“Gee, I wish she wasn’t scared of me.”
Well, Adam’s still locked in the prison cell in the Old House basement, so we are too, I guess. This is one of those slow Thursdays where they’ve got something exciting figured out for the end of the week, and there’s nothing much to do until then.
But we’ve got a secret back door today. We’re going on one more uncertain and frightening journey into the past, back to 1845 and the strange origins of vampire fiction.
We’re going back to take one more look at Varney the Vampire, the 1845 “penny dreadful” serial that single-handedly invented practically everything we know about vampires. I’ve writtten about Varney a couple times so far, during slow episodes where nothing much is happening on screen.
As we get further into 1968, Dark Shadows starts to branch out into merchandise and promotional activities that I want to write about, so this is going to be the last Varney post. But I want to take one more look back, before we plunge into the crazy summer of ’68.
So let’s head back to 1845. Fifty years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, James Malcolm Rymer was doing all the heavy lifting on fictional vampire mythology, coming up with most of the concepts that everyone else has just been imitating and rearranging.
In my first post about Varney, Rymer established all the crucial vampire lore — a pale creature with fangs and long fingernails, coming in through the window to feed on beautiful young women. In the second post, we saw Rymer come up with an element that’s familiar to the Dark Shadows audience — the portrait of the long-dead ancestor that happens to look just like the vampire.
We left the unfortunate Bannerworth family under something of a cloud — Flora, the daughter of the house, was attacked by a bloodthirsty ghoul, and her well-meaning but not particularly effective brothers are struggling to find a way to help. They managed to shoot the creature and apparently wounded it, but then they learned that a vampire can heal himself when he’s touched by the rays of the full moon.
That magical healing property means that the monster, and the story, can go on pretty much forever. When you think about it, a vampire is the perfect subject for an open-ended serialized story. He doesn’t age, and he can live through just about anything. It’s actually kind of remarkable that anyone ever bothered to make soap operas that don’t involve vampires.
We’re going to jump back into the story with Chapter 5, where Rymer does something characteristically perplexing.
Henry and George Bannerworth are sitting around their enormous country house and brooding about their sister Flora, when a letter arrives from a new neighbor, who recently moved into a nearby estate.
It ran thus: – “Sir Francis Varney presents his compliments to Mr. Beaumont, and is much conerned to hear that some domestic affliction has fallen upon him. Sir Francis hopes that the genuine and loving sympathy of a neighbour will not be regarded as an intrusion, and begs to proffer any assistance or counsel that may be within the compass of his means.”
So, here’s a question: Who the hell is “Mr. Beaumont”? Their name is Bannerworth. This is the only book I’ve ever read where the characters could use a teleprompter.
But more importantly — we’re five chapters deep, and we get the first mention of Varney’s name. Obviously, we know that this is important, because the title of the series is Varney the Vampire. The characters don’t know that, of course, so they forget all about it, and nobody mentions Varney again until Chapter 13.
But now we’ve established another important vampire trope — that the creature is a polite aristocrat, who mixes freely in society without anyone suspecting his true nature. This lasts for about three pages, before it’s completely contradicted.
Henry and George talk to Mr. Marchdale, a family friend who’s staying at the house, and Henry mentions that Marchdale laid hands on the creature during the attack last night.
“I did, and have forgotten to show you what I tore from it. Look here, — what should you say this was?”
He produced a piece of cloth, on which was an old-fashioned piece of lace, and two buttons.
Now, I hate to be a stickler like this, but I’d like to know how a person could possibly tear a piece of cloth off a vampire and then just forget to mention it to anybody. It seems like the kind of thing that you’d remember, especially if you’ve been holding on to it since last night. Maybe Marchdale doesn’t pay a lot of attention to his hands.
Suddenly, Henry, with a look of intense anxiety, said —
“This reminds me of the fashion of garments very many years ago, Mr. Marchdale.”
“It came away in my grasp as if rotten and incapable of standing any rough usage.”
“What a strange unearthly smell it has!”
“Now that you mention it yourself,” added Mr. Marchdale, “I confess it smells to me as if it had really come from the very grave.”
They check the portrait of the ancestor who looks just like the vampire, and the cloth that Marchdale ripped from the ghoul’s jacket matches the coat in the picture.
This makes Henry say “Good God!”, but he says that about once a chapter. You could make a Varney the Vampire drinking game based entirely on Henry and George’s ejaculations.
But the peculiar thing here — besides the fact that Marchdale forgot that he’s been holding something that smells like a rotting corpse since last night — is that we’ve just learned two facts that can’t both be true.
If Sir Francis Varney — who we know is the vampire — has recently purchased Ratford Abbey and is sending the Bannerworths a well-mannered note of introduction, then he’s probably not still wearing the rotting clothes he was buried in. And yet, here we are.
This contradiction isn’t resolved at all — they just follow the rotting-corpse story thread for a while, and when that leads essentially nowhere, Rymer goes back to the polite aristocrat concept.
So I’m going to skip ahead a bit. In the next few chapters, everybody heads out to the family tomb to look for the body of the guy in the portrait. They don’t find it, and everyone stands around and talks about how terribly confused they are. It’s basically the equivalent of Burke, Sam and Dr. Woodard spinning in circles as they try to figure out what happened to Maggie. They don’t make a lot of headway.
There’s another vampire attack in Chapter 9, and Flora manages to shoot the vampire, which is pretty badass for a 19th-century female victim character. But the cultural context is still depressing, because Rymer’s decided that if the vampire bites you, then you’ll become a vampire when you die.
That means that Flora, who was innocently sleeping when she was attacked in Chapter 1, is now tainted and cursed forever. The obvious take-home message is that being fantasy-metaphor sexually assaulted ruins women forever.
When Flora’s fiancee Charles shows up in Chapter 10, things get a little intense.
“Hear me, Charles,” said Flora. “From this moment, mind, I do release you from every vow, from every promise made to me of constancy and love; and if you are wise, Charles, and will be advised, you will now this moment leave this house never to return to it… For your own sake I shall be able now, Charles, to show you that I really loved you.”
“Not by casting me from you?”
“Yes, even so. That will be the way to show that I love you.”
She held up her hands wildly, as she added, in an excited voice, —
“The curse of destiny is upon me! I am singled out as one lost and accursed. Oh, horror — horror! would that I were dead!”
Charles, to his great credit, refuses to blame the victim, but everybody else sure does. Here’s Marchdale, telling Charles what he can expect in the future.
“We are now among ourselves, and can talk freely upon such a subject. Mr. Charles Holland, if you wed, you would look forward to being blessed with children — those sweet ties which bind the sternest hearts to life with so exquisite a bondage.
“Oh, fancy, then, for a moment, the mother of your babes coming at the stil hour of midnight to drain from their veins the very life blood she gave to them. To drive you and them mad with the expected horror of such visitations — to make your nights hideous — your days but so many hours of melancholy retrospection. Oh, you know not the world of terror, on the awful brink of which you stand, when you talk of making Flora Bannerworth a wife.”
So, thematically, it’s an upsetting, 19th-century thing to say — that women who are sexually violated are forever lost and accursed. But that image of the children’s mother, crawling back into the house at midnight to feed on their life blood — it’s kind of cool, isn’t it?
This is the terrible secret at the heart of all vampire fiction. We know that rape doesn’t work like this — that survivors don’t turn evil, and fall in love with their attackers — and that the whole idea is repellent and culturally destructive. But it’s such an interesting thing to do in a story, so we let it slide. Apparently, it’s been sliding since 1845.
Chapter 13 is when things really get going. Henry gets another polite letter from Sir Francis Varney, who offers to buy Bannerworth Hall. Varney’s heard the rumors about the dreadful attacks on the Bannerworth family, and says that he imagines they probably want to leave the place.
Henry is tempted by Varney’s offer to buy the Hall. The family’s running low on cash, and it might be a good idea to get Flora away from the scene of the crime.
So Henry and Marchdale go to Ratford Abbey, to meet this mysterious neighbor. A servant leads them to the study.
There was very little light in this small room; but at the moment of their entrance a tall man, who was seated, rose, and, touching the spring of a blind that was to the window, it was up in a moment, admitting a broad glare of light.
A cry of surprise, mingled with terror, came from Henry Bannerworth’s lip. The original of the portrait on the panel stood before him!
There was the lofty stature, the long, sallow face, the slightly projecting teeth, the dark, lustrous, although somewhat sombre eyes; the expression of the features — all were alike.
“Are you unwell, sir?” said Sir Francis Varney, in soft, mellow accents, as he handed a chair to the bewildered Henry.
“God of Heaven!” said Henry; “how like!”
If you’re playing the Varney drinking game, that’s another cue to drink.
An interesting note here — one element of vampire lore that Rymer didn’t invent is the idea that they’re destroyed by sunlight. Varney’s standing in the light now, and later on we see him outside during the day.
Astonished at meeting the family’s tormentor, Henry has no idea what to do with himself.
“You know, from common report, that we have had a fearful visiter at our house.”
“A vampyre, I have heard,” said Sir Francis Varney, with a bland, and almost beautiful smile, which displayed his white, glistening teeth to perfection. “You surely are above the vulgar superstition of believing in such matters?”
“My judgment is assailed in too many ways and shapes for it to hold out probably as it ought to do against so hideous a belief, but never was it so much bewildered as now.”
“Nay, Henry,” whispered Mr. Marchdale, “it is scarcely civil to tell Sir Francis to his face, that he resembles a vampyre.”
So that’s awesome. For the next few chapters, the entire story is going to hinge on whether it’s good manners to mention that they think their neighbor is an undead ghoul.
And Varney is just a complete dick about it, which is crazy. Henry struggles to keep up with the conversation about whether he’ll sell the Hall.
“My present impression is, to let you have it on whatevrer terms you may yourself propose, always provided you consent to one of mine.”
“That you never show yourself in my family.”
“How very unkind. I understand you have a charming sister, young, beautiful, and accomplished. Shall I confess, now, that I had hopes of making myself agreeable to her?”
“You make yourself agreeable to her? The sight of you would blast her for ever, and drive her to madness.”
“Am I so hideous?”
“No, but — you are –“
“Hush, Henry, hush,” cried Marchdale. “Remember you are in this gentleman’s house.”
It’s a great scene — funny, and surprising, and you can’t help but get swept up in it. And this is a book that pretty much everyone agrees is terrible.
But maybe there’s something about an intentionally disposable story, written under tremendous time pressure with no plan, which allows magic to slip in where you don’t expect it.
Here, have some more. It goes on forever.
“Marchdale, it would be charity of someone to kill me.”
“To kill you?”
“Yes, for I am certain otherwise that I must go mad.”
“Nay, nay; rouse yourself.”
“This man, Varney, is a vampyre.”
“I tell you, Marchdale,” cried Henry, in a wild, excited manner, “he is a vampyre. He is the dreadful being who visited Flora at the still hour of midnight, and drained the life-blood from her veins. He is a vampyre. There are such things. I cannot doubt now.”
“Henry — Henry.”
“Nay, talk not to me. What can I do? Shall I kill him? Is it not a sacred duty to destroy such a thing? Oh, horror — horror. He must be killed — destroyed — burnt, and the very dust to which he is consumed must be scattered to the winds of Heaven. It would be a deed well done, Marchdale.”
Then Marchdale says, “Have you forgotten Flora?” and Henry says, “God of Heaven!” and it just goes on like this for chapter after chapter.
Varney shows up at the house in Chapter 17, and scares Flora silly. Hoping to expose the creature, Henry offers him some wine, because apparently everybody knows that vampires can’t eat or drink anything but blood.
Varney needles Charles by mentioning that he’s interested in getting to know Flora, and Charles jumps right into the crazy.
“We believe, as far as human judgment has a right to go, that a vampyre has been here.”
“Go on, it’s interesting. I always was a lover of the wild and the wonderful.”
“We have, too,” continued Charles, “some reason to believe that you are the man.”
Varney tapped his forehead as he glanced at Henry, and said —
“Oh, dear, I did not know. You should have told me he was a little wrong about the brain; I might have quarrelled with the lad. Dear me, how lamentable for his poor mother.”
“This will not do, Sir Frances Varney alias Bannerworth.”
“Oh — oh! Be calm — be calm.”
“I defy you to your teeth, sir! No, God, no! Your teeth! You are a cowardly demon, and here I swear to devote myself to your destruction.”
So that’s Varney the Vampire. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s thrilling nonsense, of the type that can only be concocted when the writer is desperate and has no idea what he’s going to do next.
Is Varney a golden-tongued con artist, or a tattered, walking corpse? If he’s an old Bannerworth ancestor, as Henry suspects, then why has he suddenly popped up now? Is he intentionally giving them hints that he’s a vampire?
The story does what weird fantasy stories do — it leads the reader into a fictional world where the rules are different, and things don’t make the kind of sense we’re accustomed to.
Narrative confusion is an essential aspect of the genre. There have always been bloopers and continuity errors, all the way back to the beginning.
So I’m going to have to get back to Dark Shadows, but if you want to read more of Varney the Vampire, Amazon has a Kindle edition that’s only 99 cents.
It’s not great literature — there are boring parts, and baffling parts, and for all I know, there’s a Dream Curse hidden in there somewhere. But there are also moments where it’s just unlike anything else you’ve ever read.
Tomorrow: The Talking Dead.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 2, Julia is with Adam in the cell when Willie comes back from his visit to Maggie’s house. Before Willie’s entrance, you can see him through the grate in the door, standing there and waiting for his cue.
When Julia harangues Willie about leaving Adam alone, she takes several long looks at the teleprompter.
Tomorrow: The Talking Dead.
— Danny Horn