’t find a body.
They don’t even find any traces of blood, which isn’t super surprising, considering it’s still night-time, and there might still be a hurricane/hailstorm currently in progress.
They make their way back to Flora’s room, who’s recovering from her ordeal and refreshing herself with a small cup of wine.
“Do not leave me. Oh, do not leave me, any of you. I shall die if left alone now. Oh, save me — save me. That horrible form! That fearful face!”
“Tell us how it happened, dear Flora?” said Henry.
“No — no — no,” she said. “I do not think I shall ever sleep again.”
So apparently we’re in for something of a late night.
Marchdale notices something important.
She passed her hand across her neck several times, and Mr. Marchdale said, in an anxious voice, —
“You seem, Flora, to have hurt your neck — there is a wound.”
“A wound!” said the mother, and she brought a light close to the bed, where all saw on the side of Flora’s neck a small puncture wound; or, rather two, for there was one a little distance from the other.
It was from these wounds the blood had come which was observable upon her night clothing.
“How came these wounds?” said Henry.
“I do not know,” she replied. “I feel very faint and weak, as if I had almost bled to death.”
“You cannot have done so, dear Flora, for there are not above half-a-dozen spots of blood to be seen at all.”
That’s another important milestone, invented by Rymer in the middle of Chapter 3. This is now and forever the modus vamperandi. As the 1990s remake Sheriff Patterson would ask, “Where did the blood go.”
But there’s an even bigger surprise in the room.
There was a silence of some few minutes’ duration. Flora had dropped into a deep slumber. That silence was first broken by George, who said, —
“Mr. Marchdale, look at that portrait.”
He pointed to the portrait in the frame to which we have alluded, and the moment Marchdale looked at it he sunk into a chair as he exclaimed, —
“Gracious Heaven, how like!”
Yes, right here in Chapter 3, we’ve got a portrait of an ancestor that bears an uncanny resemblance to the monster terrorizing the young and beautiful populace.
“It is the very man himself,” said Mr Marchdale. “I have not been in this house long enough to ask any of you whose portrait that may be?”
“It is,” said Henry, “the portrait of Sir Runnagate Bannerworth, an ancestor of ours, who first, by his vices, gave the great blow to the family prosperity.”
“Indeed. How long ago?”
“About ninety years.”
“Ninety years. ‘Tis a long while — ninety years.”
Yeah, no kidding; it’s been a long while just getting through three chapters.
I’ll come back to this sometime when Sproat’s getting me down; I think it’s amazing that we can trace so much of the Dark Shadows vampire lore back to the actual 1840s. Coming up in Chapter 4 is an incompetent doctor who misdiagnoses the vampire bite, and in Chapter 5, Sir Francis Varney moves into a neighboring house and tries to make contact with the Bannerworth family.
If you want to read more of Varney the Vampire, Amazon is offering a Kindle edition of the whole series — all 220 chapters for only 99 cents. That’s less than half a penny per chapter, a huge discount from the original retail price.
Meanwhile, come back tomorrow and I’ll actually watch the episode this time. It’s a Gordon Russell episode, and we’ll make some headway with the Barnabas/Josette story. Also, a mill catches on fire and is rapidly consumed. But who isn’t, these days?
Tomorrow: Lose My Number.
Next Varney the Vampire entry: Quivering with Emotion (Varney the Vampire, part 2).
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Josette enters the mausoleum, the secret door is partly open.
Barnabas doesn’t have his fangs in when he bites Josette at the end of the episode. In the reprise in tomorrow’s episode, he’s put the fangs in.
Tomorrow: Lose My Number.
Next Varney the Vampire entry: Quivering with Emotion (Varney the Vampire, part 2).
— Danny Horn