“Why isn’t she here? Because she’s vanished.”
So I guess it’s true — you start out thinking that the past was a golden age, but then you go back for a visit, and it’s just one disappointment after another. Plus, after a while they accuse you of witchcraft and execute you.
Writing this blog every day has been my own uncertain and frightening journey into the past, back to my younger days when I watched one episode of Dark Shadows a day, in order and without fast-forwarding, because it was on television and DVDs didn’t exist yet. And the way I remembered it, 1795 was the perfect jewel of a storyline — tragic and hand-crafted and brilliant. I’d completely forgotten that it goes into unexcused overtime like this.
And here I am, sentenced to watch episode after episode about Vicki’s witchcraft trial, which is just spinning in circles and refuses to end. It seems like every witness gets to come back for a bonus round, with more accusations and objections and pointless sidebars at the bench. Well, I can’t take it any more; I’m going for the Backup Plan instead. Episode overruled!
About a month ago, I came up with a backup plan for episodes that are exactly like the previous three episodes and I really don’t have a new thing to say. When that happens, I pull the emergency cord, and I spend the day talking about Varney the Vampire, the 1845 “penny dreadful” that was basically the Dark Shadows of the nineteenth century.
Fifty years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, there was James Malcolm Rymer writing cheap, scandalous vampire melodrama for the unwashed masses. Penny dreadfuls were never-ending stories, just like soap operas and superhero comics, where you just keep making stuff up until your sales drop and the publisher says you have to stop. Varney was one of the most popular serials, running for more than two years and reaching 220 chapters. And it turns out that most of the vampire tropes that we all thought started with Dracula were actually invented by Rymer — fangs, hypnotic eyes, biting women on the neck, the whole deal. Rymer even came up with the uncanny resemblance to a long-dead ancestor’s portrait, which I’d always assumed was a Barnabas Collins original.
In my first Varney post a month ago, I wrote about the first three chapters, which covered a fairly hectic rain-swept evening, with an inhuman creature busting through the window into the bedroom of young beauty Flora Bannerworth, taking his hideous repast, and then heading for the garden wall once the men of the house have been aroused.
We pick up the story today with Chapter 4, the next morning. Flora’s brother Henry has stayed up all night in Flora’s room, where he’s been locked in a tense battle with an inanimate object.
There’s a portrait of a Bannerworth ancestor on the wall, and it looks just like the horrible ghoul that broke in and drank Flora’s blood. Naturally, you can’t allow that kind of thing to go unchallenged; it strikes at the very foundation of the interior decorating industry.
[Henry] looked so many times at the portrait which was in the panel that at length he felt an undefined sensation of terror creep over him whenever he took his eyes off it.
He tried to keep himself from looking at it, but he found it vain, so he adopted what, perhaps, was certainly the wisest, best plan, namely, to look at it continually.
Which is adorable. Henry is full of cuteness like that. He can’t accomplish a single task successfully, so he’s always changing his mind and deciding that it was probably best to do the opposite anyway.
Here, watch; he’s about to do it again. He decides that he should take the offending portrait down, but on closer inspection, it seems to be painted directly on the panel, and if he tries to remove it, he’ll wake up Flora. Then he realizes that Flora probably won’t want to sleep in this room anyway, so they can just lock the door and forget about the portrait. This is what Henry does. He’s always making and then instantly countermanding his own decisions.
Once the night has passed, he goes in search of Mr. Marchdale, a family friend who isn’t really anybody in particular, but Henry is always ready to put his trust in anybody who isn’t Henry. He’s basically a sidekick in search of a hero, and he attaches himself gratefully to any masculine character who sounds like he knows what he’s doing.
Mr. Marchdale has been mulling over Flora’s attack, and he has a frightening suspicion to share:
“Henry, have you never heard of a strange and dreadful superstition which, in some countries, is extremely rife, by which it is supposed that there are beings who never die? In a word, Henry, have you never heard of — of — I dread to pronounce the word.”
“Speak it. God of Heaven! let me hear it.”
Henry sprung to his feet. His whole frame quivered with emotion; the drops of perspiration stood upon his brow, as, in a strange, hoarse voice, he repeated the words, —
You see what I mean about how cute Henry is? Look at him standing there, just quivering away.
So Henry and Marchdale are doing something that I always find completely mysterious in monster stories, which is that they already know exactly what the monster is and how it works. The fictional vampire, as we know him, was just invented three chapters ago, but now the characters are talking about vampires like it’s totally common knowledge.
It’s kind of like The Walking Dead, where it turns out that zombies really exist, but they do everybody the favor of acting just like George Romero said that they would.
This happens on Dark Shadows, too — remember when Julia proved that Barnabas was a vampire by looking at him in her compact mirror and seeing that he has no reflection? Well, she didn’t come with factory-installed knowledge of obscure Serbian folkways. She knew the mirror thing because that’s how it worked in the Bela Lugosi movie.
But let’s get back to the boys, because they’re still quivering. This story is supposed to be aimed at tough London street kids, but the guys are just falling to pieces. Here’s some sample dialogue.
“I much marvel, then, that the supposition did not occur to you, Henry.”
“It did not – it did not, Marchdale. It — it was too dreadful, I suppose, to find a home in my heart. Oh! Flora, Flora, if this horrible idea should once occur to you, reason cannot, I am quite sure, uphold you against it.”
“Let no one presume to insinuate it to her, Henry. I would not have it mentioned to her for worlds.”
It’s just great. These guys carry guns, by the way.
“And yet my pistol bullets hurt him not; and he has left the tokens of his presence on the neck of Flora.”
“Peace, oh! peace. Do not, I pray you, accumulate reasons why I should receive such a dismal, awful superstition. Oh, do not, Marchdale, as you love me!”
“You know my attachment to you,” said Marchdale, “is sincere; and yet, Heaven help us!”
His voice was broken by grief as he spoke, and he turned aside his head to hide the bursting tears that would, despite all his efforts, show themselves in his eyes.
Holy cow. First we had Henry’s perspiration, now Marchdale’s bursting tears. It’s getting kind of moist around here; these two are squirting all over the place.
They agree to say nothing about this to Henry’s younger brother, George, who’s even more delicate than the other two. Naturally, the very next thing that happens is that George comes along, and says that he thinks Flora was attacked by a vampire.
“I say a vampyre,” added George, with much excitement in his manner. “It is a fearful, a horrible supposition; but our poor, dear Flora has been visited by a vampyre, and I shall go completely mad!”
And then he does, I guess. These three have really got to try holding it together better than this. There are only so many paper towels that you can keep on hand at once.
When Henry checks back in with Flora, she’s already figured out it was a vampire too. This is a remarkably vampire-aware family.
In fact, she drops another chunk of vampire knowledge:
“Henry, I sometimes fancy I am in the tomb, and that some one is feasting on my flesh. They do say, too, that those who in life have been bled by a vampyre, become themselves vampyres, and have the same horrible taste for blood as those before them. Is it not horrible?”
And so another piece of vampire lore slots into place. You really have to hand it to Rymer; he came up with everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if Professor Van Helsing turns up in chapter 27, followed by Count Chocula and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turns out that the entire vampire genre has been nothing but Varney fan fiction this whole time.
Anyway, Flora’s taking the whole experience kind of hard, so Henry gets on his horse and goes to consult a doctor, Mr. Chillingworth. And here comes the weirdest sentence that you’ll read all day.
Henry knew that at such a time, he would be at home, which was the case, and he was soon closeted with the man of drugs.
That’s really why Varney the Vampire is so much fun to read — just like on Dark Shadows, you never know what they’re going to say next.
Chillingworth is great, because he absolutely refuses to put up with the vampire talk. Over the course of the chapter, he comes up with the following theories:
#1. The entire family is mad.
#2. Flora had a nightmare.
#3. The wounds on her neck are insect bites.
#4. Flora has been taking narcotics.
Then he has a baffling follow-up conversation with Henry, where he says that he’s heard about vampires: “And I understand that in some countries, particularly Norway and Sweden, the superstition is a very common one.” Which is probably news to the Norwegians. It actually comes from Romania and Serbia, which is about as far away from Sweden as you can get and still be in Europe.
But then Chillingworth unleashes some brand-new vampire information which Rymer has just invented on the spot.
“All that I have heard of the European vampire has made it a being which can be killed, but is restored to life again by the rays of a full moon falling on the body.”
“Yes, yes, I have heard as much.”
You have? Cause I haven’t heard that one. This full moon thing becomes a big plot point over the next few chapters — in this story, vampires usually hunt for victims the night before the full moon, so in case they get wounded, they’ll be able to heal up the next night.
This is actually the moment that helps me to believe that this is the story that inspired the next 170+ years of vampire fiction. Rymer is clearly just making up random vampire facts as fast as he can, and throwing them into the book to see what happens.
This particular idea — that injured vampires are restored by the light of the full moon — happens to be one that didn’t catch on, and it hasn’t survived through the ages. For all I know, it might not even have survived this book — maybe it’s contradicted later on in this story. We’re only up to chapter four here, out of two hundred and twenty.
But I suppose I’d better get back to Dark Shadows. This witchcraft trial has got to end sometime, and I’ve got an inside tip that the verdict is coming up tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to come back to Varney later on, when the show’s inspiration runs dry again. I hear there’s something called a Dream Curse heading our way…
Tomorrow: There’s Just Us.
The next Varney the Vampire post: To Your Teeth.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Ben backs away from Angelique’s grave, he bumps a tree, which wobbles.
At the end of the next-to-last scene, Peter has to leave the woods set and then get over to the jail cell set to talk to Vicki. Ben provides a little head start by doing the end of his scene in close-up, giving Peter a few extra seconds to sprint over to the jail set. The two sets must be pretty far away, because when we see Peter with Vicki, he’s breathing hard, like he was just running.
Tomorrow: There’s Just Us.
— Danny Horn